UT Austin Graduate Students Against the Clock: Why we oppose the 6 year employment/ time cap


Downsizing the College of Liberal Arts

The College of Liberal Arts (CoLA) at the University of Texas at Austin is being downsized. A report issued by the college from October 2012 announced the goal of reducing full-time faculty from 567 (in 2010) to 491 by 2016-2017 (the number has reportedly gone down even further). The same report also puts forth a goal of reducing the amount of graduate students in CoLA to 1300 primarily through reductions in cohort size [1]. A recent public statement by CoLA states “The College had 1,893 graduate students in 1990. By 2000, the number dropped to 1,572 and by spring 2014 to 1,354. We will continue our effort to reduce our graduate student population in the upcoming years” [2]. In an interview with representatives of the Graduate Student Assembly, the associate Dean of CoLA, Dr. Raizen, maintained that there was no plan to reduce the amount of undergraduate courses taught in CoLA despite the decrease in graduate student TA and AI positions, and in fact, that the amount of undergraduate students might increase, continuing a trend across the University [3].

A few years ago, reduction in cohort size was put forth as the primary mechanism for reducing the amount of graduate students [1]. In an interview with the Daily Texan on tuition increases for graduate students, Dean Raizen stated “…we can’t reduce the number of TAs or AIs. In the absence of additional funding, reduced student cohorts are the only means by which we can increase our student support and remain competitive.” [4]. However, at the end of April of this year (2014), CoLA administrators announced a new innovative policy that would flush out the amount of graduate students in CoLA even quicker- a 6 year time to degree/employment limit. The policy is not just meant for incoming students but for all graduate students currently in CoLA despite contradicting the graduate calendars under which these students entered [5], resulting in frantic work speed ups for some and panic attacks for others. In response graduate students in the department of American Studies and English have signed petitions (the former being unanimous) to CoLA against the policy, and other departments (Philosophy, History, Anthropology, Linguistics, Sociology) are drafting letters [6].

CoLA’s narrative

Administrators at the College of Liberal Arts have constructed a narrative.to justify the sudden introduction of this policy initiative. The combination of overly long time to degree and low stipends puts graduate students in “a precarious financial position that often involves the accumulation of debt and may have life-long adverse consequences” [4]. That is why CoLA plans to use the increase in money from the decrease in positions to increase stipends for (enrolled or incoming?) graduate students. CoLA’s research report from 2012 also points out that this will result in the recruitment of higher quality students [1]. This is the best possible option given the fact that CoLA’s funding has been flat for years and is likely to remain flat. Furthermore shorter time-to-degree is an “important indicator of program quality and student success”, and an important metric in national rankings. CoLA’s efforts to reduce time-to-degree should come as no surprise. In a letter sent in response to a unanimously signed petition from graduate students of American Studies, the Dean of Graduate Studies, Judith Langlois states;

“The College of Liberal Arts [sic] efforts to reduce time-to-degree are consistent with efforts across the University and across academia nationwide. The proposed limits on candidacy and funding are legitimate approaches to encouraging degree completion in an increasingly efficient fashion” [7]

There are a number of problems with this narrative. While it is true that there is a significant national discussion on decreasing time-to-degree, nowhere in the literature on this topic is it recommended that College level administrators should impose strict time-to-degree restrictions on departments. While a recent report (May 2014) put out by the Modern Language Association, argues that time-to-degree could be reduced to an average of five years, the report emphasizes the initiative of departments in achieving this task [8]. There are also a number of other areas where CoLA administration’s new policy suggestion contradicts recommendations of the MLA report- these are reviewed below.

Actually understanding why time-to-degree is so long for CoLA graduate students is presumably important in dealing with the problem. But CoLA administrators have offered no explanation in this regard. We are left to wonder whether the reason is that departments in CoLA are simply misbehaving and need to be put in place by higher administration. When one considers the probable causes of increasing time-to-degree in CoLA, however, it is clear that regarding the well-being and success of graduate students, the policy will exacerbate the problems it purports to address.

Problem 1: More work and less people

The justification ostensibly ignores the fact that graduate student labor as TAs and AIs is important for teaching (not to mention tuition revenue). CoLA somehow expects departments to teach more with less labor while graduate students finish their degrees faster [8]. The “position paper” makes reference to the need to increase stipends by $4,500. There are currently over 800 graduate students employed as teacher’s assistants or assistant instructors and funding for CoLA is currently flat (decreasing when one takes inflation into account). Assuming all of the money from the elimination of graduate student positions will go into stipend increases ($4,500 for each student per year) there would need to be roughly a 24% reduction (to 603) in TA and AI positions in CoLA.

How this labor is going to be made up has not been made clear as there are no plans to decrease the amount of courses in the College. When Dean Raizen was asked about this issue by members of the Graduate Student Assembly, she stated that the amount of undergraduate students in CoLA may actually continue increasing, following University wide trends (as reported by the Daily Texan [9]).

From the Daily Texan, 2013

From the Daily Texan, 2013


One of the key reasons why time-to-degree is so long for graduate students is that it is contingent on employment. Obviously if graduate students did not have to teach as much they would be able to finish their degrees faster. However, this problem is not being seriously dealt with by CoLA’s policy initiative as they pretend that stipends amount to free funding not tied to the University’s labor needs nor tuition revenue. In other words, one of the key problems that produces lengthy time-to-degree (graduate student workload), will be exacerbated by the policy.

It is important to keep in mind that despite the fact that the time-to-degree policy will be implemented without exception for the year 2016-2017, there is no such guarantee for the increase in stipends. There has been no announcement of a date when stipends will definitely increase. CoLA announced in 2010 that it would increase graduate student stipends to $20,000 by 2013-2014 but this never materialized [1]. Those students who are most adversely effected by the proposal, those students who came in under a good faith understanding that they had a longer amount of time, are not going to be the beneficiaries of this policy.

Problem 2: Academic placement in a tough “job market” 

It is because graduate students face a “tough job market” that time-to-degree is long. The MLA report mentions a “contraction in the job market”. It is important to point out that this the result in a decrease for decently paid tenure track positions and that is not the result of a decrease in the demand for Humanities [11]. Rather, the contraction is more accurately referred to as “supply constraint” imposed by University administrations across the country, resulting in a lower professor per student ratio [12] and a proliferation of low paid adjunct positions [13]. The MLA report states “In 1975 70% of the faculty held full-time positions and well over half held tenure or were on the tenure track; today half of the faculty hold a part-time appointment, and only 29.8% hold tenure or are on the tenure track” [11].

The contraction of the “job market” for tenure track positions is plausibly responsible for an increase in time to degree. If there are fewer academic positions, this pushes up competition between departments to produce increasingly qualified graduate students,which require an increasing amount of time to produce. Many graduate students in the humanities are now not only expected to have produced a book length dissertation, but to have publications upon graduation. Lack of these qualifications leads to decreased likelihood of job placement or decently paid and secure job placement.

As a consequence of the strict time to degree policy academic placement is likely to decline, due to a rushed thesis, and reduced publications upon graduation. It is precisely because graduate students face a harsh labor market that the policy is questionable.

The MLA report emphasizes the importance of this issue stating that colleges and departments have a commitment to increasing employment opportunities; “It is …in the interest of our fields to advocate vigorously for both more tenure-track positions and improved working conditions for non-tenure-track faculty members” [13]. In contrast CoLA is reducing the amount of tenure track positions.

The apparent justification for the 6 year limit policy, that it is being implemented to alleviate the precarious financial situation of graduate students, is highly disingenuous as the policy initiative does not address one of the main causes of graduate student financial burdens. CoLA administrators are implementing two policies that worsen the problem they purport to address. The policy will make academic placement more difficult by reducing the qualifications of graduate students upon graduation, and CoLA administrators are, at the same time,  following a national trend to reduce opportunities for academic placement in general.

Deans should advocate not capitulate

The main issue underlying much of these problems for CoLA is flat funding over the years. CoLA administrators, who are tasked among other things with improving graduate programs in the college feel they have come up with a reasonable solution to the problems of the college. CoLA administration feels they are losing qualified applicants because funding is not competitive with peer institutions, and so they have proposed to reduce the graduate student work force, in order to get “the best graduate students”. If they are serious about their concern for the precarious financial situation of graduate students, however, continuing the policies that graduate students entered their programs under is the best possible answer. The current situation is still sustainable, and problems with recruiting the “best graduate students” have to be weighed against the adverse side-effects of such a plan. And anyway, slightly more expensive packages do not necessarily result in better programs as the CoLA research paper suggests;

“Absent major success in fundraising for graduate students, this will mean a significantly smaller number of offers, an outcome that with time may run contrary to our goal of recruiting and supporting the very best applicants.” p. 18 [1]

The question that this issue should prompt everyone to ask is “why is the funding of CoLA declining?”. The Deans admit that the amount of tuition revenue brought in by CoLA is increasing and is likely to continue to increase. Although there has been some dips in state appropriations, overall the funds for UT Austin from the Available University Fund, Tuition and Student Fees and State Appropriations has been increasing at a rate of $15.95 million per year (adjusted for inflation to 2014) (see data and graphs in appendix). A recent article in The Dallas Morning News called “Oil boom sends gusher of cash to Texas Universities” (May 31, 2014) refers the growth of the Permanent University Fund and the concomitant increase in funding for the UT System, but apparently this money is not meant for us.

