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How Johns Hopkins Plans to Reform Higher Education

10 Written by: | Friday, Dec 13, 2013 9:36am

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Johns Hopkins recently released a draft of its Strategic Planning Final Report, a thing that sounds so dull I can’t help but wonder if they named it that hoping that we’d all fall asleep rather than take a close look.

But many people — Hopkins grad students in particular — have taken a close look, and they don’t like what they see. In an attempt to attract undergrads, curb costs, and compete with its rivals, the university plans to reconfigure the way it treats graduate students. And, since Hopkins is a leading research institute, its choices may have a major impact nationwide, if other schools choose to follow in its footsteps. “Given the information that’s been released so far, I think this plan could have serious negative consequences for our graduate programs,” Amy Sheeran, a Hopkins grad student, told Inside Higher Ed. Here’s why:

The plan would make a number of changes. They include:

  • Increasing funding from $22,000 to $30,000 per year for 5 years in order to “compete against our wealthier rivals.” All well and good, right?
  • But current students would see no such funding increase
  • And enrollment would be cut by 25 percent over five years — meaning departments would shrink
  • To compensate for lower enrollments, the university would hire more teaching assistants with master’s degrees to take on certain undergraduate classes
  • And when senior faculty retire, they’d be replaced by “leaning junior” faculty instead of highly-accomplished senior faculty; these would not necessarily be tenure-track positions

There are some smart ideas embedded in Hopkins’ plan. Star faculty’s salaries often far outstrip those of their peers, and tuitions rise accordingly. Not to mention the fact that the most accomplished professors usually find a way to dodge teaching undergrads. Replacing the old guard with younger faculty who are actually engaged with teaching would be a boon for undergrads and would presumably save the department money in the long run.

But more than 275 current students signed a letter objecting to the plan, arguing that a 25 percent cut to already-teeny departments might effectively kill them. (When I was a grad school at Hopkins, my master’s degree program included eight students.) “A strength of Hopkins is the graduate student community, which includes interactions with faculty members and grad students. But now with only three people, let’s say, as opposed to six, in your cohort, the opportunities for discussing with your fellow grad students are really curtailed,” sociology student Smriti Upadhyay told the JHU Gazette.

And even more troubling is the increased “adjunctification” of higher education, where full professors with tenure and hefty benefits packages are replaced by adjunct faculty who are paid much less, and who have little-to-no benefits or job security. And this from a school with one of the highest tuitions in the country.

The plan is still just that — a plan. Stay tuned to see if Hopkins’ grad students objections have any practical result.

  • Andrew Samuel

    Well let’s just hope this is not a repeat of the way Hopkins chose to reform medicine in the U.S. almost a 100 years ago. Hopkins, FYI, was critical in “pushing out” other types of medical practices, including those that focus on prevention and wholesome care (especially Osteopathic doctors). All that did was create a medical culture that cures diseases which opened the way for “big pharma” to create a lot of money of cures rather than simple prevention. And, look where that has got us -rising health care costs in the U.S..among other things.

    This institution needs a whole lot less “hubris” – after all its just a “wannabee” Ivy League…..

  • JHU grad

    Unfortunately the plan is not just a plan. Faculty and students have called for a moratorium, given that this was only released a couple of weeks ago (and right before finals and break) but the Deans have rejected that request and are pushing it through anyway. For Departments that “opt in”, their offer letters to new grad students will start reflecting these changes in January. Departments that “opt out” for “more research” don’t get to participate in changing the plan, they just decide to reject it (and give up money), or to eventually accept it as it. Apart from the content of the plan, this disingenuous forcing-through with only superficial input from those affected is one of the most egregious aspects. And this does not bode well for the future of Hopkins if there is not further, forceful pushback against this kind of management.

  • another JHU grad

    I mean, let’s be real here: tuitions aren’t rising because of faculty pay. It’s the immense growth in administrative staff that’s pushing this increases, among other things. Look a little bit and you’ll see that the insane costs of a JHU undergraduate education have nothing to do with the tiny number of very highly-paid faculty members.

  • JHU PhD Student (German)

    As with the Inside Higher Ed article, it needs to be stated once again: this is not just an action by the grad students, although graduate students have issued separate calls for a moratorium both collectively and on a departmental basis. More importantly, however, the Homewood faculty—directors of graduate study, directors of undergraduate study, and the Academic Council of the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences, have issued (near) unanimously calls for a moratorium on the Strategic Plan. Thus far, the Dean has ignored these requests.

