The Value of the PhD in Theatre at Public Institutions
PhD programs in theatre and related areas of study are integral to the ecosystem of educational and not-for-profit theatre. Doctoral students in universities across the United States and Canada teach multiple sections of “gateway classes” to majors in Theatre and Performance Studies. At any number of the nations’ most prestigious public and private institutions, students teach courses including introductory acting, public speaking, script analysis, and theatre history. In doing so, they serve as many departments’ first contacts with undergraduate students, introducing future generations of artists to the foundations of the field while learning the skills of teaching and mentorship that they will carry with them across the country to their jobs at regional teaching schools, small liberal arts institutions, and community colleges.
In a surprise decision, on 9 November 2017 Dean Larry Singell of Indiana University announced his intention to discontinue the PhD in Theatre and Drama. Singell wrote a letter to students, faculty, and alumni of the university that the PhD program, which admitted one to two applicants annually, was no longer worth the necessary investment, and that devoting energy towards supporting the PhD would detract from efforts to support IU’s eight MFA programs, its BFA, and BA. Although the university quickly backtracked and suggested that they would revisit the program’s elimination in 2018-19, after a student-and-alumni-driven letter writing campaign, the program exists in a liminal state in a time when it is increasingly necessary for scholars, practitioners, and all who care about theatre education to advocate on behalf of the PhD in Theatre.
In many cities and states across the US, public universities anchor the arts in their communities, offering high-quality theatre and performance to communities where no professional theatres exist, or serving as a cornerstone for art makers to envision their own spaces supported by a university community.
Indiana University’s PhD in Theatre and Drama is one of the United States’ oldest doctoral programs in theatre. Its long legacy of instructors includes Marvin Carlson, whose research has informed generations of theatre scholars and Oscar Brockett, whose History of the Theatre serves as one of the foundational textbooks for theatre education. Additionally, the program has placed dozens of graduates at colleges and universities across the world with a placement rate of over 95 percent in the twenty-first century. Currently PhD students at Indiana teach two sections of Introduction to Theatre, which each fill to capacity at seventy-five students, in addition to four sections of Script Analysis and Public Oral Communication. In the past, IU’s doctoral students have taught advanced theatre history and dramatic literature courses. In any given semester, the doctoral students of this program teach over four hundred individual students as well as serving as production dramaturgs and engaging in other work on behalf of the department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.
Although Dean Singell and others who have argued for the elimination of doctoral degrees in theatre suggest that the elimination of the doctoral program will allow greater funding for MFA students, eliminating the PhD program effectively means that IU will no longer train instructors who might teach performance-based courses on campus and at institutions across the United States. Indiana proposes to fill this void with adjunct instructors who will carry a greater individual teach burden at a lower value for their labor. This shift marks a continued trend in higher education towards employing adjunct professors who teach large numbers of students, oftentimes at multiple universities, for poverty-level wages in a cycle of exploitation that shortchanges professors and students alike.
Finally, the decision stings because it marks a continued shift of resources away from public institutions towards private research universities. Public universities have long provided affordable, geographically-accessible, and high-quality educations to women, people of color, and low-income families who historically have not had equal access to higher education. In many cities and state across the US, public universities anchor the arts in their communities, offering high-quality theatre and performance to communities where no professional theatres exist, or serving as a cornerstone for art makers to envision their own spaces supported by a university community.
Additionally, many doctoral programs have begun to consider the interventions that their students might make in fields beyond the academy like arts administration, political advocacy, and publishing. In sum, they serve the national interest. However, as institutions like the University of Chicago start their own programs, and graduates of private universities such as Brown, Stanford, NYU, Tufts, Northwestern, and Yale continue to produce a significant share of the nation’s PhDs and Assistant Professors in Theatre and Performance, there runs a risk of eradicating the cultural vitality of the nation’s states in places that have continued to cut funding for their flagship institutions. State universities like Indiana, UT Austin, Missouri, Kansas, Ohio State, Washington, Florida State, LSU, Maryland, and others are vital. Failure to advocate for theatre education at any of these institutions undermines the role of the arts in public education in a way that will trickle down to our public high schools and beyond.