Catherine Stimpson on foreign grad students, stem cell, and unions

In The Chronicle, Catherine Stimpson's open letter to graduate students.

It has the vague tenor of an 'address', where an argument isn't necessarily required. The part where it gets interesting is near the end, where she talks about the problems in the American university system. She enumerates several threats to the future of the university. In the sciences, she highlights the dependence on foreign graduate students -- which becomes a liability when Patriot Act restrictions make studying in Australia or Canada more appealing. The statistics might be shocking to some:

One reason [for the possible decline of U.S. universities] is the dependence of American graduate education on international students, especially in the sciences. In 2002, 82 percent of all humanities doctorates were awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, but only 60 percent of doctorates in the physical sciences and 43 percent in engineering. The five other countries that contributed the most graduates in our doctoral programs in science and engineering were China, South Korea, India, Taiwan, and Turkey. Do not misunderstand me. I celebrate our cosmopolitanism and treasure the international students in my graduate school. But what will happen to research and graduate education if international students reject the United States, choosing to enroll in either a homeland university or a foreign university outside the United States? Canada, Australia, and Europe are competitive, and waiting.

Post-September 11 American visa policies are making it far more difficult to study here, but as destructive are American attitudes toward science education and science. Pathways to the sciences, beginning in middle school, are inadequate for leading American boys and girls -- of all races and ethnicities -- into science as a profession. We have opted for the easy path of importing human capital instead of richly blending local and international intelligences.

I'm glad she brings up the foreign graduate students issue; it's something I've mentioned before. I have known many, many foreign graduate students, as peers at Duke, as students at Lehigh, as well as friends (i.e., people I just happen to know, many of them in science fields). I am concerned about what is happening to them, and angry that this essential component of the American system is being whittled away unbeknownst to anyone.

I also support Stimpson's other point, that serious study of the sciences here in the U.S. should be encouraged, but I don't think the problem is that "pathways" are inadequate. Rather I think science has a major image problem. Is there any way to do lab-work outside of dreary, windowless labs?

Stem cell research Speaking of biology, within the U.S. are limits on what research can be done owing to the restrictions imposed by what she calls 'moral fanatics'. Here, Stimpson makes a thinly veiled reference to the Bush administration:

Simultaneously, moral fanatics are threatening the freedom of research. Federal research policies have now throttled stem-cell research in the United States, choking off our ability to explore some of the basic mechanisms of life and to ameliorate ravaging injuries and disease. As a result, most stem-cell research is being done elsewhere. Pit-bull guardians of a narrow set of values clamor to patrol the perimeters of the National Institutes of Health and bark and claw if they see financing for projects about sexuality or AIDS. Must one again haul in Galileo as a cautionary lesson?

A little politics will brighten up any Dean's speech.

And finally, the financial difficulties many universities are having lead to the exploitation of low-paid instructors, including adjuncts and sometimes graduate students. Stimpson doesn't take clear sides on unionization, though she sounds generally 'sympathetic':

That is happening as your universities -- except for the very richest ones -- are being ground down by financial difficulties. They rely too heavily upon an underpaid teaching corps of graduate students and part-timers. What will happen if the underpaid teachers rebel? In some institutions, graduate assistants have unionized. You may be asked to join a union and pay your dues or your agency fee. I have lived with graduate-assistant and faculty unions, and am convinced that better ways exist in which to organize academic work lives. I don't want to debate that issue here, however. What I do believe, and you may discover, is that when unions arise and thrive, institutions may have given them reason to do so.

Of course, all faculty sound sympathetic to the general idea of graduate student unionization -- until it happens at their school. Still, I'm glad she brings it up.

More by Stimpson on the web:

Another piece on foreign students, which originally appeared in the LA Times in August 2003.

Stimpson on Affirmative Action

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