As various University graduate programs reduced or completely paused admissions during the past application cycle, many faculty across Harvard’s schools expressed concern for the health of their programs, both in the short and long run.
In response to pressures brought forth by the pandemic — including reduced funding, a lackluster academic job market, and pressures on faculty time — many graduate programs across the nation announced they would reduce the number of students admitted to programs that begin in the fall of 2021.
However, unlike some peer institutions that wholly paused admissions — including Harvard’s own Graduate School of Education doctoral program — the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences announced in October 2020 that they would be taking a “more balanced approach to admissions.”
GSAS Dean Emma Dench wrote in a statement to The Crimson that leadership across the University elected to reduce admissions with an eye toward their commitments to current students.
“Unlike our peer institutions, some of whom have announced pauses on admissions to whole clusters of graduate student programs for fall 2021, GSAS, SEAS, and FAS leadership resolved to take a more balanced approach to admissions, one that aims to preserve our research and intellectual goals as much as possible, while keeping our focus on the academic success of our current students,” she wrote.
Ultimately, only five departments did not admit any students for programs that would otherwise begin this fall. Nonetheless, The Crimson found that Harvard faculty across multiple departments reported anxiety about the robustness of their programs following the admissions changes.
In November 2020, American Studies, Anthropology, Film and Visual Studies, Germanic Languages and Literatures, and South Asian Studies each announced on GSAS’s website that they would suspend admissions for the 2020-21 cycle “due to the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of supporting current students.”
Unclear at the time of GSAS’s announcement was the extent to which admissions reductions would affect other departments.
The Crimson distributed a survey this month to graduate program coordinators in 60 departments across the University. A total of 28 participants answered at least one question, while 12 participants completed every question in the survey. The respondents’ departments — whose average target cohort sizes decreased 33 percent — made 40 percent fewer admissions offers this cycle.
Ultimately, 29 percent fewer first-year graduate students in the respondents’ programs will participate in matriculation exercises this fall as compared to last year in the respondents’ departments.
The majority of respondents said that — to the best of their knowledge — administrators did not consult them on their department’s cohort size reduction. Just two respondents reported they were allowed feedback.
Several of the graduate coordinators reported concerns about how the changes would affect their department’s scholarship and student experience.
Jeffrey Miron, Economics senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies, said the admissions pause will likely not pose a significant threat to his department’s health if numbers normalize in the next cycle.
“If it only happens for this one year, and we went back to prior practice, the impact would have to be fairly small because, roughly, students stay in the program five to six years,” he said. “If you make one of those five cohorts slightly smaller, it’s not really challenging the size or composition or nature of the graduate program.”
However, Matthew J. Liebmann, American Archaeology and Ethnology professor and Anthropology director of graduate studies, wrote in an email that the complete pause in admissions for his department will render it “difficult to mount our curriculum as it is designed.” He cited “challenges to our ability to hold robust discussions in graduate seminars” as an immediate impact of the pause.
Likewise, Kay K. Shelemay, Music professor and director of graduate studies, expressed similar concern. In an email, she wrote that the Music department traditionally “usually made 10-12 offers to get a class of 8-10” but only was able to make 4 offers and yield 4 matriculating students this cycle.
“Our department has five programs, so in the short term it meant that one of our programs did not get a student,” she wrote.
Despite the negative effects on their departments, some respondents also said they would not have had the resources to take in a normal cohort due to the pandemic, and wanted to support current students, especially given the tight academic job market.
Deans within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — including Claudine Gay, Emma Dench, and Lawrence D. Bobo — maintained that accepting a regular number of students despite the financial restrictions induced by the pandemic would affect the resources afforded to current students. In an October 2020 email to FAS faculty announcing the reductions, the deans said they would commit to supporting current students in an increasingly fraught job market.
“In numerous fields, too—particularly those heavily dependent on the academic job market—employment outcomes that were already challenging before the COVID-19 crisis are now severely affected,” they wrote in the email. “We consider it our ethical responsibility not to exacerbate these problems by taking a full cohort of new students.”
Many faculty members also expressed that the reduction in admissions — even if just one year — could have many negative long-term implications.
Liebmann wrote that his department’s admissions pause exposes it to a number of challenges, some of which include a dearth of teaching fellows, the loss of promising students to peer institutions, and an overall decrease in the quality of the collaborative learning environments and networking opportunities.
Jewish History professor Derek J. Penslar wrote in response to the survey that, though the effect of the admissions reduction was minor for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, he is more concerned about the continuously decreasing admissions statistics in the History department.
“The damage to CMES caused by reductions in Ph.D. admissions is, at this point, relatively minor,” Penslar wrote. “I am far more concerned about my home department, History, which has seen its admissions quota reduced in recent years from 18 to 13, and now (for F21) to 6. These reductions have a powerful negative effect on departmental standing and the quality of graduate and undergraduate education alike.”
Other respondents indicated worries about the comparative competitiveness of Harvard’s programs as a result of a decreased cohort size and the message it would send about the University’s support for the next generation of academics.
Miron noted that a prolonged reduction in graduate admissions may lead to a number of long-term complications, including the number and quality of department courses, as well as a dearth of invested teaching fellows, many of whom are graduate students.
“To continue to stay at a smaller level, there are a number of effects. The classes will be smaller. And that might have implications for how many classes get offered,” Miron said. “Most obviously, our ability to provide high-quality teaching fellows to the undergraduate and graduate courses is going to be a little bit more challenging if we have a smaller incoming class.”
Despite these challenges, Harvard administrators maintain that the graduate admission reductions and pauses serve Harvard and its individual programs in the long term. In their October email to FAS faculty, the FAS deans wrote that the current “reset” would work to “preserve Harvard’s excellence.”
“This is an opportunity to reset our graduate admissions process, evaluate how we are serving our graduate students, and ensure that we are setting them up for success as students and as alumni, regardless of program or stage in program,” the administrators wrote.
“By taking these steps, we will work together to preserve Harvard’s excellence and continue fostering the intellectual talent that drives it,” they concluded.
For this story, The Crimson collected electronic responses through Qualtrics, an online survey platform, from May 10 to May 24, 2021. A link to the anonymous survey was sent to 60 FAS and SEAS faculty members affiliated with graduate programs. Of those faculty, 41 accessed the link to the survey. A total of 28 participants answered at least one question, while 12 participants completed every question in the survey.
The Crimson allowed survey participants to select their preference for attribution: Respondents could opt to anonymize their submission and present their department’s data only for analysis in the aggregate, present their department’s data but without their name, or use the department’s data and their name.
To prevent participants from accidentally taking the survey more than once, The Crimson enabled Qualtrics’ browser cookie functionality to register unique survey sessions on each device. This device data is controlled by Qualtrics, and The Crimson does not retain information that could identify devices accessing the survey with anonymous responses.
—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.
—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at email@example.com.