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At first glance, the logic behind cutting graduate enrollments seems straightforward. At the root of the problem, proponents argue, is the mismatch between the supply of Ph.D.s and the demand for them on the academic job market. If supply could be reduced, it would eventually match up with demand, and — as one recent argument in The Chronicle suggests — the savings from offering fewer funding packages to graduate students could be used to create new tenure-track jobs. This solution appears attractive because it focuses on what humanities academics can do with the power they have. In the face of problems that appear so large as to be intractable, solving the jobs crisis, one department at a time, has clear appeal.
This line of reasoning assumes that the demand side of the equation is stable and predictable — that although tenure-track job postings are cratering now, they will eventually stabilize at a level where supply could realistically match demand. But what if they don’t? Academic casualization — the replacement of stable employment arrangements with short term teaching gigs with no benefits — has been driven by several interlocking trends: the putative need for a flexible work force, divestment of states from public-university systems, and the weakening of the collective bargaining power of the faculty. None of these trends appear likely to reverse in the absence of large-scale structural changes, and the impact of exogenous shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic threatens whatever short-term equilibriums may emerge — just as academic hiring has never recovered from its collapse in 2007-10. The smaller cohorts of 2021 are likely to find themselves in 2028 facing the same mismatch their forerunners did.
If that was the only result of cutting grad admissions, perhaps it would be a justifiable strategy: Slightly ameliorate the situation while we work for a broader solution. Yet the impact of the cuts goes deeper than that, in ways that are much more harmful. For one thing, attacking graduate instruction cannibalizes demand alongside supply. Graduate students are among the primary consumers of academic research. Graduate mentorship, an inherently long-term process, cannot be readily casualized (which is one reason why casualization has disproportionately affected two-year institutions rather than Ph.D. granting ones). While small liberal-arts colleges are an exception here, they cannot sustain tenure-track hiring on their own, without the broader ecosystem of research universities. As demand for research and mentorship shrinks, it may become more difficult for administrators to justify renewing tenure-track lines, making the problem worse.
What about the makeup of these smaller cohorts? It is easy to predict the impact of making graduate admissions more challenging: committees will further concentrate their admissions on students who meet conventional metrics of success, from attending elite undergraduate institutions to having research projects that seem immediately marketable. (If your field admits only one student every five years, there is tremendous pressure not to take a chance on a candidate that doesn’t check every box.) This has already been happening, with ever-greater pressure on graduate applicants to produce publishable work before even entering graduate school — but restricting admissions would rapidly accelerate the process. While this can be mitigated by concentrating admissions in historically underrepresented areas like African American studies, that can’t be a permanent solution, and it won’t work for all fields. On a broader level, reductions in graduate admissions will further entrench the dominance of elite programs that face less pressure to reduce cohort sizes. Both within individual departments and for the profession as a whole, these reductions threaten to undo whatever progress has been made in recent years toward increasing diversity.
Intellectually, reducing cohort sizes magnifies the damage already done by the job crisis, driving more students toward already overcrowded fields and further marginalizing scholarship on non-Western and premodern topics. Smaller fields already have difficulty replacing retiring specialists, as those lines either vanish or end up being offered in more-popular areas instead. Without a community of peers in both their own departments and in the profession at large, new graduate students in smaller fields will struggle to find classes that fit their needs and to forge the productive links of friendship and collaboration that make scholarship work.
If the weakening of the collective labor power of the faculty is one of the key drivers of the jobs crisis, the proposal to cut graduate cohorts is especially ironic. Graduate students are at the leading edge of academic labor organizing in the United States. Graduate unions have won contracts and organized large-scale strikes both at elite institutions and across the country. Slashing their ranks weakens their ability to negotiate for better wages and benefits, especially since support for unionization tends to be highest among graduate students in the humanities.
The real solution to the jobs crisis is not in wielding our managerial power as faculty to admit fewer students. It is in using our collective power as workers and teachers alongside contingent faculty and graduate students to raise the floor for wages, benefits, and working conditions for all college instructors. Tenured and tenure-track faculty should push for recognition of unions on campuses and support their collective bargaining; where it is possible, they should form unions themselves, even though the Supreme Court’s 1980 NLRB v. Yeshiva University decision makes it difficult to do so at private colleges and universities. Only the power of organized labor has the ability to shift the demand side of the equation as the situation truly requires. In that process, elected officials — like Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose College for All bill would transform the landscape of academia — can be valuable allies. But the fight has to start in our own workplaces, with our own efforts.