Historical studies doctoral program mounting ‘full-throated defense’ against potential closure

Daily Egyptian file photo.

Daily Egyptian file photo.

By Kitt Fresa

When the history department found out about the administration’s plan to cut the historical studies doctoral program, many department members set out to change the university’s mind.  

The graduate degree program, which currently enrolls 31 students, is on the chopping block following Board of Trustees approval of the “Financial Sustainability Plan” in July. This plan would cut about $26 million from the university, including seven degree programs. The doctorate in historical studies is one of these.
History professor Natasha Zaretsky said cutting away at SIU’s core liberal arts programs, such as history, will diminish its identity as a research institution.

“There’s a fight for the future of SIUC … History is the foundational discipline of humanities,” she said.  “I don’t know how you can have a comprehensive research university without this doctoral program.”

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John Kemp, a doctoral candidate in the program, said the history department has been keeping students in the loop about the administration’s decision-making process regarding the graduate program.

“[They] assured us that a full-throated defense supporting the program will be mounted,” Kemp said. “I would not say I’m pollyannish, but cautiously optimistic that the administration will make the right decision.”

Jonathan Wiesen, chair of the history department, said they are using this opportunity to make changes within the program.

“People are very distraught about it,” Wiesen said. “We hope it’s not going to actually happen because there is time for discussion … We’ve been meeting since the spring to revise and revitalize our program and build up our publicity so we can recruit from more universities around the state and beyond.”

Zaretsky said the department’s main goal since the board approved the plan has been to reassure students of the university’s obligation to let them complete their degrees.

“Students are understandably very alarmed,” Zaretsky said. “We have a number who are here from overseas — students from China, Russia, people who have made major decisions, uprooted themselves, relocated here … They want reassurance from not only the faculty but the upper administration that SIU is going to remain committed to them and committed to the program.”

Zaretsky said this is a time to refine the program’s mission.

“We actually want to work collaboratively with the administration to figure out how the program can be strengthened and improved,” Zaretsky said. “This is an important moment when, as a department, we can come together and talk about what the core mission of our graduate program should be.”

Wiesen said although the department is ready to reform the program, the administration’s decision to cut it has put a damper on program members’ spirits.

“It’s been very hard on our morale,” Wiesen said. “But what it also means is that we tried to sort of work especially closely with our brand new Ph.D. students … We’ve been even that much more hands on than we’ve been before as we guide them through this rocky period.”

Zaretsky said the doctoral program has a history of guiding its students into jobs within their field, especially teaching positions.

“I think the doctoral program plays a really fantastic role in terms of training educators and teachers through it,” Zaretsky said.

Kemp agreed, and said graduates of the program tend to be successful.

“The placement rate for our Ph.D graduates who choose to pursue a career in academia after graduating exceeds that of our Ivy League counterparts,” Kemp said.

Cutting this program will also affect students at SIUC’s sister campus. There are six doctoral candidates enrolled in the historical studies program at Edwardsville, which has the distinction of being a “cooperative doctoral program,” according to Erik Alexander, the program’s co-director.

This was designed so students on Edwardsville’s campus can have access to the resources in  Carbondale and vice versa, Alexander said.

“They get the great benefits of both campuses,” Alexander said.

Kemp said the cooperative program allows students who might have otherwise only completed a master’s degree in Edwardsville to stay on to get their doctorate.

“Should the Ph.D. program be slashed, some of these scholars might not have the means to relocate,” Kemp said. “Thus, while those already in the Ph.D. program have been assured they can finish, there are larger socio-economic issues at play.”

Wiesen said it is important to work with the administration to help illuminate the program’s benefits to students and the campus.

“We’re very protective of the program,” Wiesen said.  “We see its value, and we see the students and alumni are very, very concerned, but we want to make the case to anybody who has a stake in this discussion that we have a lot to offer still.”

Staff writer Kitt Fresa can be reached at [email protected]

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