The School of Arts and Sciences announced last week that it would temporarily pause admissions for Ph.D. programs funded by the school. This decision was met with immediate surprise and confusion from members of the Penn community. Moreover, there is little cohesion between different departments. Some departments, such as the Department of Chemistry, will continue to admit new students next year, while many others will not be able to.
This decision to broadly halt admissions does not only affect future Penn students — it also affects current ones. Due to limited funds in the era of COVID-19, any decision that helps the University control costs can be used to benefit the student body. However, it is hard for students to know how to evaluate the SAS decision without additional details on how the saved funds will be used. As such, the School of Arts and Sciences must provide more information surrounding its decision to halt Ph.D. admissions and what it means for the graduate student body.
While all members of the Penn community have been adversely affected by the current crisis, graduate students have faced unique challenges. Several representatives from GET-UP, the union of graduate and professional students at Penn, noted at the end of last semester that the pandemic has caused “far-reaching disruption” for doctoral students at Penn, as many have had to pause their research in light of the pandemic. Moreover, many graduate students have had to juggle their responsibilities of working as teaching assistants with their personal academic careers. Such a fragile situation necessitates special attention from the University.
Because of these unique challenges, SAS has an obligation to provide additional information on its decision as quickly as possible. While the announcement made by SAS Dean Steven J. Fluharty and Associate Dean for Graduate Students Beth Wenger stated that pausing Ph.D. admissions would allow SAS to redirect funds towards current students who need more time to complete their degrees, it is unclear how exactly the funds will be reallocated. Additionally, students currently have little information on how the decision to halt admissions will directly impact the school’s financial outlook or graduate student life. Penn students should not be blindsided by administrative choices, and they deserve to know the reasoning behind any and all decisions.
Peer institutions such as Duke University, Yale University, and Stanford University have already taken substantial steps to support Ph.D. students by extending the availability of stipends or expanding guaranteed funding. Even if SAS as a whole is unable to take such steps, it could urge individual departments to do so. At Princeton University, for example, the Department of Sociology has used admissions freezes to provide an extra year of funding for all current students.
Recent actions taken by the University make it especially important for SAS to provide more information surrounding the implications of an admissions freeze. University choices, such as the decision not to pay over 100 dining workers who were furloughed due to COVID-19 and not to reinstate a fall break, have met considerable backlash from students and other members of the Penn community. Therefore, Penn must showcase its commitment to caring for students and community members by announcing further steps to protect graduate students and providing more transparency on the SAS funding decision.
While the University has suffered financially as a result of COVID-19, it is also clear that Penn is in a far better financial position than many other universities. There is no excuse for a school with a $14.7 billion dollar endowment to not provide more information on this decision and what comes next.
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