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In reversal, history adds grad class

After voting not to have an entering graduate class last semester due to insufficient funds, the history department has reversed its decision and will admit a class, albeit a smaller-than-usual one of four or five students.

The department's problem stemmed from admitting too many students over the last three years, said Ron Witt, history professor and director of graduate studies. Departments are able to cut expenditures when graduate students drop out, study abroad or opt to obtain a master's degree rather than a doctorate-departures that are expected with every class. However, fewer departures than were expected occurred this year, leaving the history department overextended.

"It's always a game because the amount of money you actually have is never equivalent to the number of students you have in-course," Witt said. "We were playing that game--and every department does that--and I guess we just played it badly."

The department's smaller incoming class comes at a time when its applicant pool is strong, said Dean of the Graduate School Lewis Siegel.

"The thing that should be realized is that there aren't any fewer graduate students [applying]," Siegel said. "The students [the history department] would've taken in this year, [they've] already taken in."

John Thompson, chair of the history department, said the department has typically accepted 12 to 14 graduate students every year.

Upon realizing they had enough money for only two graduate fellowships for next year, the history faculty voted not to take any students, reasoning that it would be a waste of manpower and a disservice to the students to admit a two-person class.

At that point, the Graduate School stepped in and increased the acceptable number of history fellowships to four, a number with which the department agreed. A fifth student may be admitted "if there's someone to pay their own way," Witt said.

This year's crunch underscores a continual problem of funding for the history department and its students, who traditionally take a longer time to complete their doctorates than do students in other departments. The national average for earning a doctorate in history is nine years. The average at Duke is seven--still making the history program one of the lengthiest at the University.

"Either every historian in the country is a slacker, or it takes a little longer to become a historian," Thompson said.

Others, including Witt, attributed the longer program requirements to having to learn foreign languages for some research and to the fact that the department formerly did not grant fellowships to all its students.

Witt said the Graduate School does not take the lengthy requirements of history into account, doling out a fixed number of fellowships for each department and employing what he called a "one-size-fits-all" funding strategy.

Thompson said he has protested this policy vigorously to the administration, but to no avail. "How many times can you march the light brigade into the cannons?" he asked. "I don't think anybody in the Allen Building is listening."

Instead, the history department is trying to reduce the time needed to obtain a doctorate. Last year, it reduced the number of course requirements, with the expectation that students would complete them earlier and move on to research.

"I just noticed in the students of the last few years, there's a lot more hustle and bustle," said Witt, who admitted that, in the past, students would occasionally take over 10 years to earn a doctorate.

The history department's lack of funds is shared by other departments in the humanities and social sciences. Siegel said sociology and philosophy will also admit smaller classes this year.

Thompson noted that the Graduate School itself is struggling financially. "Rich people just don't want to give to graduate students, I guess."

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