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UNC’s history department suspends graduate program admissions for fall 2021 cycle

Pauli Murray Hall, previously known as Hamilton Hall, houses UNC's history department, among other social sciences. The building, pictured here on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, was recently renamed after civil rights activist Pauli Murray.

UNC's history department will not accept applications for its graduate program for the 2021 cycle, it announced Sept. 14. 

The department’s official statement on its website said the decision “was not an easy one” but “the most responsible course of action.” 

“In order to ensure that the department has resources to adequately support its educational mission during the COVID-19 pandemic, we will hold off on bringing new entrants to the program until 2022,” the department stated. 

Lisa Lindsay, the chairperson of the history department, said that during a faculty retreat on Sep. 11, 31 faculty members from the department participated in a discussion about whether to shutter the graduate program. 

The final decision was the culmination of years of issues with the department’s funding model and the University's potential loss of $300 million due to the pandemic, Lindsay said. 

The graduate program is fully funded from the history department’s instructional budget, Lindsay said, and the instructional budget is funded in two ways: allocations from the University and buyout money from history faculty receiving external grants.

“Whenever a faculty member gets an outside grant to support a year of research, the college allocates money for us to hire a replacement instructor,” Lindsay said. 

But this buyout money — intended to be used to hire a replacement instructor — is used to substantiate the remaining half of the graduate students’ budget “on a regular basis” because of the department’s overall budget constraints, Lindsay said. 

The onslaught of COVID-19 then added extra pressures to the department’s typical budget concerns, said Fitz Brundage, a William Umstead distinguished professor within the history department and previous chairperson. 

The question of how to balance the department’s outgoing class of students with an incoming class was incredibly daunting, Brundage said. 

“The model for graduate funding at UNC is not a model that I think anyone would have picked,” Brundage said. “The logic behind not taking a class next year is that it will help us deal with the severe budget constraints that are going to be worse than normal because of the COVID-related costs, and it will also allow us to, perhaps, help the funding for our ongoing students.” 

Most graduate students receive their funding from being teaching assistants — which already created extra time and financial pressures pre-COVID-19 for graduate students, said Chad Bryant, acting chairperson of graduate studies within the history department. 

Alexandra Odom is a fourth-year graduate student at UNC studying African American history who said she has two jobs and two departmental appointments — not including being a teaching assistant. 

She said she understands why prospective students may be upset about the department’s decision, but that the decision was pragmatic. 

“Our department has made it clear to us that the amount of money they get to fund us isn’t their decision, and that they would like to pay us more,” Odom said. “So I feel like if the alternative is being financially stretched because they can’t support everyone in the department … I don’t think it’s fair to admit people and put them in that situation.” 

First-year graduate students are more expensive in general, Odom said, because in order to qualify for in-state tuition rates, they must have maintained a North Carolina residency for one year. 

Sheena Hayes, a master's student in library and information science at the University of Illinois, planned to apply to UNC’s history department as a doctoral candidate because of its renown and tailoring to her interest in the historical influence of institutions of memory. 

But UNC is not the only university to close off graduate applications, as history departments at schools including Cornell, Brown, NYU, Stanford and Rice have announced plans similar to UNC’s. 

“It’s a really specific field of interest, especially when finding advising faculty that you could work with,” Hayes said. “That’s one of the reasons why it's disheartening for Brown, Cornell and UNC, because those are places where I would have the potential to have an advisor with that particular expertise.” 

But Hayes said the larger and established structural issues within humanities funding in higher education makes the decision unsurprising. 

“I mean, it’s unfortunate for me, but I think it’s a good decision and a responsible decision for the students they already have,” Hayes said. 

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Additionally, an ongoing trend of job insecurity for people with Ph.D.s in the humanities made the decision unsurprising, but still disappointing, to Andrew Miles, a master’s student in history at James Madison University who planned to apply as a doctoral candidate to UNC’s history department. 

“The job market for historians is really bad,” Miles said. “So it’s probably important to get some of those numbers down ... so on the whole, I understand it, but it’s kind of frustrating when you’re the person who gets bumped.”  

Miles said he believes that higher-education state budget cuts that originate from the 2008 recession have remained in place, which harms the funding of the humanities. 

“They’ve never gone back to that pre-recession funding, and so for the past 10 years or more, there’s been a struggle trying to get all of that funding back into the humanities,” Miles said. 

In an email to The Daily Tar Heel, Geneva Collins, director of communications for the College of Arts & Sciences, said the history department is the only department within the college that has made the decision to close its graduate program for the 2021 cycle. 

"We are unaware of other departments preparing to take this step," Collins said in the email. 

But Lindsay said the history department most likely won’t be alone in its decision. 

“These considerations are underway in other departments,” she said. “It just so happens that we jumped first, because we've already started receiving admission applications from prospective graduate students.” 

National decisions and UNC’s decision to shutter its graduate history programs for the 2021 cycle are symptomatic of a larger question, Odom said. 

“Where are universities putting their money?” Odom said. “What are the things the University finds expendable ... and what are the things the University said were non-negotiable?”