Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Commentary: NRC Survey

Every decade or so, a national survey is taken to assess quality of graduate programs, now under the auspices of the National Research Council. The evaluation forms for the third such survey have just been sent to randomly selected faculty. By good luck, I was chosen to receive the forms in 1981 and have gotten them again; but by that form of luck which is the residue either of design or of a mildly compulsive personality disorder, I still have a copy of the 1981 forms. Sometime next year, we will get the rankings, which we will (correctly) belittle and (correctly) scrutinize with great care, but some useful comparisons are possible already.

Alas, the quality of the data is seriously flawed, and only the broadest conclusions can be drawn. The survey forms include a listing of the current faculty in each Ph.D-granting department and the number of Ph.D.'s granted in the last x number of years (this time, apparently 6; last time, 5). But the listings are provided by the departments and like any information dependent on voluntary compliance, you get wild inaccuracies. So for example, the Princeton department shows eight members, four fewer than the department secretary tells me they in fact have this year; but another leading department shows no fewer than 14 full professors, but only five of them are primary appointments with voting rights in classics. The other nine are all members of the broader graduate field and listing them is a perfectly legitimate form of self-promotion, but when nobody at Princeton has thought to list Peter Brown or Alexander Nehamas, a seriously misleading impression is created. It's hard to be sure, but I think I detect other gaps and quirks in the listings. (I've been critical of the APA's voluntary-compliance survey of general information about graduate programs, but in general their listings of department faculty are fuller and more accurate.)

How many programs are there? In 1981, there were 35 Ph.D.-granting programs listed; this time around there are 29. Dropped from the list are Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Loyola-Chicago, Vanderbilt, Rutgers, and SUNY Buffalo, and added is UC-Santa Barbara; but from the APA guide I find of those only Missouri not listed as still offering the Ph.D., and in addition Arkansas, UC-Irvine, USC, Colorado, Georgia, Pittsburgh, Northwestern, CUNY do report offering the degree. There is nothing in the survey to indicate criteria for inclusion, and some departments with very few recent Ph.D.'s are indeed included.

This sector of the profession has not shrunk. In 1981, the faculty listed in the 35 institutions comprised 168 full professors, 101 associate, and 90 assistant, for a total of 359 souls. This time, with six fewer institutions, there are 212 full professsors, 74 associate, and 65 assistant, for a total of 351 souls. This suggests no loss in total strength, and perhaps a very modest gain.

The faculty is older: in 1981, full professors accounted for 46% of the total, now 60%, while assistants have dropped from 25% to 18%. The headlong rush to the egress that was forecast for the early 1990s seems to have been delayed a bit.

On number of Ph.D.'s granted, the numbers are a bit ambiguous: it would appear that the 1981 survey counted the previous five years, the 1993 survey the previous six. On that assumption, production 1976-80 amounted to 327 Ph.D.'s, or about 65 per year; while this time around, there are 270 Ph.D.'s reported for 6 years, or about 45 a year. If indeed behind a too-casually stated figure, they mean to report five years' numbers now, the per-year figure goes up to 54, a modest rather than a sharp decline.

Perhaps the numbers can be taken one step further, but again, this is shaky ground.

If in 1981 there were 90 assistant professors in these institutions, about 15 a year overall had been appointed over the preceding 6 years (dividing by six assumes that seventh-year assistant professors are more or less balanced out by those who got early tenure or an early boot). If now there are 65, then intake has dropped to about 10 per year. Thus in both cases about 25% of the institutions' total output was absorbed back into these elite institutions. Roughly 75% of classics Ph.D.'s will not be teaching Ph.D. candidates: we should listen to what that tells us about what kind of candidate we should be producing.

Now we must not make these into absolute numbers and be very careful comparing them with anything else. It is tempting to take the APA Placement List and think that if it tells us true that there really have been 80 or 100 jobs to be had per year, then a 45/year Ph.D. production rate is hardly enough to keep us alive -- so is there really a huge backlog we are slowly working through? If so, we may suddenly find ourselves short some year soon; but such a fear goes sharply against our intuitive sense that things are tough and not improving much and in fact the data can't support us that far. History and archaeology programs and their products are represented here erratically, and the gross number is certainly larger, though perhaps the safe conclusion is just that we are almost certainly not over-producing just now. We don't know that we will face a shortage soon, but we don't know that we won't; we just don't know. No wonder (a) there is not even the roughest possible coordination between production and consumption and (b) we remain so much in the dark as to even the size of the problem. I have pushed my nose into everything looking like a set of data that can help assess this problem in the last decade, and the one clear result is that no clear picture emerges.

(Here is the place to interject one other piece of information. The Classical World directories of classicists are a trove of prosopographical information. The mid-1980s version seemed to suggest an interesting pattern: that the job crunch of the early 70s was a result more of sudden and gross overproduction in the late 60s than of contraction; that though the crunch was felt in the early 70s (before my time, but the Dec. 1971 APA meeting is said to be the moment when everybody awoke to a pail of ice water in the face), the single largest Jahrgang represented in the directory was precisely the 1972 Ph.D.'s. Those people did in fact get jobs, it just took longer and the jobs weren't quite as tasty. The years that produced the fewest Ph.D.'s who made it into academic jobs were the late1970s. The mid-1980s directory suggested that recovery was under way, and in fact a sampling of the 1992 directory confirms that. Plotted as a chart, there would be more and more Ph.D.'s still in the profession from each year from the 50s through 1972, then a slight drop for two years, then a real drop for about five years, then a stagger back up to about halfway between the peak and valley. It's too soon to tell from the latest directory with any accuracy, but the last few years show at best steady state, and perhaps suggest a drop-off imminent -- good figures for the last five years mean nothing, because there is no telling which of those lucky young will be lucky five years from now. The figures only get really useful for people ten and more years out.)

And one point only about the evaluations proper. Just one department got straight A's (distinguished faculty, well-known, highly effective program, and improved over the last five years) from me -- perhaps because the form came just as I was finishing my course grades for the spring term resolute in the struggle against grade inflation. But the winning department is one which is often said on the street to be about two to five years past its prime, to have some problems that aren't being addressed aggressively enough. I don't see any department here that is booming, exciting, or buzzing with coherent activity. I'm not sure what I expected, but I went away having a long talk with myself about where I would go to graduate school if I were young today ...