Graduate education reform—in a pandemic

Nearly a full year ago, my colleague Cihan Tekay wrote a post titled “What if graduate education serves ALL students and the public good?” In it, she describes the preparation and thinking that were at the root of our upcoming conference, Graduate Education at Work in the World.

As Cihan put it in her post:

[I]t is not an exaggeration for me to say that we are ecstatic to be able to host participants from across the country and hear about their experiences in striving for more equal and innovative higher education programs. I believe that The Graduate Center is exceptionally well positioned to host such conversations — while it is primarily a public research institution training graduate students, it also has organic connections to undergraduate education and other institutions in our city. At the Futures Initiative, we have been trying to take advantage of these organic connections, and we are looking forward to hearing more about other initiatives to connect higher education and scholarship to the public good. […]


In my research as well as in my work as a graduate fellow, I reflect on the question of how people’s engagement with technology, economy and politics shape possible futures, not just for individuals but for societies as a whole. As an anthropologist engaged in historical questions, I care deeply about connecting what we have learned from the past to the present moment, so we can better anticipate and create our futures. Facing a global climate where questions about our future on earth are ever-present, we are building a university worth fighting for and sharing the collective wisdom accumulated in it, for ALL students and for society as a whole.

—Cihan Tekay
What if graduate education serves ALL students and the public good?

All of this is still as true as ever—perhaps even more so. But needless to say, things have changed a lot since then. Shortly after Cihan wrote this post, NYC went into lockdown as COVID-19 began spreading rapidly here. The Graduate Center has been closed ever since.

On a logistical level, the need to make changes to the long-awaited conference was a disappointment and a pain. We postponed the conference by a year, dramatically reconfigured it, and made a new set of plans for a free virtual conference.

More significantly, on a thematic level, the impact of COVID-19 on higher education made the inequalities and structural challenges within higher ed painfully apparent. Decades of underinvestment at the public level made institutions fragile, and the blow of sudden changes, decreased enrollment, and further budget cuts have left many colleges reeling.

The human toll on university communities—students, faculty, administration, facilities staff, and all of their loved ones—is unfathomable. As is so often the case, the effects are not evenly distributed; people of color, people in precarious employment positions, people living in underserved neighborhoods have been hit significantly harder.

So, we will come together with this dramatically changed backdrop. There will be much to discuss. The first day will feature a plenary by Rita Chin, Jay Cook, & Leah Wolfson titled “HistoryLab: A Blueprint for Humanities at Work in the World,” followed by a series of lightning talks. The second day will be discussion-driven, with conference participants facilitating small-group conversations building on the prior day’s sessions as well as participants’ own research, teaching, and experience.

We know you are tired of zoom. We are too! Our hope is that this will be a format that creates its own organic flow, with the first day mainly listening together and the second day processing, imagining, questioning, planning. HUGE thanks to GC doctoral students Justin Beauchamp and Cihan Tekay, who have done the lion’s share of planning (and re-planning). Big thanks to all our participants, too, for your patience and perseverance.

Especially now, we are so glad to be able to gather—to think, talk, imagine, and dream together. We hope you will join us.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309