Publication Date

April 1, 1998

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

To the Editor:

In "Downsizing Hits Home" (Perspectives, December 1997), Greg O’Brien has presented a rather distorted version of the circumstances surrounding the phasing out of the PhD program in history at the University of Wyoming (UW).

The question of retaining the PhD surfaced during a regularly scheduled departmental review in 1995. Graduate students had access that spring to the internal review committee as well as outside evaluators. Previous program reviews, dating back to the mid-1980s, had repeatedly arrived at one conclusion: the level of institutional funding for our PhD in history was "marginal." In the early 1990s, the history faculty had made a major commitment to strengthening the quality of our doctoral program. Unfortunately, these efforts coincided with a dramatic downturn in funding for UW. Due to a combination of retirements and resignations (which we were unable to fill), history’s faculty lines dropped from 14 to 9 between 1987 and 1995. Depending on the precise base year one used, departmental library purchasing power had fallen between 30 and 90 percent. Since 1995, there has been no significant funding change, and few at UW predict an improvement.

When the review process continued into the fall term of 1995, the history faculty and the administration entered into discussions about the future of the doctoral program. The faculty had earlier voted unanimously to end the European PhD (which had never had any students), and we had considered, but opted against, the narrowing of our doctoral program to a western United States focus. We were, however, divided over continuing the PhD program in American history. Some wanted to keep the program and hope for better times; others believed we should cut our losses and bring our curriculum more into concert with our likely resources. Both were professional and honestly held opinions. In responding to a direct question from the administration in October, we voted unanimously that we needed the mid-1980s level of support for the maintenance of a "satisfactory" doctoral program. We did so fully knowing that such support was unlikely. When the administration announced that it indeed could not provide those levels of support, we immediately ceased admitting PhD students. At the same time, I called a meeting with the graduate students to announce that there was a very high likelihood that the trustees would eliminate the doctoral program in December. We assured PhD students in the program that they could finish the degree with us if they opted to do so. As we promised would be the case, the individuals who continued with us have lost no teaching assistantships or departmental research monies. I also individually encouraged O'Brien, who seemed particularly distraught, to sit down with me for a conversation, during which time I could hear him out and explore some of the misunderstandings that even today apparently still trouble him. He chose not to follow up on that invitation.

He and other graduate students did, however, enter into a spirited newspaper debate about the history PhD, and they certainly received the trustees' attention through that venue. Contrary to the tone of O'Brien's piece, the much-maligned UW administration consistently made certain that both sides of the issue were aired in its own deliberations as well as in those of the trustees. I know because a colleague (who took an opposing position) and I were there—all the way through the trustees’ final action in December.

The history department was neither cramped nor stingy in its dealings with O'Brien and the other doctoral students. We had promised to do what we could to assist these individuals who wanted to move on to other PhD programs, and we did so. While we did not have the resources to provide a dozen students free access to our postage and telephone accounts or to pay for transcripts from other institutions, we promptly wrote letters of explanation and recommendations for the students and tapped into our professional contacts to assist them in their application efforts. We are not plush, but we are humane, and we did what we could within our professional and personal resources to be helpful.

I certainly agree with O'Brien that these are trying times for the history profession. We at Wyoming have been tested by fire. We have had our honest professional differences; we have aired them; and we have left them behind and are now moving on. There is professional life after disbanding a doctoral program. One might argue that our department is now better positioned to serve undergraduate and MA students, as well as our various statewide constituencies. We are attempting to diversify and enrich our curriculum, which for so long was driven by the necessities of a very small doctoral program. Without in any way demeaning our former or current doctoral students (who are in fact very well trained), we are perhaps freer than before. Dropping a PhD program does not equate with selling out the historical profession or knuckling under to mean-spirited administrators, however appealing such stereotypes might appear. For many in the profession, "doing history" is about more than training doctoral students for what is still a very crowded and cruel job market. Some very good history programs offer no doctoral degree. At Wyoming in 1995, there simply were no painless alternatives for either faculty or graduate students. I wish Greg O'Brien the very best. But despite his slant on events here at UW, I remain convinced that we honestly confronted a difficult dilemma and that we arrived at a professionally defensible decision. And, I believe that we administered it in a responsible and caring fashion.

And one more item of possible interest. The semester after deciding to disband the PhD in history, the UW trustees eliminated the school's baseball program. There are still complaints about that, too.

Professor and Chair, Department of History
University of Wyoming

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