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My profession’s core challenge — transforming Ph.D. programs, especially in the humanities, to address twenty-first century needs — remains a matter of concern.

We initiate prospective faculty members into a culture of snobbism and hierarchy. Then we wonder why these faculty resist change, instead demonstrating a continued reluctance to teach first-year students and continuing to separate research interests from innovative teaching.

Universities, policymakers and the general public should call for major changes in Ph.D. preparation. The current situation is untenable, and it is at the core of most problems at U.S. colleges.

Related: Ivy League degree: Now what?

If traditional liberal arts colleges do not make sufficient efforts to  accommodate the “new majority” of first-generation college students, students of color, adults and veterans, then many will be in danger of closing.

If universities depend on part-time teachers — the most underpaid and overworked — to lead transformative first-year courses, then we will undoubtedly see high dropout rates.

If we value only traditional research and devalue interdisciplinary investigations focused on these new majority students, then we will lack the knowledge to move forward.

Beyond these human challenges, the status quo negatively affects higher education’s business plan. We invest considerable resources in recruiting first-year students. Not only does society lose when we do not retain those students, the university loses on its financial investment.

Related: Impatient with universities’ slow pace of change, employers go around them

I’ll focus on my own field — English — not only because it’s the area I know best, but also because nearly every college student in the nation is required to take or acquire credit for courses in English composition.

Here are four suggestions:

  • Connect teaching and research in Ph.D. preparation, with graduate faculty members modelling excellent teaching in first-year courses and research on first-year students.
  • Integrate into graduate preparation knowledge about the history, philosophy and culture of U.S. higher education. It’s an inspiring story, from Jefferson to the G.I. Bill to the community college movement.
  • Acculturate future faculty members to be proud of employment at comprehensive public universities and community colleges, rather than making them think that anything other than a flagship or Ivy League university is a kind of failure.
  • Stamp out what I call “The Maimon Hierarchical Fallacy,” assuming that those who teach graduate students must be smarter than those who teach freshmen, and that a professor’s self-worth is dependent on what U.S. News & World Report says about the most “prestigious” institutions (i.e., the institutions that reject the most students).

I was lucky in my own Ph.D. preparation in English at the University of Pennsylvania. I was selected for a highly structured four-year program that integrated research and teaching. The program was funded by the National Defense Education Act because in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was considered to be in the national interest to prepare more English professors. It should still be. In the 1980s, my alma mater experimented with English composition teams led by senior graduate professors, all teaching sections of freshman composition and all meeting to discuss both research and teaching practice.

Where are those programs today?

The Modern Language Association (MLA), the national organization for English and foreign language professors, has established committees and published reports on the diminishing number of jobs for English professors. The MLA’s proposed solution? Help English Ph.D.s find jobs in business, industry and government.

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The MLA should stop protecting traditional Ph.D. programs and call for real reform that would prepare English Ph.D.s for jobs at enlightened liberal arts colleges, community colleges and comprehensive public universities like Governors State University (GSU), where I am president.

At Governors State, only full-time faculty teach freshmen. English composition faculty members collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines to do outstanding research on topics like cultivating community for first-year students. Even during the Illinois budget crisis, GSU continued to hire tenure-track, full-time faculty members, who had broken through the hierarchical fallacy.

Until more Ph.D. programs respond to these calls for reform, we must invest in preparing current faculty members to rethink priorities and to apply their considerable skills to educating the new majority. In general, I call on policymakers to focus their efforts on this kind of transformation.

I’ve observed that well-meaning education activists think that reform can be legislated. We should remember that Washington, D.C., and state capitals are far from the nation’s college classrooms — and it is in those classrooms that transformations will, or will not, occur.

Elaine Maimon is president of Governors State University, a member of the American Council on Education executive board, a founder of Writing Across the Curriculum, and the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation (2018).

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