Letter to the Queen’s community from concerned graduate students

Dear Queen’s community,

Immediately following the March 14 vote by the Graduate Studies Executive Council (GSEC) passing the motion to shorten graduate degree completion times to 2 years for Master’s degrees and 4 years for PhDs, School of Graduate Studies (SGS) Dean Brenda Brouwer contacted the Graduate Student Senator and representatives from the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS). Dean Brouwer expressed an interest in discussing a time to completion (TTC) working group, as had been recommended in the SGPS Time to Completion Report (p. 11).

A group of concerned graduate students then met to establish a list of priorities for a TTC working group (WG), which was sent to Dean Brouwer on March 19 with a request that the entire group meet with the SGS deans.

We have secured a meeting with Dean Brouwer and Associate Deans Sandra Den Otter and Kim McAuley for April 24, and we would like to take this opportunity to share the priority items with the Queen’s community as broadly as possible, and to have you provide feedback in preparation for the meeting. Please send all comments to queenst2c@gmail.com for the undersigned to include in the discussion with SGS.

We will prepare a report after the meeting to share the outcomes, which we will publish on this wordpress site.

In solidarity,

Terry Bridges (Graduate Student Senator)
Becky Pero (VP Graduate, SGPS)
Matt Scribner (President, SGPS)
Doug Nesbitt (President, PSAC 901)
David Thompson (SGPS Student Advisor)
Alexandra Pedersen (Ph.D. Candidate, Geography)
Andrea Phillipson (Ph.D. Candidate, Kinesiology and Health Studies)
Matt Shultz (VP Campaign and Community Affairs, SGPS)

TTC Working Group Priorities

  1. A WG should be formed and operate under the auspices of GSEC, and this should be discussed at the next GSEC meeting. This will lend the WG the legitimacy and transparency required to work effectively and openly.**
  2. If a WG is established, we ask that the two TTC motions put forward by SGS not be implemented until the Working Group is finished.
  3. We ask that the results and analysis of the survey of graduate students conducted by the SGS in the fall of 2012 be released publicly as soon as possible.
  4. The composition of the WG should include 50% or more graduate student composition, and include representatives from the following groups: the SGPS, PSAC 901, SGS and other administration, faculty members, QUFA, Unit graduate chairs, HCDS and/or the Mental Health Working Group, and departmental staff (e.g. graduate assistants). The WG needs to have representation from all stakeholder groups, and given that the TTC issues are crucial for graduate students, they need to comprise at least 50% of the WG numbers.
  5. We believe that the WG needs to do more than produce an advisory report that may or may not be acted on. Rather, the purpose of the WG should be to develop an official policy that will supersede the two motions/policies put forward by the SGS. This policy should be university-wide, at the same respecting the autonomy of individual units.
  6. The main purpose of the WG should be an exploration of what graduate students need from their programs. This includes (but is not limited to) scholarly research, publications, teaching and TAs, RA positions, and other professional development activities that enable graduate students to have meaningful and rich graduate experiences and allow them to successfully pursue careers after they graduate.
  7. The WG should examine the issues identified in the report sent to GSEC by Becky Pero and Terry Bridges, including (but not limited to): funding (or lack thereof) and high tuition fees; program/degree requirements (courses and comprehensives); supervisory relations; mental-health concerns; challenges faced by part-time and international students; issues relating to collection of data/field work; lack of support and isolation; and work-life balance. In other words, the WG needs to look holistically and broadly at the many factors affecting graduate student completion time, and propose measures that improve completion times while still maintaining a program that gives graduate students what they need.
  8. Timescale: We believe that development and implementation of a policy for Sep 2015 will give the time needed to study these issues, to give units the time they need to think about the issues affecting completion time and ways in which programs can be restructured accordingly, and allow sufficient time for university-wide consultation. We believe that the WG should meet regularly (e.g. once a month at least).

**Note: Since sending the priorities list in March, this group has agreed that a task force formed under the auspices of Senate and overseen by GSEC would be preferable.

