On the Closing of PhD Programs

This past weekend, Cliopatria’s Ralph Luker utilized our History Doctoral Programs in the United States and Canada web site to propose the closing of “marginal” PhD programs in history as a way of reducing the glut of newly minted PhDs on the job market (read his full post). He argues for “a ratio of 2 million people per doctoral program in history,” and says that instead of offering PhDs, these programs should concentrate “on offering the best MA programs in history that they can muster.” As one might expect, Mr. Luker’s proposal, which named names, fostered a lively discussion in Cliopatria’s comment section.

Perhaps illustrating that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as blog, the Cliopatria discussion brings to mind a memorable discussion from the pages of the AHA Newsletter (the precursor to Perspectives) from the early 1970s. In comments delivered at the December 1971 annual meeting in New York and reprinted in the March 1972 issue of the Newsletter, Professor Lawrence Stone of Princeton University offered a stark analysis of the then-impending 1970s job crisis (2,300 applicants applied for 155 jobs at the 1971 meeting, according to University of Pennsylvania’s John L. Shover in the same issue). Stone advocated a reduction in the number of students that PhD programs enrolled, the creation of an AHA committee to advise state legislatures on the minimum standards and optimal size for PhD programs, and the creation of an alternative degree to the PhD for those who would become “college teachers rather than scholars.” But the most pertinent suggestion for this discussion was the elimination “altogether [of] many of the numerous small and inferior PhD programs which have sprung up, largely for prestige reasons, in the last ten to fifteen years” (though Stone didn’t name names). Stone believed that new departments were being created, and established ones were churning out more PhDs, without thought of how well their students would fare on the job market. “These proposals,” he argued, “would result in a form of academic contraception which would eliminate the weak, and not emasculate the strong.”

Stone’s argument pitted the elite private schools like Princeton against a lot of smaller public institutions who felt they were serving a local job market and less privileged students. In “New Problems and Old Elites: Another View of the Job Crisis” in the November 1972 issue of the AHA Newsletter, for example, Professors Emory Evans, Mary Furner, and Alfred Young of Northern Illinois University mounted a vigorous defense on behalf “minor institutions” and challenged the assertion that new programs were causing the glut of PhDs. According to Evans, Furner, and Young, new institutions suggested “vitality of scholarship” in the profession, expanded access to advanced education to “youth from poor families, to blacks, and to women,” and played a part in “upgrading undergraduate education.” Comparing previous proposals to failed attempts at relieving the Great Depression, the authors called for “program of job expansion” to avoid the impending crisis. Namely, they suggested that government work and the exploding community college market could help alleviate the stress of excess PhDs on the market. The Stone article and the Evans et al response are fascinating artifacts because many of the problems, and the proposals for solving those problems, are still with us today.

The other issue that came up in the Cliopatria discussion is the inclusion of the University of New Orleans in the list of PhD-granting institutions. The Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians and the doctoral programs web site are dependent on information submitted by individual departments and updated annually by the department for accuracy (check your mailboxes in March for more information!). Apparently, the eagle eyes at Cliopatria spotted an error that neither we nor the department at UNO have noticed for at least 20 years. Kudos!

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