Friday, March 6, 2009

Grad school and joint programs in a down economy

Applications are up at some law schools this year, in spite of law firm layoffs, although flat elsewhere, and many law schools, like other educational institutions, are cutting back. There is anxiety all around about placement for law grads, but there has been little attention to the question of whether structural changes in legal education are necessitated by the new economic climate. What about graduate school?

The always interesting Anthony Grafton has an essay in The Daily Princetonian, Graduate School in a New Ice Age. Hat tip. Grafton sets the current economic crisis in the context of the dark days for humanities departments in the 1970s. Difficult times moderated in the 1990s and after, but, he writes, "conditions remained difficult — and worse than difficult — for many students, but eased for those in the departments that adapted. It seemed that we had found the way to train students for the world they actually faced."

But now,

the floor beneath us has collapsed again....It has taken colleges and universities only a few months to go from prosperity to austerity. In the humanities, 15 to 20 percent of the jobs originally advertised for this year have been cancelled. And as university after university announces budget cuts and staff layoffs, it seems certain that next year will be even worse.

It’s time to think hard about our graduate programs and their relation to these new realities. Should we cut numbers even further? Emphasize professionalization even more? Can we contrive to give students something of the freedom and possibilities for wide-ranging exploration that their predecessors enjoyed before our permanent crisis took shape? Can we be frank about the professional situation that students face without inspiring despair?

These questions have no simple answers. But if we fail to pose and discuss them publicly, we will see another generation’s relationship with the university ruined by our refusal to face and discuss facts.

A prescient Ralph Luker suggested two years ago that some history PhD programs should close to ease a glut of recent PhD's on the job market.
Perhaps for some humanities departments, it will be a productive time to partner with law schools and other professional schools, and also to rethink the role of the MA in history.
It is always important to be careful about JD/PhD programs. Such programs at law schools that are not strong feeders into the law teaching market might attract students interested in law teaching, but who might then fare poorly on the law job market. But this need not be the only function of joint programs. With renewed interest in the MA, some schools might offer focused MAs in legal history or other areas, even for students or established scholars who earned their PhD elsewhere. The new Columbia/London School of Economics joint program in international history is an interesting model. I can imagine an MA in human rights history, for example, that would benefit scholars who need a background in international and human rights law.
Joint programs with professional schools might also be important for programs that build a strong public history emphasis. I would expect that a history PhD with an MBA might be attractive to students who see a possible career track in museum work, for example.
In the law school world, a down economy may ultimately mean a turn toward practicality, which for some may mean a turn away from interdisciplinarity. Forward looking programs, however, will find productive partnerships and new programs that meet emerging needs, and position them well for a future when the economy picks up again.