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UNB professor and Queen’s PhD writes to Dean Brouwer

March 28, 2013

Dear Prof. Brouwer

I am writing you to express my concerns over the Queen’s University plan to limit the ‘normal’ completion time for a MA thesis to two years and for a PhD thesis to four years. I can see the logic of a two-year MA if students are fully funded and are pursuing a non-thesis option. However in cases where the MA student is expected to write a full thesis, I would advise allowing Departments or disciplines, within reason, to determine these limits. I completed a MA in History at the University of New Brunswick, which was a well-regarded program for a mid-sized university, and in my two years there few of my colleagues completed their courses and thesis within two years.

The four-year limit for the PhD is even more problematic, especially if a student obtains their MA at one university then arrives at Queen’s to pursue the doctorate. In most cases that student must complete two terms of graduate seminars before starting on their comprehensive exams. In my time at Queen’s (1982-87) even fully funded students almost never completed within four years, especially if they were working as TAs or obtaining career experience by teaching courses. I was fortunate enough to receive a SSHRC doctoral award starting in my second year, and was able to stop working as a TA. I taught two courses during the 14 months I wrote my thesis as I needed to gain that experience. I completed my PhD in 4.5 years but I had no family, no financial issues or no medical and other personal problems. In terms of students who had ‘transferred’ to Queen’s after completing a MA elsewhere, I can’t recall many in the early to mid 1980s who completed their PhD program in less than 5 years.

I also had a supervisor that gave me timely feedback and kept me on task. In my experience as a graduate student at UNB and at Queen’s University, the timeline of a specific student’s progress was not always in the hands of that student; much depended on the supervisor. Yet the proposed 2 and 4-year limits will not harm professors, only their students. The policy would appear to discriminate in favour of single and financially self-sufficient students and against those who have families, financial challenges or health and personal problems. Queen’s University has been struggling with balancing its reputation of exclusivity and elitism with fairness and openness; I fear that the new policy is a retrograde step, a form of social engineering, which will narrow the social and economic diversity of Canada’s future researchers and teachers. I also wonder how many of the academics or administrators who are involved in formulating this policy actually managed to complete their MA and PhD theses within these time limits.

Yours sincerely
Prof. Greg Marquis, PhD History 1987.
Department of History and Politics
University of New Brunswick

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An Open Letter to Dean Brouwer and the School of Graduate Studies

This year the Department of History made a valiant effort to recruit an exceptional graduate student. The student applied to our Ph.D. program specifically to work under my supervision. My colleagues and I did our best to enhance the department’s offer, realizing that we would be in competition with other universities for this talented young scholar. After many weeks of wavering, the student finally wrote to our Graduate Chair explaining that although his first choice remained Queen’s, he simply could not refuse a comprehensive package from a university that possesses a very strong and well-established Middle Eastern Studies program. Fresh from this disappointment, I learned with utter disbelief that the GSEC had voted for a policy that further undercuts – indeed for all intents and purposes destroys — our ability to recruit top students, particularly in international fields.

Colleagues in the humanities and social sciences have already provided qualitative and quantitative evidence that contests many of the assumptions that prompted the decision to reduce the Time to Completion in Ph.D. programs from five to four years. I am sure that members of the GSEC who voted in favour of this policy view these matters through discrete, disciplinary lenses and on the basis of their own graduate school experiences. I realize, too, that while they extol the virtues of internationalization, most Queen’s administrators and faculty do not routinely conduct social scientific, cultural or historical research in other parts of the world; nor do they require competence in multiple languages to keep up with their fields. They may also project conditions for other disciplines and regional subfields from their own facilities in the applied sciences where there exist the infrastructural and financial resources necessary to conduct “basic science” and train graduate students at the level of other research institutions. Given the fact that these differences are either invisible to or incomprehensible for many colleagues who work on the same campus, I thought, it might be useful to illustrate, through my personal graduate and post-graduate experience, the actual time and resources required to produce one of Queen’s own, internationally-recognized, faculty members in the field of Middle Eastern Studies.

My Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history from Columbia University took 11 years from beginning to end, from the M.Phil. (1 year) to the dissertation defense. This was not unusual. Like many North Americans, my formal training in Middle Eastern languages awaited entry into graduate school. Beyond the seminars in history and methodology that were required for all Ph.D. students in History, my regional sub-specialty demanded four years of language courses in Arabic and Persian as well as an intensive summer program in modern Turkish abroad. [Note: Turkish, Persian and Arabic are members of three, distinct linguistic families, Ural-Altaic, Indo-European, and Semitic, respectively.] Research on my dissertation topic (the political economy of the late Ottoman Empire) entailed three years of travel to and residence in England, Italy and Turkey (where almost all primary data is located, with access to facilities often requiring special research permits) which was funded by the university, national and international fellowships. It would take another four years of sorting, translating, evaluating my notes, and writing while I held a teaching fellowship and later, worked as a full time instructor in world history to complete the dissertation.

Was this long haul worth it for my career? Absolutely. In addition to research accomplishments that fundamentally owe to formative dissertation research, in a very competitive job market I have never been unemployed: I have held three tenure-track appointments in interdisciplinary and history departments prior to joining Queen’s as its first world and Islamic historian.

Although a decade or more for completing a Ph.D. in the field was not unusual in the 1980s and early 1990s, time-to-completion rates have been reduced in Middle East Studies programs. Investments in student funding and infrastructure have been essential to improving outcomes. Top-tier Canadian and U.S. universities have expanded their library collections in historical and contemporary subjects (in multiple languages) while ramping up their language teaching in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish for undergraduates and graduate students. Long before they begin field research, Ph.D. candidates in these areas of study have not only acquired extensive training in modern languages but have also mastered specialised skills in the use of manuscript sources and historic idioms, from early modern Persian to Ottoman siyakat (a form of shorthand used in 15th-18th century bureaucratic documents) through summer language consortia and intensive language programs held in Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, and Turkey.

Overall, 5 year scholarships for the Ph.D. remain the norm for Middle East-related specialties as well as for most graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences. As I mentioned at the top of my letter, the applicant who turned us down this year was given a scholarship package that outstripped our best offer in terms of direct funding and training opportunities. It included $24,000 per year for five years, above tuition and health insurance. Of these fully-funded five years, two are free of research and teaching duties and will allow him to travel for research. The university provides ample opportunities for graduate students to pursue advanced language study in European, Asian and Middle Eastern languages. It possesses a fully equipped, research-level library in Middle Eastern and Islamic subject matter.

Added resources are absolutely necessary but do not totally offset the specific challenges of certain regional fields. As a faculty member in New York University’s Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (a university with a fairly good research-level library in Persian and Arabic) in the mid-1990s, I taught and supervised many graduate students. Most of my Ph.D. students, (who now hold tenure track positions in U.S., Turkish and Canadian universities, from Simon Frasier to Concordia and from M.I.T. to Southern Methodist in Dallas and Bilge University in Istanbul) required 6 to 8 years to finish course work, complete field research, and write their dissertations. The average varied little even for students who had acquired relevant training prior to entering the Ph.D. program, including native fluency in one modern Middle Eastern language. All of my NYU students, enjoyed either university or national scholarships which enabled them to carry out 12 to 24 months of foreign research..

Given the fact that improving the Time to Completion in Ph.D. programs can only be achieved by making important investments in relevant infrastructure and increasing student fellowship packages, the GSEC’s decision to reduce support for the Ph.D. across-the-board by one fifth (effectively offering Queen’s students 20% less training and support than other research universities) seems truly extraordinary. Do those who voted for a policy that is completely out of step with the norms of major Canadian and U.S. research universities believe that Queen’s surpasses them in the quality and quantity of the infrastructure (library, fellowships, number of faculty, courses) necessary for training and research, including what is required for new, international fields like Middle Eastern social scientific and humanities studies? It is true that certain Queen’s departments have recognized the need to hire in international fields and recruit international students. However, our infrastructure remains rudimentary at best and lags decades (and in the case of our library holdings for certain subjects, perhaps a century) behind other research universities. Consider the following:

