A comprehensive report predicts a new era is coming for graduate education at Vanderbilt
by Jim Patterson
photo by John Russell
Consider the iPhone, urges Dennis Hall. Consider digital tape recorders. Consider novels, paintings and other works of art.
“When you pick up your iPhone, do you ever think about the generations of engineers and physicists and chemists who have made that possible?” asked Hall, dean of the graduate school and vice provost for research at Vanderbilt.
“You can take anything that you care about – that you hold in your hand or drive around – and there is a historical line right back to people with Ph.D.s in those kinds of fields,” he said. “I know a novelist, and you can trace his history right back to an M.F.A. program at a university, taught predominantly by people with Ph.D.s. This invisible army of specialists created all this technology and art that we take for granted.”
For nearly a decade, university administrators and faculty have been closely studying ways to improve graduate education at Vanderbilt.
A report generated in 2003 resulted in significant progress for the graduate programs, some of which has yet to be measured because of the six years on average it takes for graduate students to earn their Ph.D.s.
Now, a new report prepared by four subcommittees – representing biological and biomedical sciences; social sciences and education; the humanities; and engineering, physical sciences and math – is pointing the way to the further evolution of graduate education at Vanderbilt.
“Graduate education is at a crossroads at Vanderbilt,” the report says. “The importance of graduate education is not as widely understood as it should be in our society. Over the last century, no university has ever achieved prominence without a commitment to producing knowledge at the highest level.”
The report notes that thinkers, politicians and news media from around the world converged at Vanderbilt to hear Houston Baker, Distinguished University Professor of English, speak on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Who Speaks for the Negro? by Robert Penn Warren. It points out the research of Jeffrey Conn, the Lee E. Limbird Professor of Pharmacology, which has attracted nearly $9 million in research grants to develop new drugs to combat Parkinson’s disease and autism.
“Cutting-edge research cannot take place without graduate students, who participate in every phase of knowledge production, and while doing so, develop into the next generation of intellectual pioneers,” the report says.
Despite all this, the report generated by faculty in 2003 found that graduate education “hadn’t been a critical priority for this university,” said Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Richard McCarty.
“That report started us on a path where we’re trying to keep two balls in the air now,” he continued. “We’re trying to continue on a path of excellence in undergraduate education, and I think we’ve lived up to that challenge. Now we want that same commitment to graduate education.”
The fates of the undergraduate and graduate programs are not competitive, McCarty said. Indeed, they are intimately intertwined.
“Many of our graduate students are involved in the teaching enterprise,” he said. “The better our graduate students, the better those learning experiences for our undergraduates. The better the undergraduates, the more exciting the graduate students become about the teaching enterprise.”
One major difference between undergraduate and graduate programs: Undergraduates generate significant revenue through tuition, while graduate students are largely subsidized and so add little to the immediate bottom line. It’s harder to attract philanthropy for graduate programs than for undergraduate programs. And it’s harder to attract government assistance for some graduate programs than for other graduate programs.
“We’re used to thinking that you’ve got to have a bachelor’s degree in today’s world,” Hall said. “If you have a bunch of congressman who are lawyers, they probably borrowed or shelled out money to go to law schools, and they wonder why Ph.D.s don’t do that.
“It’s hard to say why the nation as a whole doesn’t see graduate education as a priority, but there is an issue there. Some think it’s kind of elitist.”
These obstacles are real, but since the 2003 report Vanderbilt has made progress, Hall said.
“The only way an institution can make progress on something like this is for everyone to lock arms and walk in the same direction,” he said. “That’s pretty much what happened at this university at the beginning of this century. The deans, the faculty, the department chairs – everybody was on board. Investments were made, procedures were tuned up, and here we are.”
The new report addresses the inevitable question: “What’s next?”
It proposes a long list of recommendations, from continued emphasis on interdisciplinary work to awarding a Founder’s Medal at Commencement to a graduate student. Most of the recommendations involve the investment of more resources.
“The financial constraints are much greater in 2009 than they were in 2003,” McCarty said. “We were on the ascending part of the growth curve of the stock market then. … Resources may constrain what we can do in the short term.”
However, since Vanderbilt has outperformed many of its peers in terms of investments during the economic downturn, it should be in a position to make progress, Hall said.
McCarty pointed out the following three priorities he received from faculty in the report:
1. Critical mass within programs
“Are there enough graduate students coming through each year to have a real program? It’s not an issue for all of our graduate programs, but it is for some of them,” McCarty said.
2. Are our stipends competitive?
“To the extent that you can help students with summer funding, the time to degree is greatly shortened. No one benefits by having students languish because of lack of summer support and having to work odd jobs in the summer or even during the academic year.”
3. A need for sufficient faculty to teach graduate students
“Expansion of faculty has occurred on an uneven basis across campus. Engineering is a school that has a student-faculty ratio that isn’t favorable at this point. We’re also space-constrained to some degree in Engineering. We’re going to have to come up with some interesting solutions until we’re at a point where we can contemplate building a new research building.”
In addition, McCarty said, the report strongly argues for faculty to be officially recognized – in the way department chairs and program directors enjoy recognition – for the time and energy they put into mentoring and managing graduate students.
“Another area mirrors the freshman Commons,” he said. “Could we create a graduate Commons? It wouldn’t be the same as the space for undergraduates, but perhaps there could be a location on campus that would serve the needs of the graduate students.”
The closing of several transinstitutional centers in the past year, including the Center for the Americas and the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture, seems to send a contradictory message about the future of graduate education at Vanderbilt, according to some faculty in the report.
“Those centers were never meant to be long-term commitments of the Academic Capital Venture Fund,” McCarty explained. “We knew going in that humanities research centers face unique challenges because there simply isn’t enough external funding.”
McCarty said that funds for interdisciplinary studies are available, and demand for that money has declined since the closing of the centers.
“I think the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities will take on more and more of a leadership role in graduate education at Vanderbilt,” McCarty said. (See “Follow the Leader”)
The perception of graduate programs at Vanderbilt must rise along with the reality, Hall and McCarty agree. Members of the Vanderbilt community can expect to hear more about graduate programs. If a fair way of judging graduate students in a Founder’s Medal competition can be developed, there has long been support to add that to Commencement, Hall said.
“Graduate education at Vanderbilt is going to look increasingly lively,” Hall said. “I think new fields will develop. You could see graduate programs emerge in energy sciences or climate, because those will be such prominent issues to our society.”
McCarty points to already prominent graduate programs at Vanderbilt – pharmacology and physiology in the medical center, the many highly ranked programs at Peabody College of education and human development – as the bellwethers for the rest of Vanderbilt’s graduate programs.
“I’d like to see strength across the board,” he said. “The best applicants for graduate programs in the country should always be thinking about Vanderbilt. More of our students should be competing for nationally competitive fellowships, and more of our graduates need to be placed in the best academic positions and the most competitive non-academic positions.
“I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think we have the resolve to get there.”