My PhD Program is not a “Roach Motel”


(This is a response to the recently published “Closing Down the Roach Motel,” which appeared in Inside Higher Ed on February 5, 2013 [])

Colin Ashley
John Boy
Anne Donlon
Gregory T. Donovan
Colleen Eren
Zoltán Glück
Karen Gregory
Stefanie A. Jones
Eero Laine
Ben Miller
Christina Nadler
Jared Simard
Jennifer Sloan
Alyson Spurgas
Chris Alen Sula
Suzanne Tamang
Jen Tang
Monique Whitaker

We are current and former students at the CUNY Graduate Center. Many of us have been involved in the Doctoral Students’ Council (DSC), the student government run by graduate students. We also take classes, write dissertations, work in university offices, perform research, and teach (often three or more courses each semester) at different colleges throughout the City University system. In our work on the DSC, we are elected student officers, newspaper editors, committee members, media coordinators, and student organizers.

As students and workers, we welcome the additional resources and reduced teaching load that will potentially allow incoming Graduate Center students to dedicate more time to their scholarship. Indeed, the Doctoral Students’ Council and other student groups have been advocating for similar increases and benefits for some time. However, we have been advocating for such resources for all of CUNY’s graduate students, not a select few. The new scheme will only affect students who enter the Graduate Center beginning Fall 2013. Nothing will change for the nearly 4,000 graduate students currently enrolled at the Graduate Center. Despite the benefits to future graduate students, the new fellowships represent a pay discrepancy that fundamentally violates the idea of equal pay for equal work. Unfunded and underfunded students will continue to rely on a patchwork of loans, adjunct teaching, part-time jobs, and other precarious forms of labor to support their continued scholarship. But the new restructuring plan is also disturbing for deeper structural reasons.

In the article, Professor Ammiel Alcalay points to the real issue with the new funding restructuring—the reduction in PhD enrollment carries with it the acute possibility of losing those students who make up the core of the City University of New York. Drastically cutting admissions in the name of what President Kelly considers “practical and ethical” (note the order of those concerns) will disproportionately affect working class students and people of color who have been historically excluded from higher education. The dramatic impact that such policies will have on the racial and class composition of students attending the Graduate Center would follow a trend of decreasing diversity across the CUNY system.[1] With more competition for fewer seats, those with already privileged personal or institutional backgrounds will fare disproportionately better in admissions, despite the fact that many highly successful graduates of the Graduate Center lack those backgrounds. At best, this restructuring is another point at which CUNY is abandoning its historic mission to provide equal and accessible educational opportunities to the people of New York City; at worst, it is a thinly veiled classist and racist project that further hinders social mobility.

In addition to limiting enrollment, Provost Robinson’s assertion that the inability of students to complete the degree in five years or less will be merely “a function of life decisions and life choices” is absurd and offensive. Other universities whose students have smaller teaching loads in less expensive cities currently have a longer time-to-degree than the Graduate Center. Behind such moralizing language lies a blunt attempt to remove student voices from the conversation, as we rush with our heads down to complete our studies before the funding clock runs out. In this respect, the restructuring of the Graduate Center follows a rather banal and callous neoliberal trend across higher education today: the gutting of social sciences and humanities; assembly-line style speed-up in PhD production time; and the loss of spaces for long-term, dedicated, and quality research and writing.

This isn’t just about money. Reducing graduate education to graduation rates and economic benchmarks (such as job prospects or projected income of graduates) actually impoverishes the quality of PhD and MA study. A significant part of our education, as well as our professional and political identity formation, includes advocacy, activism, and participation within the university system; so, too, the capacity to explore new possibilities, recognize dead ends, and revise from a position of greater knowledge. This work is essential to the health of the academy, and it is also time-consuming, to varying extents for various students. The administration’s easy equation of time-to-degree with moral character is fallacious and misleading, just as fellowship packages are not the only factor promoting or limiting consistent advancement in scholarship.

Which brings us to our final point: President Kelly’s offensive metaphors are perhaps the most disturbing element of this article. Surely a scholar with such a nuanced understanding of language should realize that offering a model of education where students will be controlled like livestock by “carrot and stick” is hardly a way to foster a space for meaningful and engaged scholarship. Also, we hope that the reference to graduate education and by extension the Graduate Center as a “Roach Motel” where students “check in and don’t check out” is disingenuous. It would be truly unfortunate if the comment was an unintended moment of public sincerity–a statement that reveals how President Kelly actually thinks of current students, scholars, activists, and citizens who enliven the Graduate Center. We are not pests to be trapped and poisoned. We are workers and students. CUNY is our workplace and our intellectual home, and we will not stand idly by to watch it dismantled by neoliberal “reformers” who would eagerly turn it into an elite, corporatized institution for a privileged few.