  • After intensive lobbying on the part of students, the principal’s office and FAS funded the hiring of an Arabic instructor to teach two levels of modern, standard Arabic. However, FAS has lost overall foreign language capacity in the last decade, including its Russian instructor. Queen’s offers no advanced classes in Arabic, Chinese or Japanese. We still do not teach other Middle Eastern languages such as Turkish and Persian. As for the languages of more than a half billion of the world’s population such as Hindi, Urdu, Indonesian and Swahili, there are no plans, as far as I know, to add them to our curriculum. 
  • A late start in building, limited funds for purchasing new materials and the absence of acquisition librarians with training in non-Western fields means our secondary library collections in Middle Eastern (South and East Asian) topics remain vastly inferior to top-tier universities in Canada and, even, to many four-year institutions in the United States. Although we teach these languages, the library does not routinely buy books or subscribe to periodicals in Arabic, Chinese or Japanese. Publications or basic reference works in languages that are required by faculty specialisations are few and far between. 
  • No real effort has been made to address glaring inequities in research capacity for international fields. Neither the Graduate School nor Research Services has explored innovative solutions to facilitate student training in languages or compensate underserved faculty and graduate students through institutional advocacy and pro forma financial supplements to salary and stipends. One small example: Queen’s (unlike the universities in the GTA) has not reached an agreement with the University of Toronto libraries which would allow our faculty and graduate students free and direct access to their non-Western collections, much less provide us with travel funds.

Given these stark realities, the SGS’s new Time to Completion policy for many disciplines, is woefully out of touch with our needs and the practices of comparable universities. It is a blow to the reputation of our graduate programs and effectively negates the many sacrifices made by faculty to improve the quality of and support for graduate training in the humanities and social sciences generally, but especially for specializations requiring substantial international research. As for the impact of a scaled-back, seemingly “cost-effective” Ph.D. program on next year’s recruitment cycle, one need not wonder. Prominently emblazoned on the SGS website, the new policy sends an unambiguous message to the best, prospective applicants in my field: “If you seek a graduate program that aims at excellence, supports research-university standards of competence, and fully prepares its graduates to compete in national and international academic markets, apply elsewhere.”

Most Sincerely,
Ariel Salzmann,

Associate Professor, Islamic and World History Department of History, Queen’s University

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Professor Magda Lewis writes to Dean Brouwer

Brenda Brouwer
Vice Provost and Dean
School of Graduate Studies
Queen’s University
March 28, 2013

Dear Dr. Brouwer,
I join my colleagues and students who have expressed strong opposition to the new policy passed by the Graduate Studies Executive Council regarding the newly imposed completion times; two years for Masters students and four years for PhDs. My opposition is based on my experience. Over my twenty-five years at Queen’s University, I have supervised or am currently supervising a great many graduate students: 61 MA/MEd students and 15 PhD students. I have served or am currently serving on the supervisory committee of a further 22 MA/MEd students and 11 PhD students. The vast majority of these students continue to produce exceptional research and scholarship; and I can truly say that at the end of the day there is not one who did not produce meaningful graduate work of which they and I could be truly proud; even if the end-of-the-day comes later for some than for others. The vast majority of those who have earned their credentials have gone on to contribute significantly in academic positions, or high-level positions in other professional fields, with the knowledge and understanding that their studies, more than an exercise in credentialism, prepared them to engage difficult and important work.

The concern I add, to those already expressed by my colleagues, is about the quality of the credentials we offer students at this level of study and scholarship when their time to completion is increasingly shortened, the requirement to produce publications and participate in conference presentations is rising, and the need to teach or engage in other salary producing activity is not only essential but is unavoidable as it is tied to the graduate funding package.

My concern is about what is lost in exchange for the apparent economic gain driving these policy changes. Graduate education must be about acquiring deep understanding through rigorous study of the breadth and depth of the domains that articulate significant social, cultural, political and economic issues of our time, not only in the anticipated fields of the Humanities and Social Sciences, but importantly in the Natural Sciences, Applied Sciences, Health and Medicine, and Technology.

While it always ought to have been the case, at this historical moment of our collective lives globally we do not have the luxury to confer advanced credentials upon individuals, in whatever field of study, who have not been given adequate time and support to achieve the necessary depth of knowledge and understanding to deal with difficult and complex human, environmental, economic and other global issues. Unless we agree that Higher Education ought simply to be a commodity exchange, we do not have the luxury to tie credentials to revenue rather than to the rigorous intellectual accomplishments of student scholars; accomplishments that take time to achieve; accomplishments that ultimately must be measured in contributions to the public good, not in the acquisition of private value. The rhetoric of standards is empty when achieving deep levels of academic work through wide reading and focused thinking over an extended period of time is made impossible by policies, the interests of which appear to lie elsewhere.

