JHU plan to pay graduate students more but trim their numbers is under fire

Johns Hopkins graduate students and professors are calling for a moratorium on the university's plan to increase stipends for graduate students in the arts and humanities while shrinking their numbers, saying it could stymie research and the free flow of ideas.

Officials with the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences say they need to raise the stipends for graduate students, now $22,000 per school year, to $30,000 to remain competitive with peer institutions. But they also say that, because of the cost, the move would require them to admit about 20 percent fewer humanities graduate students.

"Higher stipends would be great, but some of us are not sure if the trade-off would be worth it," said Betsy Bevis, a third-year doctoral student in the art history department. "Reducing graduate cohort sizes, especially for smaller departments, is really going to sap the community of graduate students. We learn as much from each other as we do from professors."

Katherine S. Newman, a dean in the Krieger School, said graduate students — many of whom are now supporting families — have long complained to administrators that their stipends were too low. Officials believed they were at risk of losing talented students to other prestigious universities that offer annual stipends closer to $30,000.

"To do better by the people we admit, we have to admit fewer of them," she said. "And that's a sacrifice for everyone."

Organizers of the plan's opponents said about 300 people have signed a letter outlining concerns that smaller numbers of students could hurt departments.

Newman said the proposal, released last fall, would affect only graduate students in the 14 humanities and social sciences departments in the school. She estimated there were about 350 to 400 graduate students in those 14 departments, but her office did not provide the exact figure.

Departments would admit an average of one fewer graduate student each year when the plan takes effect, she said.

After the outcry in the fall, Newman said, officials decided to allow department chairs to "opt in" to the proposal or remain at the same size and stipend amount. She declined to say which departments were most vocal in their opposition to the proposal or had already made a decision, and said those talks were continuing. She said that officials were sitting down with students and faculty to listen to their concerns, and a town hall meeting is planned for Thursday.

But Victor Kumar, a fourth-year doctoral student in the anthropology department, said some students felt the administration had come to its conclusions without seeking input.

"The administration has said, 'Well, students and faculty are misinformed,' but those channels of communication have been pretty weak to graduate students," he said.

Kumar added that it was "hard not to be insulted" by the plan's focus on competitiveness.

"It implies that we haven't been competitive, that we've been losing the best students," he said.

The proposal would increase the school's budget by a slight amount and apply to newly admitted students starting this fall. But Newman said Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels' office stepped in with funds to raise the stipends of current students closer to $30,000.

Dennis O'Shea, a Johns Hopkins spokesman, said no other schools within the university are exploring similar plans because they don't have the same challenges as those facing the humanities and social sciences, as trends in higher education shift toward science and technology fields.

He said the university does not plan to hire more adjuncts to replace the graduate students who teach or assist with teaching in undergraduate classes, but that some departments may need to hire teaching assistants.

Elsewhere, the City University of New York and Columbia University have trimmed their graduate student numbers and increased stipends or financial aid in recent years.

Newman said graduate students, who are now paid only during the academic year, would be paid year-round under the new plan. Students who aren't paid over the summer are often unable to continue their research and must take nonacademic side jobs, which makes them less competitive in the job market, she said.

"Now they're competing against universities providing much more robust support and year-round," Newman said. "Who do you think is able to publish more and become more learned in their field? It's the ones that have the time to do that. We don't want the capacity of our students to do their best work to depend on what kind of family they come from. There are very real divides."

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