Contextualizing the Committee on Graduate Education

By Clifford Ando

Dear Editors,

I have read with interest many of your articles about the new model for graduate funding, as well as the related pieces on faculty governance. I write in reply to offer a view of the history that led to the present moment in the hope of encouraging as many people as possible to engage in the constructive implementation and reform of the many changes taking place in graduate education.

Issues become salient to policy-making bodies in many ways. There can be no doubt that the movement for unionization, followed by the push for recognition of the union, helped to focus attention on structural and systemic problems in graduate education and the material conditions in which graduate students at the University live. It is also true that efforts to study and reform graduate education have been a regular and common feature of American university life over the last quarter-century, and several bodies at this university were actively engaged in the study and design of reforms in the lead up to this moment.

The Committee on Graduate Education was established by the provost in this context. The provost charged the committee to study the fullest possible range of issues affecting graduate education at the university level. The Committee was also granted substantial resources to survey students and faculty, to gather additional data, and to subject this material to analysis.

The faculty letter discussed in The Maroon’s coverage describes the recent change in the funding model for graduate programs as “a purely top-down, non-consultative imposition” on the part of the central administration. It is therefore important to recognize that faculty committees have been the standard mechanism employed throughout the history of the University to study complex issues of policy. Indeed, faculty committees, appointed by the leadership of the unit in question—chairs at the level of the department, deans within the divisions and the College, the provost at the level of the University—are one essential and universal expression of faculty governance. The other statutory expression of faculty governance at the University of Chicago is the elected Council of the Senate, which is charged with supervision of academic matters. This latter point is of relevance as well to the reception of the Committee’s work.

One aspect only of the Committee on Graduate Education was, in fact, novel. This was the inclusion, as full voting participants, of graduate students in equal numbers to the faculty representatives. Their participation and insights were so salutary that the Committee recommended the inclusion of graduate students in other committees, whenever it is appropriate, in the future.

The work of the Committee was long, and its report touches on an extraordinary range of issues, from systems of pay to issues of diversity, funding, mentoring, grievance policies in conditions of asymmetric power, and so forth. The persuasiveness of its recommendations was enhanced, if not wholly grounded upon, its massive empirical work. This is why the University uses such committees: because it has a long and considered tradition of tackling policy issues via academic study. Even within the committee, whose membership was as heterogeneous as the population of the University at large, there was a meaningful consensus about our conclusions because we each believed that carefully gathered and rigorously analyzed data had led us to them.

Per usual in these cases, the report of the Committee on Graduate Education was brought before the elected Council of the Senate, and its own elected Committee. In fact, the report was brought before each of these bodies twice: once in draft, and once in its final form. The reception of the Committee's recommendations in the provost's office was shaped by the discussions in the Committee of the Council and the Council itself.

These recommendations included but were not limited to: (I) graduate student participation in governance; (II) improvements in and formalization of mentorship; (III) regular review of graduate education to make sure it is functioning well, and to make sure our processes of review are up to date; (IV) improved systems of graduate student funding and pay distribution; (V) abuses of power should be checked; a grievance process outside channels of supervision should be implemented; (VI) space should be given to students to lend dignity and privacy to their work.

In many areas, the Committee was necessarily able only to isolate and identify problems and suggest the shape of appropriate solutions; it was not able to dictate what these solutions should be. For example, the Committee urged that it was essential to find space for graduate students, to provide for interdepartmental sociability and to lend appropriate dignity and privacy to their work as teachers and mentors of undergraduates. The Committee could make this recommendation in the abstract; it did not have the knowledge to identify the actual spaces available for this function.

The sweeping acceptance of the Committee on Graduate Education’s recommendations by the provost should be understood as a major enhancement in the wellbeing of graduate students, and as an achievement on the part of all those actors who worked to make graduate education a topic of public conversation in recent years. I wish to emphasize this in no uncertain terms. The causality that brought us this extraordinary set of reforms is broad and complex.  Procedurally, these forces were channeled into the work of a committee, composed of faculty and students, that subjected the issues to academic study. Politically, there is in my mind little doubt that the energy with which the recommendations of the Committee were taken up is due, in part, to those multiple parties—including the voices for unionization—that advocated for graduate reform.

This brings me to the present moment. The current efforts to denigrate the process that delivered to us these reforms—by characterizing the changes as top-down, or identifying the Committee on Graduate Education as appointed rather than elected—and the push to make recognition of the union a moral requirement for any satisfactory resolution to the many calls for reform, sells short the many currents and labors that brought us here.  More than that, this narrowing of the legitimate field of engagement risks forestalling our ability to discuss, evaluate, implement, and reform the changes that are taking place. That project is ongoing and deserves the attention of all those who value graduate education.



Clifford Ando

Professor of Classics, and onetime member of the Committee on Graduate Education