I have no doubt that every sector, including Higher Education, is affected by the current pressures to replace integrity with efficiency and economic expediency, including the integrity of academic work; and “time” is a key factor in this. My long experience in the academy tells me that not only the work of students but also that of faculty suffers as a consequence. I am also certain that the pressures to succumb to these economic ideologies are often greater than our individual or collective ability to withstand them. Yet, withstand them we must, not for our own sakes necessarily but for the sake of the longer run, in which deeply important global decisions will have to be made by people who need as much time and support to ready themselves as possible.

The above point brings me to my final comment. It is deeply insulting, yet telling, that assurances of “grandfathering” those already in programmes is offered as a way of quelling anticipated outrage. Policy implementation based on the belief that all human motivation is driven by personal interest is deeply troubling. There are many who work hard to the end of their days, not because they will benefit personally from the fruits of their labours, but because they believe that a just world is possible beyond themselves. Suggesting that students currently in programmes will be quieted if the new policy does not affect them personally stands as an affront to those who have voiced their deep concerns on behalf of students not yet here.

I urge you to support the call for a reversion of this policy in the interest of academic integrity.

Sincerely yours,
Magda Lewis, PhD, Professor
Faculty of Education/Depts. of Sociology, Gender Studies and
Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies

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Award-winning professor writes to the Dean of Graduate Studies

Brenda Brouwer
Vice Provost and Dean
School of Graduate Studies
Queen’s University

Dear Professor Brouwer:

I am writing to register my strong opposition to the policy that is being imposed by the Graduate Studies Executive Committee regarding completion times for graduate students.I am currently on sabbatical and enjoying research time away from Queen’s. However this issue has broken through my isolation, and because I think its such a bad idea I am writing to you.

I have supervised 25 MA students to completion, and none of them took longer than two years. The vast majority, one year. I have supervised or co-supervised 11 doctoral students, with another 7 in progress. None of them have completed in 4 years. The vast majority takes 5 years. A few took 6. My experience is, I believe, in keeping with the norms of my discipline.

I won a Graduate Supervision award in 2007. So I am pretty sure I am, at least according to the students who nominated me, and you, (who chaired the selection committee that year), not doing such a bad job as supervisor. If I am doing an ok job – lets even say I am doing a good job – I can extrapolate and say with confidence and the wisdom of experience that, in general, it takes a history student 5 years to complete a PhD. Life’s circumstances can conspire to make some take longer. International graduate students, who are working within the limits of an ITA, by financial necessity only, take shorter.

Your new rules pathologize this. They make 4 years the norm, the pedagogy of which I have yet to see explained. They put the onus on those working in departments or disciplines for whom 5 years (or more) is normal to defend the norms of their discipline. This categorical change is damaging, and surprisingly un-collegial. The previous rules set a long timelines, within which individual disciplines could settle and follow their own norms. Setting 4 years as the norm, and 5 or more as the exception that needs accommodation (even as you invest departments with the authority to make this accommodation) sets a one-size-fits-all model, which does not reflect the reality of this university.

You must know that despite your assurances that they will be ‘grandfathered’ many Queen’s graduate students are currently tremendously upset about this. Rather than simply telling them that they personally won’t be implicated by these new rules, I urge you to listen to their concerns and act on them. Personally, I commend them for their sense of citizenship.

Karen Dubinsky
Professor, History/Global Development Studies

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University Affairs covers Queen’s time-to-completion changes

University Affairs has published the following article by Queen’s doctoral candidate Meaghan Frauts. While providing an overview of what has been implemented by the Queen’s School of Graduate Studies, it puts a spotlight on the gendered dimension these policies will have.

Queen’s plan to change its graduate policy needs more study
University Affairs, March 27 2013

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Media coverage: Radio-Canada

On March 18, Radio-Canada’s Téléjournal Ontario covered the time-to-completion and extensions issue at Queen’s University.

The story is in french and can be found sixteen minutes into the program.

Many thanks to Radio-Canada for covering this issue.

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