Addendum: As students, we are distraught by the ideas presented by some of our administrators. However, this should not dissuade prospective students from coming to CUNY. The CUNY Graduate Center, as the PhD granting institution of the City University of New York, is in a position to directly oppose encroachment on higher education (i.e., challenging the implementation of the Pathways curriculum, the political bullying of academic freedom, and self-serving administrative pay raises—and these are just some notable highlights from this year in a strong history of dissent).[2] At CUNY you will find engaged students and faculty willing to speak out against callous administrators who do not act in our interests. We welcome incoming students to our resilient, defiant, and engaged community. Join us in scholarship and in struggle.

12 comments to “My PhD Program is not a “Roach Motel””
  1. Pingback: The Five-Year Ph.D. as Improved Plumbing, Redux « Gerry Canavan

  2. Spot on! I had the pleasure of listening to President Kelly at Grad Council for some time as a student rep, I know from seeing his humor and joy that he has the capability to be a caring administrator.

    However, his recent comments were highly insulting to those of us who work our butts off to teach the students of CUNY while trying to get our degree. I regularly teach four courses a semester, and have had to go to the private schools of NYC which pay nearly three times the rate of our courses at CUNY. Basically, schools other than my own have taken better care of me as a PhD student than CUNY in terms of my funding. I am not a roach, I do not want to be stuck at the GC forever…in fact I want to finish as quickly as possible without putting myself into debt.

    I’m supposedly the quintessential American. I grew up in the middle of nowhere Montana and worked my butt off to get into college and secure funding. I have held employment ever since i was 15 years old, and I have always held one or more jobs while attending University all to be the first in my family with a graduate degree. Our generation is treated like crap because of the failures of our elders, and now they wish to blame us for seeking the higher education they told us we should get…..all because academia was a mess when we arrived to go to class.

    -Hunter Kincaid-

  3. I would think it behooved teh GCAdvocate to learn exactly what is the salary of such functionaries as Bill Kelly–he whom who of my succesors as Executive Officer of the Art History Program at the Graduate School referred to as “the thug,” considering also that the President of, I believe, each branch of the City University also receives free housing and just formulate the differential betwen the overall sum and what a respectacle compensation might be, even were that functionary performing in a manner appropriate to his/her position (what say: $150,000)? And then what/how that diffential might be found useful in student support.

  4. I am an alumnus of the Art History PhD Program at the GC. I currently work as an Assistant Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

    The provost’s language and intentions are certainly repellent, and I support this statement unconditionally. That said, I feel there is a more nuanced conversation to be had about how to improve our respective programs more specifically and students’ performance within them, given a larger situation of contraction and crisis.

    Couching the time-to-PhD issue in punitive terms is just stupid (although you’d be surprised how often post-PhDs do so), and 5 years is unrealistic for CUNY. But I see 10 years as equally unrealistic in today’s market, and my guess is that that is at least Art History’s average, if not that of other departments. On the one side you have outrageous preemptive measures put forth by administrators; on the other you have a market for jobs that has changed, probably for good. Ultimately our goal should be to help present CUNY students get jobs– not to boot them out as quickly as possible, but not to let them fall into the adjunct trap and never leave, either.

  5. I’ve just been admitted to CUNY for a Ph.D. with no financial aid, they hinted that I’m being considered for funding packages. I really hope that this is true and not just a way to keep me lured to choose CUNY. I am glad to see such an outspoken student body which makes me want to come to CUNY. Solidarity.

  6. I am a CUNY undergraduate alumnus and graduate alumnus who was admitted in 2012 with only paltry funding and only for my first year.

    Based on the recent changes I might be better off dropping out of my program only to reapply for the same one next year.

    That, or I could teach four courses every semester and graduate sometime in the 2020s.

    From both an academic and financial perspective it is a no-brainer to do the former. I feel like I’m cutting my nose off to spite my face, but in fact I know I would be better prepared for the future in almost every respect if I dropped out of the program and re-applied.

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  8. Pingback: My PhD Program is not a “Roach Motel” « The Adjunct Project

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