Why I Didn't Go to Graduate School

Kate Hawkins


Good morning.  Before I begin, I'd like to take a moment to extend my sincere thanks to all of you for making the journey to Birmingham for this convention. We live in very uncertain, if not perilous times and I know that many of you might prefer to be with your families right now rather than hundreds of miles away.  I also know that given the financial emergency faced by many colleges and universities, many of you are paying for the costs of convention participation out of your own personal funds.  I want you to know how much I personally appreciate the sacrifice you made to be here today.
As many of you can personally attest, these are very difficult financial times for all of us in higher education.  According to the most recent issue of the Almanac of the Chronicle of Higher Education, 32 of 50 states reduced or held constant appropriations for the current fiscal year (chronicle.com/weekly/almanac/2002/nation/0102001.htm).  This followed a year where 64% of state legislatures made mid-year reductions in funding to colleges and universities.  Many schools responded to these cuts by raising tuition for students.  Thirty-three states increased public college tuition by more than 5% this fiscal year. 
Simultaneously, 20 states cut or held constant state-based financial aid for students.  Of those 20 states, 14 had also increased their tuition by more than 5%, leaving students with a double hardship. 
No wonder a recent report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education refers to this as "the worst fiscal news for higher-education institutions and their students in at least a decade." 
Patrick Callan, president of the center, called the compounding of budget cuts and tuition increases an "assault on higher education."  The report goes on to predict that the ongoing recession and the threat (now the reality) of war will lead to a worsening of the current fiscal crisis visiting higher education (chronicle.com/daily/2003/02/2003021104n.htm).  
Things are, indeed, tough all over.
Some have argued that one way to mitigate this situation is to seek external funding for higher education, whether it be from the federal government, private foundations or business and industry.  We've heard speeches about it, we've read about it in the pages of Spectra and if you happen to subscribe to the Journal of Applied Communication Research, one of NCA's flagship journals, you may have just read an entire special forum devoted to the subject.
While it is undeniable that there are benefits associated with external funding, there are also legitimate concerns that must be addressed.  Specifically, I fear that the unbridled pursuit of external funding has the potential to narrow our discipline's focus, may threaten our academic freedom and may do harm to our students.  In the next few minutes, I'll address each of these concerns in more detail.   
Some of you may wonder how it is that I feel competent to address this issue.  In addition to my own investigation of the topic, I've had the good fortune over the past two years to manage over five million dollars in grants from the Kansas Health Foundation supporting projects that address children's health.  So, I do know whereof I speak.
Before I discuss my concerns with external funding for higher education, there are a couple of terms with which you will need to become acquainted:  indirect costs and course buyouts.  Indirect costs are those funds given by the granter to the institution for which the grantee works.  These rates are negotiable, but may run as high as 50% for federal grants.  So, for example, imagine you win a one million dollar grant from the federal government.  In addition to that one million dollars, your home institution receives $500,000  more in indirect cost support.  This support is used to pay for what one  might call "overhead" and includes electricity, telephones, supplies, support staff and the like.  That money can go a long way toward making ends meet during lean times such as these.  Typically, foundations provide less than 50% of the total grant for indirect costs and business and industry may not provide any indirect cost support at all.
Our next term is course buyout.  Frequently, funds are built into a grant to "buyout" the time of the principal investigators.  While this may be time they already devoted to their research, it is quite often the case that funds are used to buyout classroom teaching time.  That is, the faculty member is released from one or more classes to work on the funded project.  Imagine a faculty member whose salary is $48,000 for nine months.  The faculty member is expected to teach a 3/3 load and conduct research.  Buyout time for this faculty member would typically be $6000 plus fringe benefits, conservatively estimated at $1500,  making each course bought out worth $7500 to the home institution.
Many institutions hire adjunct instructors to teach in the place of the bought-out faculty member.  As we all know, adjunct instructors are the most poorly paid of faculty members.  For example, at Wichita State University, we pay approximately $1600 per section for an adjunct instructor.  Fringe benefits are virtually nonexistent for them, so the university pockets the difference between the $7500 in buyout money and whatever fraction of that amount is paid to the adjunct instructor.  Multiply that by several sections over several semesters and before long, you're talking about real money.  According to Nancy Harrington, chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Kentucky, "...leftover salary savings can provide exceptional opportunity and flexibility for department development" including faculty travel, purchase of books and videos, support for graduate research assistants and so on (2002, p. 400).
