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Linguistic graduate program faces elimination

By Christen Sparago     10/21/13 7:00pm

The linguistics graduate program is currently under review, and applications will not be accepted for the 2014-15 academic year, according to Paula Sanders, Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.

Sanders declined to comment on how long admissions will be suspended and said the administration cannot provide any further information while the review is in progress.

A 30-year endowment may have been erroneously linked to the graduate program, according to former linguistics department chair Nancy Niedzielski. The endowment was from the Dolores E. Mitchell Fund and spanned 1982 to 2012.

"The linguistics graduate [program] was founded 30 years ago; at that time, there was a sum of money endowed to the university, and part of that money went to the linguistics program," Niedzielski, an associate professor of linguistics, said. "I am finding it highly coincidental that the money ended in 2012, and now we are hearing that we are a problematic department."

Niedzielski said she requested the graduate program's first external review last year when she began to suspect the program might be cut when the funding expired.

"I have five years of emails from members of the upper administration saying that there was no reason to be concerned and that the money was not being linked to the graduate linguistics program," Niedzielski said. "But as 2012 approached, that story began to shift, and I began to worry. I was sure of our department's value, so I requested an external review." 

Sanders informed then-incoming graduate student in linguistics Jonas Wittke that Howard H. Hughes Provost George McLendon had initiated an internal review of the program in an April 2, 2013 email. This email stated that the review would take place during the fall 2013 semester.

"The purpose of internal reviews of graduate programs is to assess their overall health and to make recommendations about the strategic allocation of the university's resources," Sanders stated in her email. 

A document written by a committee of the Faculty Senate and approved by the Faculty Senate on Sept. 11, 2013, to address the review of the linguistics department states that reviews of departments should not impede admissions. The document is titled "Elimination of Graduate Programs: Procedures and Best Practices."

"The review to establish whether a graduate program should be eliminated ... should be completed within six months, normally between September and February, so as not to come into conflict with the graduate school admissions process," the document states.

Linguistics graduate student Bazile Lanneau said the discrepancy between how long admissions have been halted and how long the review is supposed to take is cause for concern.

"It's an example of why I don't feel the administration has any intention to treat us honestly," Lanneau said.  

From March 10-12, 2013, a committee of three linguistics professors from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of New Mexico and the University of Texas, Austin visited Rice to conduct the first external review of the linguistics graduate program since it was founded in 1982, according to the committee's report, titled "Report of the External Review Committee for the Department of Linguistics of Rice University."

 The review committee's report states the program should be retained.

 According to the report, "Disbanding the department would mean the eventual loss of the linguistics curriculum, which would be very much to the detriment of undergraduate education at Rice." 

However, according to Chair of the Department of Linguistics Michel Achard, the linguistics faculty was informed in an April 11, 2013 meeting with Sanders, McLendon and Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway that the external reviewers recommended the elimination of the doctoral program in linguistics in a private meeting.

"The whole process was presented to [the faculty] as being justified by our failing to meet some expectation of excellence," Achard said. "I realize that it's difficult for Rice, as a relatively small institution, to keep as many programs at the graduate level as we have departments at the undergraduate level, but we haven't been given a precise rationale, short of this relatively vague notion."

No such recommendation was given, according to Sherman Wilcox, a professor of linguistics at the University of New Mexico and a member of the external review committee. 

"That did not happen," Wilcox said. "The report reflects the honest and clear opinions of all three reviewers. We were asked if the program should be cut, and we responded that it should not."

A self-study document prepared by the Department of Linguistics for the external review committee includes a list of current employment information for all graduates who have received a doctorate in linguistics since 2000. Of the 31 students for whom information is currently available, 22 are professionals within the field of linguistics.

Achard said the placement information for Rice University linguistics graduate students speaks for itself.

"We have placed students all over the world, and most of them are doing quite well," Achard said. "We have placed them both in academia and in industry, so I am absolutely not at all ashamed of what we have done in the graduate program."

Department of Linguistics Graduate Advisor Robert Englebretson said the linguistics faculty has not received any information in writing about the future of the graduate program.

"All we have seen is an email to graduate students, but nothing else official," Englebretson, an associate professor of linguistics, said. "It disturbs me when I see [our] students and faculty so confused."

Englebretson said he has never heard anything negative about Rice's graduate program in linguistics.

"Linguistics faculty at other universities, both in the U.S. and abroad, recommend our graduate program to their students. And now these same students are being told that Rice thinks our program is so bad they're considering terminating it," Englebretson said. "I worry what that would do for the reputation of Rice and the welfare of our graduates."

Linguistics graduate student Sarah Cain said she feels the administration is misrepresenting the graduate program's reputation in the field of linguistics.

"I feel as though the administration has not taken seriously the graduate students' accomplishments in their assessment of our graduate program's health," Cain said. "I also feel like the administration is misrepresenting our department's reputation in the field of linguistics. Many of us were specifically encouraged to go to Rice, many turned down multiple offers from other schools, and our faculty are highly respected in the field."

According to undergraduate linguistics major Emily Remirez, the graduate linguistics students have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the undergraduates.

"The linguistics graduate program should be retained and even expanded," Remirez, a Baker College junior, said. "In my opinion, the linguistics program has a lot more interaction between undergraduate and graduate levels than other departments." 

Remirez said eliminating the graduate program would negatively impact undergraduate course offerings.

"The upper-level classes are a mix of graduate and undergraduate students," Remirez said. "Without [the graduate students], there will be a smaller student body and fewer challenging classes for us to take. Losing our [teaching assistants] will also force class sizes to be smaller, and that would be hard on such a small department."

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