Give Us a Voice in Our Own Future

How academe can open up debate about the future of doctoral education to graduate students.

Viewminder / Creative Commons

August 26, 2015

It’s 4 p.m. at a university medical center. A team of doctors, nurses, social workers, and administrators gathers to discuss best practices for patient care. A voice cuts in: "I felt as if everyone was rushing in the radiology department. That’s when I felt really uncomfortable." The voice belongs to a patient. Her comment shifts the conversation — abstract until now — to a new focus: this particular patient’s experience. Patients’ voices — once marginalized in medicine’s hierarchical structures — now help shape medicine in meaningful ways.

Like patients offered the chance to participate in their own care, graduate students should have a voice in the future of higher education. The point here is not that doctoral students are like patients — most good pedagogies begin by dismantling such an idea — but that participants with little power within an organization can be a vital resource of information and insight.

If medicine can find ways to include new voices in decision-making, so, too, should higher education. After all, patients are not usually training to take over hospital jobs, while academe draws its leaders directly from the ranks of its graduate students. Yet for far too long, colleges and universities haven’t done enough to engage us in strategic discussions that involve our futures. And now, more than ever, our voices need to be heard.

We didn’t come to that conclusion in the prescribed course of our graduate training. We believe it because we’re the first cohort in a program at Fordham University created by Eva Badowska, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The Fellowship in Higher Education Leadership provides graduate students with a two-year experience working alongside the university’s senior administrators.

The hallmark of this fellowship is the voice and responsibility it gives to graduate students. Each fellow’s role is bespoke: When setting the year’s agenda, the graduate school matches the strengths, interests, and skills of each individual to projects and programs under way. Then the fellows get to do real work. Last year, for example, the two of us helped create GSAS Futures, a series of professional-development and career-programming events. We’re now working on the curriculum of a Preparing Future Faculty program for Fordham graduate students, as well as on a service-learning program, Public Scholarship for the Common Good.

The Fordham fellowship balances administrative experience with purposeful mentoring. It offers participants the rare opportunity to shadow a dean, who advises and works directly with them. New fellows are eased into administrative processes by students already in the program. Both of us have had the opportunity to mentor and be mentored, and to work directly alongside the leaders of our university. We have attended high-profile meetings, written grants with our dean, proposed and carried out campuswide projects, and attended regional and national meetings.

As we did all of that, we realized that our presence was something of a novelty. No matter the venue — the Task Force on the Future of Liberal Education, a university reaccreditation meeting, a discussion at the Council of Graduate Schools — we were the only graduate students in the room.

Which raised the question: Who had articulated the graduate-student perspective before we arrived?

Not graduate students. That may be a reason, then, why our voices found a receptive audience in such a wide range of forums. In every encounter with high-ranking university officials, we felt that our perspective was valued. Administrators and professors listened to (and acted on) the suggestions we made. They welcomed our contributions. They thanked us for our criticisms.

Most important, they recognized that we were capable of innovating. Indeed, the fellowship program not only granted us access to administrative processes but also allowed us to put our capacity for innovation — which we’ve honed throughout graduate school — to work in an administrative setting. For example, we identified new ways to frame the need for assessment and career services for unconvinced faculty members working with graduate students. And in so doing, we equipped ourselves for both academic and alt-ac careers.

This type of professionalization — not just discipline-specific training — needs to be woven into the fabric of graduate education. No academic job is limited to what you can learn in graduate seminars. We need to equip graduate students for conversations that will shape the future of higher education, and to create institutional and national platforms that provide those students with real chances to join those conversations. All of us — mentors, department chairs, deans, graduate students — need to be involved in this necessary task.

A large part of professionalization consists simply of exposure to how universities work. Graduate students need to study the idea of what a university is and what it does. In addition to their coursework, they need to understand the theories that underpin what might otherwise seem like pointless bureaucratic tasks.

Programs on higher-education leadership are hardly scarce. But few offer graduate students the opportunity to influence strategic planning and programming. We are convinced that more programs like Fordham’s would help both graduate students and the universities that train them.

That’s because we as graduate students are uniquely positioned to contribute to difficult conversations. We are the long-term temporary citizens of universities. We aren’t yet weary of well-worn institutional problems, so we’re more likely to take on issues that others deem insoluble.

Ignoring the graduate-student perspective represents a lost opportunity for institutions. That perspective is unique for its variability: It shifts between student and teacher, mentor and mentee, research assistant and project leader. There’s really no other perspective quite like it, and it is strategic myopia to ignore it.

"Ignore" may be a bit strong. It’s not as though graduate students are being willfully ignored. The problem is structural. While we can find a voice through graduate-student associations, they don’t often have the institutional cachet to allow us to participate in strategic planning and program formation.

And so the ways in which universities listen to graduate students need to be fundamentally rethought. As it stands, inherited structures leave top administrators with few or no platforms with which to engage graduate-student voices.

Graduate students, instead of merely being heard, should be doing real work shaping our own universities. Instead of hiring outside companies to aid with admissions and recruitment, bring in graduate students to lead focus groups. Instead of leaving assessment efforts solely to faculty members and institutional researchers, invite us into the process. The list can (and should) go on. We should have input into the processes, committees, and discussions that affect the future of our programs and schools.

After all, graduate students have the most skin in the game. Perhaps more than any other group, we’re the ones who will feel the effects of any decisions made about the future of higher education.

Moreover, it is today’s graduate students who will be tomorrow’s faculty members, administrators, provosts, presidents, and policy makers. Most of us encounter strategic planning, curriculum development, and the like only after we land a job at another institution. Denying graduate students access to institutional governance denies us not only a say in our future but also the training we need to succeed in our careers.

In a recent article in The Washington Post, John Griffith says universities are held back not by administrative bloat or tenure, but by a failure to update governance structures. Models that worked yesterday may not work today because, as he notes, they suffer from a "lack of responsiveness."

Graduate students, like hospital patients, are often the closest to the ground. Just as patients may first notice the rush in the radiology department, it is often a university’s graduate students who are attuned to what’s going on at their campus. Let’s incorporate these voices into the conversation, even at the highest levels of university administration.

James M. Van Wyck is a doctoral candidate in English and an alumni dissertation fellow at Fordham University. Joseph M. Vukov is a doctoral candidate in philosophy and a teaching fellow at Fordham.