In short, indirect cost support and course buyouts mean significant contributions to a university's bottom line.  As you can imagine, this can be extremely seductive to universities facing severe financial crisis.  In fact, Nancy Harrington writes, "...obtaining extramural funding is almost necessary for survival in today's academy" (2002, p. 394).  The danger is that we may be so intoxicated by the possible benefits of external funding that we become blinded to the potential risks, which I will now address.
First, I fear that a potential consequence of seeking external funding for higher education is that the focus of our discipline may narrow.  Our discipline has a proud tradition the encompasses both the social sciences and the humanities.  In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics lists 26 broad and specific areas of communication research (Reinard, 2001).  Unfortunately, these 26 areas are not created equal in the eyes of funders.  Specifically, Giroux (2002) argues that "As large amounts of corporate capital flow into the universities, those areas of study in the university that don't translate into substantial profits get either marginalized, underfunded, or eliminated" (p. 434).  According to Giroux, one such area is the humanities. 
Jim Applegate (2002), a past president of the National Communication Association, encourages us to conduct engaged research, at least in part because external funding exists to support it.  He goes on to observe that while funding opportunities exist for what he calls curiosity-driven research, "Other forms offer greater potential for building a strong funding base in this discipline" (p. 406).  Specifically, he identifies "health communication, political communication, communication technology and other engaged research programs" as major funding areas (p. 409).  While these are significant and growing areas of our discipline, they certainly aren't the only areas of communication pedagogy and scholarship. 
In summary, I'm concerned that one potential risk of excessive dependence on external funding is that those areas of communication teaching and research more closely associated with the humanities tradition may be de-emphasized.  In addition, even within the social sciences, some areas of pedagogy and scholarship may be privileged over others not as highly regarded by funders.  If this is the case, then a danger exists that the focus of our discipline may narrow to those most likely to secure extramural funding.
A second area of concern is the potential threat to faculty members' academic freedom.  We all know that academic freedom is much more than mere license to indulge our intellectual curiosity at state expense.  Rather, Giroux (2002) argues that we must recognize "that academic freedom implies that knowledge has a critical function, that unpopular and critical intellectual inquiry should be safeguarded and treated as an important social asset" (pp. 443-444).  Therefore, any mechanism that undermines academic freedom should be viewed with great caution.  I believe that to the extent that we choose our research based on its attractiveness to extramural funders, then we have come dangerously close to surrendering our academic freedom. 
For example, Giroux (2002) argues that corporations often demand control over the very research they support, including censoring research reports and refusing to allow publication of proprietary information.  Brown (2002) cautions that one of the dangers of accepting research contracts from corporations is that they may threaten to cut off funding if the results are not to their liking.  Dearing and Larson (2002) observe that private foundations may have obligatory areas of emphasis and geographical foci that limit their funding flexibility, such that if you want them to support your work, your research focus must be consistent with their strategic funding priorities.  Hecht and Parrot (2002) observe that some faculty feel that funded research may be corruptive in that "it shapes the research agenda in the direction of government or industrial interests" (p. 388).  These are all ways in which the funders' agenda has the potential to constrain academic freedom. 
We've discussed external pressure on faculty members, but what about internal pressures?  Hecht and Parrott (2002), in their article describing how to create a department culture for communication grants, explain that "we are not saying that anyone should adjust their research to get grants, only that they can" (p. 384).  This sentiment is echoed by several others published in the JACR special issue on funded research.  Still, imagine you're a new Assistant Professor and your university leadership encourages faculty to find ways to attract extramural funding and that those who do so will be rewarded.  If you can make changes in your research agenda to attract funding, might you not somehow feel that you should?  I'm not saying the pressure is intentional, but I am suggesting that the potential for perceived pressure is real, particularly for junior or probationary faculty.
In short, it's possible that the quest for extramural funding may create both external and internal pressures on faculty that constrain their perception of academic freedom.  In such an environment, research agendas that don't have what Snyder and Le Poire call "sparkle value" or can't pass the "cocktail party" test may be bypassed in favor of something more "interesting on an applied level" (2002, p. 328). 
