Faculty Q&A With Dean Carlos Alonso
Interview by Bridget O'Brian
When Carlos Alonso was a student at Escuela Secundaria de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, the island’s elite public high school, all his teachers were Ph.D.s, professors on loan from the University of Puerto Rico. Yet it was years before he had an inkling that he might want to be an academic himself. Indeed, his first two years at Cornell were spent in the engineering division, after which “I switched to literature, convinced that I would be a scholar and teacher for the rest of my life,” he said.
Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University
Today, as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Alonso finds that “circumstances are conspiring against having the very best students decide to become academics.” The close to 5,000 graduate students in the University’s research, doctoral and M.A. programs are graduating into an environment far less welcoming to those who want to make a career of academia. Alonso, who is responsible for their education and prospects, believes it may be time to “change drastically our understanding of what one can do with a doctoral degree.”
Q. How is life different for graduate students at Columbia today?
Over the last year, we have put in place a number of enhancements for Ph.D.s, particularly in the humanities and the social sciences. We raised stipends, which had been lower than for students in the natural sciences, and assumed responsibility for facilities fees that students had been paying out of pocket. We increased the support we provide to cover five summers, rather than two. Now, for the first time ever, our financial aid package is comparable to that of Harvard, Princeton and Yale. We’re also creating a space on campus for graduate students to call their own, refashioning what was the old graduate lounge in 301 Philosophy into what will be a café plus a lounge area and seminar room that will be available for use by graduate student organizations. We want students to have a sense of belonging to something bigger than their department. That is also why we began publishing 109Low, a newsletter for current students and faculty that strives to give a sense of the many facets of graduate education at Columbia.
Q. Why hasn’t there been an emphasis on this sort of community before?
Because you have the city always beckoning and because you have so much going on even within Columbia. It’s hard to create a sense of community, particularly among graduate students, who are literally all over the campus—in fact, the various campuses. A lot of people like Columbia because of that personal autonomy, but when you look back to your graduate career, what are the things that you will remember? They probably will be things that you did with other people.
Q. You’ve been praised for rebuilding the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures when you came here in 2005. What did you do?
Before I was hired at Columbia, I was at Penn and before that at Emory, and as chair in each of those departments I had been asked to lead their reshaping. Therefore I had experience with rebuilding a department, but of course the challenge is how to refashion a department that sits in a particular institutional milieu and that has a specific history. That’s where the challenge lies: to find a way to marry the history of a department with its possible future. The Columbia department has had a long and illustrious history, so the challenge was to leverage that into a redefinition of Hispanic studies as a field—to rethink not just this department but the whole discipline of Hispanic studies simultaneously. To accomplish that, we hired people who were not trained originally as hispanists, or whose training was not specifically in the study of literary phenomena. They were historians of art, historians of institutions, and social scientists. The intent was to reconfigure the department by making it interdisciplinary from within. The excitement and the effervescence that is the result of that transformation has created a graduate program that is second to none in the field right now. And the graduate students in our department are just spectacular. I wish I’d been as smart as they are when I was their age.
Q. Can you talk more about the financial enhancements for graduate students?
We wanted to create a situation where students would not make a decision about where they’re going to graduate school based on the financial aid package that they receive. Ideally you want that decision to be made on purely intellectual grounds. It’s great to be in a position to make an offer knowing that it is comparable to those that prospective students are getting from other institutions.
Q. How has the financial downturn affected candidates going for Ph.D.s and master’s degrees?
It used to be that economic downturns would be accompanied by a rise in the number of applications to graduate school, but in this recession we did not see the sharp peak that everybody was expecting. The financial crisis has forced some universities to look very carefully at what they are spending on doctoral education. With graduate education and graduate research, the University has to provide stipends, summer support, a medical plan, etc. Graduate education is a net loss as an operation, yet it is a vital one for the University and its reputation. Here at Columbia, the downturn forced us to cut the incoming cohort of graduate students by 10 percent. The original intent was to return the entering cohort back to its previous level when the economy recovered. But we decided instead to take the funds saved by the reduction of students and plow them back into the financial aid packages for existing graduate students. This allowed us, for the first time, to produce a financial aid package that was comparable to our peers, and to extend it to new and continuing students as well.
Q. What has the downturn done to the academic job market?
Currently, only 28 percent of the instructional positions in the academy are tenure-track positions nationally. This trend preceded the downturn, but has been accelerated by it. There has been a conversion of tenure-track positions into either adjunct or full-time term positions without possibility of tenure. So it was clear for ethical and placement reasons that it was better to reduce the number of students coming in and radically improve their conditions. Educational institutions cannot keep producing the same numbers of graduate students as in the past. In fact, the pipeline is now backed up, and will be so for a while, with several cohorts of graduate students that have not been able to get jobs in the last four years. While there’s been an uptick in terms of the number of jobs, I doubt that we will ever get back to where we were before.
Q. What does this reduction in academic jobs mean for academia and for society?
In the larger scheme of things it means that education as a field will have fewer people who will be willing to commit themselves to it as a career. The circumstances are conspiring against having the very best students decide to become academics. That is why we need to change drastically our understanding of what one can do with a doctoral degree. If we continue to think that the only avenue for someone who receives a Ph.D. is to go into academia, we will not survive as a graduate enterprise precisely because those jobs may not be there in the end.
Q. Is there a solution to that?
We need to start rethinking what kind of students we admit and what expectations we have for them. If we think that people who go into a graduate program don’t necessarily have to go into academia to be successful, prospects open up; a Ph.D. is a degree that endows one with skills that can be transported to many fields, and the sort of student that would apply would change. Many more people would be interested in pursuing a doctoral degree because there would be a panoply of job possibilities for them. But that shift will require a complete transformation of everything we do—of the faculty mindset, of the curricula of our graduate programs, and of the reasons people apply to graduate school.
Q. These trends go well beyond Columbia, don’t they?
Yes, this is just one of the difficulties that we in higher education are facing right now. Another is that scholars are increasingly producing interdisciplinary and multimedia knowledge that doesn’t respect disciplinary bounds, yet the academic structures of the university hark back to the foundation of most modern disciplines in the 19th century. That chasm has to be addressed decisively. But the larger threat we are all confronting is the commodification of everything, which has extended its reach into realms that used to be immune to it. You could make the claim once that the university was a place and an activity whose worth was not based on market value. Nowadays knowledge in the university is a product that has a price in the market. That’s a very unfamiliar circumstance for us in the academy—having to justify what we do with metrics derived from market logic. Do you resist that logic? Or do you look for opportunities to preserve within the current situation the things that you appreciate and value, even if they need to be rethought? I think that is why, for instance, we’re seeing more and more attempts to describe what we do as the purveying of a set of skills that are transferable to diverse circumstances rather than as a content of which we are the custodians.
Four Columbia faculty were awarded Sloan Research Fellowships by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. They are Mark Churchland, assistant professor of neuroscience; Wei Min, assistant professor of chemistry; Simha Sethumadhavan, associate professor of computer science; and Wei Zhang, assistant professor of mathematics.
Alondra Nelson, associate professor of sociology, won the 2012 book award from the Association for Humanist Sociology for Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination.