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Foolish fellowships

Graduate fellowships should be designed with graduate students in mind. This seems like an obvious point, but the Jefferson Fellowship -- a graduate fellowship similar to the undergraduate Jefferson Scholarship -- fails to bear in mind the need for qualified faculty, not alumni, to choose which students receive the fellowship's generous funding and which don't. Several faculty members rightly criticized this particular aspect, pointing out that not only are graduate programs under-funded generally, but the Jefferson Fellowship awards too much money to too few students,undermining faculty autonomy in the process.

Considering the success of the undergraduate Jefferson Scholar program, it's easy to imagine that a similar program would benefit graduate students as well. But as Director of Graduate Studies in History Sophia Rosenfeld explains, "Graduate school in the humanities is really about producing scholars. Undergraduate education is a different thing -- you're looking for well-rounded people. In graduate school, it's a technical business, in a sense. You're generally looking for people to become professors." And who better to choose future professors than actual professors.

"Faculty autonomy in graduate admissions is a good thing," said Rosenfeld "because mathematicians know how to spot what a potentially good mathematician looks like on paper." Unlike every other graduate fellowship at the University, alumni ultimately determine which students receive the fellowship. This distinguishes it from nearly every other fellowship offered by most top research institutions, leading some critics to question the merit of letting alumni select the recipients.

Supporters of the fellowship program emphasize its uniqueness, saying that this particular program distinguishes the University from its competitors. But if that unique characteristic undermines how certain departments distribute graduate funding, maybe we should find another way to distinguish ourselves. There is a reason other major research institutions exclude alumni from graduate admissions -- it changes the process. Some may say it corrupts it.

Candidates for Jefferson Fellowships must attend a dinner at which theypresent their areas of study and meet faculty, alumni and donors. In other words, receiving a Jefferson Fellowship requires a certain amount of salesmanship, whereas faculty members typically evaluate other candidates on their applications alone. Certain fields of study might interest professors but fail to excite alumni, who may lack the expertise necessary to select the best candidates.

Without casting aspersions on graduate students, it's not entirely inconceivable that some may not be as socially adept as others, potentially affecting their chances of receiving the fellowship. Of course these fellowships aren't based on schmoozing alone, but the process adds another dynamic to admissions that weakens the University's graduate programs, which should only be based on academic potential.

Every year the University loses qualified graduate candidates to better or comparable institutions who can offer more money to more students. Rosenfeld emphasized this as the most glaring difficulty in attracting top graduate students: "The gap between public and private universities with regards to funding is growing bigger all the time. We're finding ourselves behind in the race to recruit graduate students." Although Jefferson Fellowships offer lavish funding for a few, they concentrate graduate funding in a flawed system where alumni perform a role only professors should. Certainly we can find a better system to allocate that money -- one that maintains faculty autonomy while improving the University's graduate programs.

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