Third, I fear that dependence on external funding has the potential to  undermine the teaching function to the extent that students may be harmed as a consequence.  My main concern has to do with excessive numbers of course buyouts.  Buller (2002) writes that grant managers should be given course reductions, as well as diminished responsibilities in student advising.  I can personally attest that a very significant proportion of my time as a grant manager is spent negotiating contracts, reviewing invoices and practicing my accounting skills.  I spend at least as much time in those activities as I would in course preparation for my one course per semester bought out by foundation funding.  Slater (2002), Snyder and Le Poire (2002), and Hecht and Parrot (2002) all speak to the importance of course buyouts to allow faculty members to concentrate more time and energy on their funded research.  Typically, adjunct professors are hired to teach the needed courses. 
Unfortunately, there are some potential pitfalls with this plan.  First, universities may reallocate buyout money such that the affected department doesn't have access to it (Slater, 2002).  Second, qualified adjuncts may not be available to teach the required courses.  Harrington cautions that identifying a sufficient number of qualified adjunct instructors to teach multiple sections of upper-division undergraduate courses for majors is a "formidable challenge" (2002, p. 400).   Giroux (2002) addresses another concern related to the use of adjunct faculty in that in many instances, these faculty are not fully integrated into the life of the department.  He contends that the true cost to higher education for outsourcing teaching may be much higher than we realize.  He quotes Kirp (2002), published in the Chronicle Review, as arguing that "To rely on contract labor in the classroom creates a cadre of interchangeable instructors with no sustained responsibility for their students, scholars with no attachment to the intellectual life of the institution through which they are passing" (p. B14).  I am not saying such a negative consequence is inevitable, but that it can happen. 
In summary, a potential negative consequence of numerous course buyouts is that some students may be taught by short-term adjunct instructors with questionable qualifications and limited commitment to the students and the department.  This could be harmful to our students who have a right to expect experienced, qualified and committed faculty to mentor them through their educational experience.  We all know adjunct instructors who are well qualified and are committed to their students, to the discipline and to the university.  My point is that, for our students' sake, we cannot trust that they will all be so.
As I argued earlier, my concerns regarding the pursuit of and reliance upon external funding is that there exists the potential for a narrowing of the focus of our discipline, a threat to academic freedom and a reduction in our ability to serve the university's teaching mission.  Please don't misunderstand me.  I am not opposed to the prudent use of extramural funding.  When it's managed appropriately, external funding can strengthen our discipline and support the university's teaching, research and service missions.  How can this be so?
First, we must recognize that not all faculty and not all institutions either can or should be players in the extramural funding game.  For example, Biocca and Biocca (2002) point out that faculty interested in pursuing external funding should seek seed money from their institutions to establish fundable programs of research, travel support to journey to Washington, D.C. and other major hubs of grant activity to visit with funding decision makers, and so on.  Others suggest the need for release time to prepare research proposals, as well as for additional support staff to handle contracts and grant accounting (Buller, 2002; Hecht & Parrot, 2002; Snyder & Le Poire, 2002).   The stark reality is that most institutions simply do not have these resources to offer their faculty. 
For example, of the 3,941 institutions included in the 2000 Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, only 261 of them are classified as doctoral/research institutions that could reasonably be expected to have the infrastructure in place to support a significant amount of grant activity (chronicle.com/stats/carnegie/).  That's only 6.6% of institutions of higher education.  Even if one includes Master's-only institutions, only some of which will likely have the necessary infrastructure, then that figure only climbs to a little over 20%, still only about one in five colleges and universities.  Therefore, I believe it's an unreasonable expectation that we should all seek external funding.  We can't and we shouldn't.
Second, faculty should be protected from pressure to tailor their research and teaching agendas to be more competitive in a bid for extramural funding.  To their credit, several of the contributors to the JACR forum make this point.  However, departmental and university evaluation and reward structures, including tenure and promotion, must be consistent with that message.  We cannot allow a two-tier system to develop whereby those who participate in grant-funded activity are considered to be more worthy than their peers and therefore differentially rewarded.  Rather, the value of teaching and research should be determined by the extent to which it strengthens our understanding of communication phenomena and empowers communicators to be more effective in their personal and professional lives.  Applegate (2002) encourages us to engage in research that contributes to a resolution of the social, ethical, political, and economic problems of our times.  I have no argument with him on that point at all.  Rather, my concern is that we not come to believe that the only way we can accomplish that laudable goal is with the support of external funding.