  • Royall Whitaker

    When I was an undergraduate at U of P (back at mid-century), Penn wouldn’t have dreamed of turning beginning teachers loose on beginning students, and I understand Princeton was much the same. My teachers in introductory economics, history, political science, and sociology were tenured professors, and the new-PhD instructors showed up only in basic course quiz sections and intermediate courses. (Grad students for English comp, basic math, and introductory language courses, though.)
    That Hopkins is proposing to follow the opposite path is just one more reason for undergraduate students who want more than the opportunity to associate with other good students (admittedly valuable) to consider top-flight non-research colleges.

  • Dennis O'Shea

    A number of corrections and clarifications:
    1) The plan does not cover the whole university. It covers only graduate study in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, just one of our nine schools.
    2) Under the plan, current KSAS graduate students _will_ see an increase in their stipends, from $22,000 this year to $27,000 next year, with smaller increases in succeeding years.
    3) The teaching assistants referred to in the fourth bullet point in the story are expected to lead discussion sections within courses taught by regular faculty, not teach courses on a solo basis.
    4) The expression in the final bullet point should be “leaning junior,” not “leading junior.” Though we certainly expect the assistant professors we hire to be upcoming stars — leaders — the point here is to gradually move from a Krieger School faculty that is 80 percent tenured to one that “leans” slightly more junior, about 70 percent tenured. The new hires will, however, be on the tenure track. There is no plan to increase non-tenure-track faculty; this is not and will not be an “adjunctification.”
    5) Smriti Upadhyay was quoted by the News-Letter, a student newspaper, not the university’s Gazette.
    6) It is important to note that individual academic departments in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences are being a given a choice as to whether they want to opt into this plan or opt out. Opting in means slightly cutting graduate enrollments in return for larger, more competitive, year-round stipends for the graduate students who do enroll.
    7) Under the plan, graduate students will not only have money more to live on while they study, they also will have the opportunity to spend more time on their research and graduate faster. Instead of as many as 10 semesters of teaching, they will be asked to do no more than six, giving them as many as two more years to concentrate on their scholarship.
    More financial support; more research time; a chance to finish grad school more quickly. What’s not to like?
    The bottom line: Far from a threat to graduate education at Johns Hopkins, this is in fact a plan to strengthen it. Providing better support for students will make the Krieger School graduate experience even more competitive with our peers and thus enable Johns Hopkins to continue attracting the very best students.
    Thanks for the opportunity to provide these clarifications.
    Dennis O’Shea
    Office of Communications
    The Johns Hopkins University

    • Susan Dunn

      It does read “leaning junior.” Maybe you were reading a version with a typo? Every version that I have seen reads “leaning junior,” as it reads currently.

      Thanks for the additional info.

    • another JHU grad

      In response to Dennis O’Shea, I wonder a couple of things (in order from least to most wonkish for easy skimming):

      1 › If there is nothing to dislike about this plan, I wonder why the chairs of KSAS departments, the directors of graduate study, the directors of undergraduate study, and graduate students are all opposed to its implementation.

      2 › As I understand it, now that the dean’s office has made the plan optional, those departments which opt-in will get raises for SOME current students but not all.

      3 › His point #7 reveals one of the problems with this plan as a whole: that the change you described in teaching is not universal, and in fact different departments would be affected differently by it. People (faculty, grad students) are asking for a hold on implementation of this plan in order to understand how it would affect their own departments and KSAS as a whole. Moving from mandatory immediate implementation to the “opt-in” model appears to express your concern for the autonomy of departments, but Dean Newman and the President must know that changes of this kind in one department will affect other departments in ways that have not become clear. If the dean’s office is concerned with autonomy, give the departments the money to pay their students more and let them decide how to make the necessary changes.

      From what I can tell the Dean’s Office is making every attempt to appear to be listening to the faculty and students without actually doing what so many of us have asked, which is to give us time to study these changes and make our own decisions about how to respond to our own needs and the imperatives of the future of graduate education and research. If we respect our researchers and the work this university has done for so many decades, I can’t understand why we wouldn’t respect them enough to just step back for a year and look at this plan together. The plan was just rolled out, and the changes it proposes to graduate education are largely experimental. Seems to me that we can spare a year for thoughtful collaboration.

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