Shifting allegiances

We did MA admissions this morning, along with a few Ph.D. admissions. Since our deadlines are not hard and fast, except for those dictated by Homeland Security, we may still get some apps floating in, and these will be thoroughly reviewed, but it’s likely that our admissions are pretty much set. I enjoy this process, as a rule. Yes, it’s hard to be making decisions on people’s lives with such little information, but it’s exciting to think about what a new cohort will look like. We’ve been very happy with the quality of the graduate students over the last couple years, for the most part. Nonetheless, we’ve collectively decided to ensure that we don’t bring people into the program unless we are very confident that they will be exceptionally successful as graduate students and scholars, and that they will be a good fit for the department. As a result, that means we are turning down applicants who are undoubtedly very qualified. I feel confident that in all of these cases, the students will gain entry into a more appropriate program. All in all, it was a positive experience.

The other side of this was deciding upon assistanships. Obviously, it would be inpolitic to go into specifics, but my position on this seems to be different from the rest of the faculty’s. My priority for our limited assistanceships is to use them to recruit top applicants, and try to encourage them to pick us over other grad programs. The assistanceship alone won’t do it, of course — many of these applicants have multiple offers from different schools, often with stipends that dwarf ours — but if they are already disposed favorably to our program, the _lack_ of an assistanceship is often a deciding factor. So, for me, the primary funding criterion is recruitment, followed by how well they will help us in our teaching mission, followed by internal candidates that may not be the best for the classroom, but who show outstanding research potential.

These are the criteria that were stacked somewhat against me as a grad student, since I entered UW without a TAship. Is it hypocritical to now apply this standard to our students? I don’t think so. I also don’t have any problem funding our current students and recognize that the awarding of TAships to unknown outsiders before our current students represents a sometimes cruel calculus. But if our aim is to improve the quality and reputation of our program, I think attracting the very best students is an important part of that. And if the program improves, that floats all boats. It seems that the strategic use of these resources is not shared by the rest of the faculty, and that was a disappointment today. As was what seemed like an undercurrent of nepotism; which is, of course, endemic to many organizations but grates especially within those who claim to value merit-based decisions.

A core number of faculty members are very serious about improving the department — from our research funding to our graduate and undergraduate teaching. Doing so seems always an uphill battle against the status quo — some -ostriches- faculty members think we are already the top program in our area, so significant changes are unnecessary — and against continuing institutional pressures to increase production and decrease expenditures. Most days that constitutes one step forward and about three back. Today it felt more like two forward and one back, and that back step is cushioned somewhat by knowing that no matter who the assistanceships go to, they will be well deserved.

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