Finally, we must recommit to the ideal that teaching is the single most critical function of the university.  To be a member of a university faculty means that one's primary responsibility is to be a teacher.  This is not to say that we all practice pedagogy in the same fashion.  Some of us are more involved in outreach.  Some of us are more active in undergraduate education.  As a consequence of my grant management activity, I've become more occupied with graduate education. 
I've had the good fortune to work with the Kansas Health Foundation, the leadership of which places great value on incorporating students into its ongoing grant activities.  Over the past two years, they've provided support for a number of graduate students to become involved in data collection and analysis on behalf of the Foundation.  Members of the Foundation's leadership have visited my classes to talk with students about the Foundation and its work in the community.  I've incorporated many examples from my grant activity into the classroom.  So, my personal experience demonstrates to me that working with external funders can enhance, not undermine, the teaching function.  I'm not alone in that experience, as several of the contributors to the JACR forum report similar positive consequences of involvement in grant activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.
Yes, there are potential pitfalls associated with the imprudent pursuit of and dependence upon extramural funding.  However, managed effectively, such funding can strengthen our discipline and enhance our ability to fulfill the mission of higher education.  But in order to do so, we must recognize that not all faculty can or should pursue external funding, that faculty should not be subjected to pressure to tailor their pedagogy and scholarship to make it more attractive to external funders, and that above all else, we must remain committed to quality instruction for both graduate and undergraduate students.
Frankly, I didn't go to graduate school because I wanted to jockey for grants, negotiate contracts, review invoices and practice my accounting skills.  My guess is that not many of you did, either.  I, like many of you, went to graduate school because I saw the great potential of higher education to improve people's lives and I wanted to be a part of that grand mission.  If we want to honor our shared values, then we must manage external funding in such a way that we preserve the traditions of both the humanities and the social sciences, we protect academic freedom, and we remain committed to the welfare of our students above all.  That's what it means to me to be a member of the professoriate.
Allow me to close my presidential address with the words John Masefield used to close his commencement address at Oxford University in 1948:
There are few things more enduring than a University.
Religions may slip into sect or heresy;
Dynasties may perish or be supplanted,
But for century after century the University will continue,
And the streams of life will pass through it,
And the thinker and the seeker will be bound together in the undying cause
Of bringing thought into the world.
To be a member of one of those great societies must ever be a glad distinction.
And that, friends and colleagues, is why I did go to graduate school.
Applegate, J.L.  (2002).  Skating to where the puck will be:  Engaged research as a funding strategy for the communication discipline.  Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30, 402-410.
Biocca, Z., & Biocca, F.  (2002).  Building bridges across fields, universities, and countries:  Successfully funding communication research through interdisciplinary collaboration. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30, 350-357.
Brown, J.D.  (2002).  Doing relevant, funded mass media research. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30, 334-340.
Buller, D.B.  (2002).  Final thoughts on funded communication research. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30, 411-417.
chronicle.com/daily/2003/02/2003021104n.htm.  Accessed 2/11/03.
chronicle.com/stats/carnegie/.  Accessed 3/23/03.
chronical.com/weekly/almanac/2002/nation/0102001.htm.  Accessed 3/21/03.
Dearing, J.W., & Larson, R.S.  (2002).  Private foundation funding of applied communication research. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30, 358-368.
Giroux, H.A.  (2002).  Neoliberalism, corporate culture, and the promise of higher education:  The university as a democratic public sphere.  Harvard Educational Review, 72, 425-463.
Harrington, H.G.  (2002).  Funded research in communication:  A chairperson's perspective. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30, 393-401.
Hecht, M.L., & Parrott, R.  (2002).  Creating a departmental culture for communication grants. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30, 382-392.
Krip, D.L.  (March 15, 2002).  Higher Ed Inc.:  Avoiding the perils of outsourcing.  Chronicle Review, p. B14.  (Cited in Giroux, H.A.  (2002).  Neoliberalism, corporate culture, and the promise of higher education:  The university as a democratic public sphere.  Harvard Educational Review, 72, 425-463.)
Reinard, J.C.  (2001).  Introduction to communication research (3rd edition).  Boston, MA:  McGraw-Hill.
Slater, M.D.  (2002).  Communication research on a broader stage:  An introduction to the special forum on funded research in communication. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30, 315-320.
Snyder, L., & Le Poire, B.A.  (2002).  Writing your first successful grant application to conduct communication research. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30, 321-333.