Why Target a High Quality PhD Program for Elimination?

This article can be found in the WLUFA Advocate January 2015 3.3.

Jason Neelis, Religion and Culture

The IPRM Report’s rationale for recom-
mending to phase out or minimize Lau-
rier’s participation in the joint PhD pro-
gram, Religious Diversity in North
America, is difficult for me, my col-
leagues at both institutions, and our
excellent students to comprehend.
Our “high quality” program uniquely
focuses on a critical area of Religious
Studies and has a very strong record in
bringing prestige to Wilfrid Laurier Uni-
versity since it was initiated ten years
ago. Twenty graduates who have com-
pleted dissertations (13 of them at Lau-
rier, including two recent gold medal-
ists) have distinguished themselves in
permanent academic positions here at
Laurier and elsewhere in Canada and in
the United States, in highly competitive
post-doctoral fellowships from SSHRC
and ACLS, and in non-academic profes-
sional roles as archivists and social jus-
tice advocates.

Given the PhD program’s quality,
productivity and impact, why is it target-
ed for elimination? According to the
rationale, the “Joint program with UW
is high quality but resource intensive.
Program is disproportionately supported
by UW, which also attracts more stu-
dents due to better financial support.”
In actuality, however, the program does
indeed generate significant resources for
Laurier, since PhD students have at-
tracted external funding from SSHRC,
OGS and other sources, winning
$115,000 in research fellowships and
scholarships this year alone, far surpas-
sing the amount of internal scholarship
funding. To put it crudely, the joint
PhD program gives Laurier great re-
turns on its investment, or more bang
for its buck!

The assertion that more students are
drawn to the University of Waterloo
than to Laurier because of relatively
greater financial support is demonstra-
bly false.

There are currently 24 PhD students evenly
split between WLU and UW, with 12 at each
institution. This selective program fulfills
its promise of intensive supervision and
collaborative advising by typically admitting
only two students to each institution per year,
but admissions vary from cohort to cohort.
The argument that better financial sup-
port from UW (which is not verifiable)
correlates to less demand at Laurier is
not borne out by admissions, acceptance
of offers, or completion rates. PhD stu-
dents are attracted to Laurier and UW
due to the specialized expertise of facul-
ty advisors and other considerations
which are more difficult to quantify than
relatively insignificant differences in
funding packages.

It is troubling that the rationale for the
recommendation to eliminate the joint
PhD program was apparently not based
on reliable data or considerations of
quality and impact. The discrepancy be-
tween IPRM’s rationale and reality calls
for more careful reconsideration and fact
-checking. Considerable effort and re-
sources of time and energy are necessary
to justify, establish and maintain a suc-
cessful PhD program. This program’s
accomplishments and contributions to
Laurier should not be so easily dis-
missed.

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