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Admissions halt casts doubt on anthropology Ph.D. program

Students left in the dark about anthropology doctoral program’s future at AU
Admissions+halt+casts+doubt+on+anthropology+Ph.D.+program
Maegan Seaman

Madison Shomaker, a current master’s student at American University, said that she was seriously considering applying to AU’s anthropology doctorate program, but was taken aback after finding out about the two-year-long halt in admission. 

In 2023, the College of Arts and Sciences said that it will not be accepting applications for the 2023-24 and 2024-25 academic years. The anthropology doctorate program was one of two programs in Washington, D.C., the other one being at George Washington University

“I’m going into anthropology because I feel like it’s really important, and it’s a way that I can make a difference by understanding how people work,” Shomaker said. “I hate to see any space being taken away from that.”

The halt in the anthropology Ph.D. program has led potential students to be unable to apply and has been a cause for concern among current students. During the hiatus, the application site asks prospective doctoral students to check the site regularly as they approach reopening admissions for the 2025-26 academic year.

Shomaker is in the public anthropology program and said students were not involved in the decision-making process regarding the hiatus. However, she said that the College of Arts and Sciences held a meeting for students in April 2023 to explain it. 

“We had one meeting between students in the dean’s office where they told us what the factors were, but it really didn’t add up,” Shomaker said. 

Shomaker said that the meeting consisted of a PowerPoint presentation that told students why an anthropology doctorate program at AU was not worth the cost to the university. She said the presentation did not provide any background information or documents to support its claims. 

“It seems like they wanted to halt the Ph.D. program, and they were just pulling out things to be able to do it,” Shomaker said. 

The dean’s office at the College of Arts and Sciences declined to show AWOL the presentation and said that it “contains internal sensitive information,” and therefore cannot be shared publicly. 

Mubbashir Rizvi, a professional lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, said that the university did not take many aspects into account when announcing the hiatus of the program. 

“I’m not always sure that the university administration understands the value of what [the anthropology] department means in the wider discipline,” Rizvi said. 

Rizvi said that the district is filled with opportunities for anthropologists, including the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Smithsonian Museums. He said that the university has a tendency to connect individuals directly to these opportunities.  

“They’re not seeing the value of what we offer,” Rizvi said. 

AU’s anthropology Ph.D. program has seen declining admissions for seven years, according to the 2022-23 Academic Data Reference Book. In Fall 2022, there were 23 total enrolled students in the program.

Nationwide, social science programs – which includes anthropology programs – have declined recently. During the 2021-22 academic year, the number of students pursuing any degree in social science dropped by about 8,000 following six years of growth, according to the National Center of Education Statistics

According to AU, the anthropology Ph.D. program at AU offers an interdisciplinary approach, integrating anthropology with other disciplines in order to address societal issues comprehensively. The program equips students with the knowledge, skills and ethical framework necessary for careers in academia, research, public service, as well as advocacy.

The study, published by the American Anthropology Association, found consistent themes of personal and intellectual growth experienced by students engaged in anthropology, emphasizing the profound effects on their worldviews, values and character. 

“American University’s humanities curriculum cultivates a wide variety of skills including critical thinking, innovation and collaboration,” according to AU’s website.

In a comment to AWOL, Assistant Vice President for Community and Internal Communication Elizabeth Deal said the College of Arts and Sciences is committed to providing their students with the best possible education. She said she believes that the decision was necessary to ensure the quality of the university’s Anthropology doctorate Ph.D. program. 

Deal said that they are working closely with the department to address their concerns and develop a plan for the future of the program. 

“​​When evaluating any program, multiple factors [are taken into account], including enrollments, time to degree [completion], curricular issues, and market data. We will share further updates about the program with the community,” Deal said. 

Several colleges and universities across the United States have cut humanities programs in the past three years, citing budget cuts, declining enrollment and a shift towards vocational training, including Wesleyan University, the University of Missouri and West Virginia University, all cutting their respective anthropology department in one way or another.

Heba Ghannam, an anthropology doctoral candidate and adjunct professor, said she fears that the admission halt in the program will affect her status and career opportunities as an international student. 

“It’s terrifying,” Ghannam said. “I mean, first of all, as someone who’s an international student who is here on a student visa, canceling the program was something that was scary for me.” 

Ghannam said that these cuts make her concerned about her future career opportunities.

“If I get the degree from here, and that there’s no program anymore, what does that mean, for me as someone who graduates from AU?” Ghannam said.  “And how is it gonna affect my career options, my immigration status or even psychologically?” 

Many students said they were left in the dark regarding the decision, and still do not know where it originated. 

Shannon Clark is a six-year anthropology doctoral candidate and said she only understands that the halt in admission did not come from the anthropology department.  

“We weren’t involved in any of the decision-making processes about whether a hiatus would happen or not, so it absolutely did not come from us,” Clark said. “We do not want this.”

Shomaker said that she believes that the hiatus reflects a larger trend in shifting attitudes regarding the social sciences, humanities and activism in higher education and at AU in particular.

“I think that it kind of echoes a sentiment that people don’t care about the social sciences, the humanities or the arts,” Shomaker said. “I think that the College of Arts and Sciences is consistently put on the backburner.”

Professor of Anthropology at the College of Arts and Sciences David Vine said that they are additionally concerned about what the lack of communication and the halt itself says about the administration’s commitment to not just anthropology, but humanistic and qualitative disciplines.

“I mean, there’s clearly support for the STEM disciplines conceived as primarily being the bench sciences.” Vine said, “There is a danger at AU and far beyond that, that will be to the exclusion and detriment of the social sciences and the humanities.” 

Ghannam said she believes that AU perceives humanities and social sciences as ‘less than’ compared to natural sciences. 

“All of this effort that I’ve put in, it just feels like it doesn’t matter,” Ghannam said. “It feels like this program is not something that the university sees as valuable or important, which reflects on me as a student as well.”

Shomaker said she is doing incredible research alongside professors in the anthropology department. However, she said she is discouraged due to a lack of funding and attention. 

“It’s sending a signal that my discipline doesn’t matter, that my research doesn’t matter,” Shomaker said. 

Correction: In a previous version of this article, Madison Shomaker’s name was misspelled in some parts of this article. Shomaker’s name is now correct throughout the article. 

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About the Contributor
Stella Camerlengo, Assistant Editor
Stella Camerlengo (She/Her) is a freshman pursuing a degree in International Studies. Though a new writer, she has quickly dived into investigative journalism as a passionate hobby of hers. Outside of AWOL, she Figure Skates, loves politics, and consumes an alarming amount of matcha and chai lattes.