“ ‘It’s a huge game changer and is something that no other university system has to this extent,’ said James Huffines, a Dallas bank executive and University of Texas booster, who sat on the UT Board of Regents until 2010. ‘Just look around the campuses at all the new construction. A lot of it is supported by oil money, and those royalty payments should keep growing.’” [14]

Rather than acting as harbingers of austerity and work speed ups for graduate students, the Deans should be questioning why “we[!?] face diminishing resources” [2] in CoLA, while we are expected to bring in more funds for the University as a whole and while “Texas enjoys an enviable position in public higher education” due to its booming Permanent University Fund [14].



[1]     College of Liberal Arts, University of Texas at Austin. 2012. “Research Report”. October 2012. p. 8 for faculty, p. 17 for graduate students.

COLA Strategic Plan Oct 2012 final

In fact recent discussions with department chairs have suggested that the number will reduce to 450, although this has not been announced officially.

[2] http://www.utexas.edu/cola/research/news/8030

[3] The recent trend of decreasing graduate student enrollment while increasing undergraduate enrollment was reported by the Daily Texan.

UT Graduate programs attempt to offset decreases in funding for fellowships, TAs, AIs. The Daily Texan (Andrew Messamore), Feb. 14, 2013.


[4]  UT Graduate programs attempt to offset decreases in funding for fellowships, TAs, AIs. The Daily Texan (Andrew Messamore), Feb. 14, 2013.


[5]  See the blog posts and petitions by the American Studies Department, an article in the Daily Texan and the posts by the Graduate Student Assembly on the time to degree limits for more information.

The American Studies Blog:



The Graduate Student Assembly:


The Daily Texan:


It is important to point out that the policy alleges to support 7 years of funding in some circumstances. One of these circumstances might be in cases of external funding. The administration has refused to simply grandfather in students who came in under a different calendar, however.

[6]     American Studies:       http://utamsgrad.wordpress.com/our-petition/

English:                     English CoLA letter May 2014

Others are forthcoming.

[7]                langlois_061014 (2)

[8]                    The Modern Language Association of America. 2014. Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature. Web publication; May 2014. p. 15.


The MLA report states;

“Departments should design programs that can be completed in five years from entry into a doctoral program with a bachelor’s degree as the highest degree attained. If departments change the structure of the curriculum and examinations, articulate and monitor a reasonable scope and time frame for the dissertation project, design a careful mentoring process, and provide sufficient financial support to allow students to progress appropriately, a five-year doctorate ought to be achievable”. p. 15

For a critique of the Modern Language Association Report see;

Inside Higher Ed. “Don’t Capitulate. Advocate.” June 24, 2014.


[9]   The labor aspect was completely ignored in Daily Texan coverage. On Cobler’s account its not entirely clear that graduate students are even employed by The University of Texas at all.

“College of Liberal Arts policy change to stop graduate student funding after sixth year”, The Daily Texan May 21, 2014.


[10]      The Daily Texan. “UT graduate programs attempt to offset decreases in funding”, February 14, 2013.


[11] The MLA report is clear on this question. In a footnote it is stated

“Beginning in the mid- 1990s and continuing until 2008, the annual number of PhDs awarded in English hovered around 1,000, and in languages other than English around 600. Each of these numbers is about one- third lower than the high of 1973 for English (1,412) and 1974 for other languages (886). The number of national searches advertised—for all types of positions—has varied, but before 2008 the count was well above 1,500 positions in En glish and above 1,300 for other languages, both figures that compared positively with the number of new PhD holders. Yet it is crucial to remember that, as noted, these national searches involved all types of positions (e.g., term visiting positions) and by no means only tenure- track openings.” p. 20


[12]      This issue is discussed in numerous publications and articles but perhaps the most famous is Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty (2011, Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[13]      Bousquet, Marc. 2008. How The University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. New York: New York University Press.

[14]      The Dallas Morning News May 31, 2014. “Oil boom sends gusher of cash to Texas Universities”.



The data on which these statistics are based can be found here. All numbers are inflation adjusted to 2014 (email jameswoodsworth@yahoo.com if you have questions about these data).

UT Budget data 6 26 2014

State appropriations have declined in recent years, but overall they are flat. The following is inflation adjusted state appropriations from 1985 to 2014. State appropriations have declined approximately $500,000 a year, but this decline is not statistically significant (p=.549). Data were gathered from the Texas Legislative Library.

State appropriations

Tuition and fee revenue has increased 27.4 times faster than state appropriations, given the data available to me. Tuition and fees revenue has increased at an average rate of $15,435,000 per year. In the following chart the red is tuition and fees revenue, the blue is state appropriations.

appropriations and tuition

The following charts the Available University Fund money that has been directed to UT Austin from 2004 until 2013. There has been an average increase of $8.55 million per year (p=0.000637).


Total public funds when all of these sources are combined show an increase in $15.95 million on average per year from 2004 until 2013.

total funds UT



One thought on “UT Austin Graduate Students Against the Clock: Why we oppose the 6 year employment/ time cap

  1. Pingback: Cuando la torre de marfil se estrella contra la realidad: “The lost generation of humanists”

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