Graduate education under microscope

Commission presents its recommendations to senate

The framework has been laid. Now it`s time for the real work to begin.

That was the message of the Commission on Graduate Education report presented Thursday to the Faculty Senate.

After more than a decade of pioneering work to transform the ways in which an undergraduate education is delivered, university officials are turning their attention to graduate education. Although the university offers a top-notch education for graduate students, it can do better to enhance multidisciplinary opportunities, expand leadership training and break down institutional barriers to encourage collaboration among departments, according to the report.

``Part of what [the commission] tried to do here was bring best practices together and hope that they come together to make a better university,`` said Charles Holloway, the Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers Professor of Management, Emeritus.

The commission is co-chaired by Holloway and Professor Mark Horowitz, the Yahoo! Founders Professor in the School of Engineering, and also includes Dean of Research Arthur Bienenstock, former Board of Trustees Chair Isaac Stein, Associate Vice President of Strategic Planning Roberta Katz, Graduate Student Council Chair Moriah Thomason and faculty representatives from each of the university`s seven schools. President John Hennessy announced the formation of the commission last October, saying its goal would be ``to ensure that Stanford stays in the forefront in thinking about evolving needs of its graduate students.``

Since then, the commission has met with the deans of all seven schools, graduate students, faculty members, trustees, staff and alumni and gathered information about existing graduate programs, the expected career paths of graduate students and the general graduate student experience at Stanford.

The 48-page report articulates a vision for a stronger graduate education experience that offers ``a highly rated and diverse set of graduate offerings, characterized by disciplinary depth and excellence in delivery; a critical mass of diverse and highly capable graduate students, most of whom live in close proximity on one campus; and a decentralized decision-making process which allows many innovative ideas to be tested.`` The university should focus on offering a graduate education experience that attracts the best students from around the world, the report said. That theme is reflected in many of its recommendations.

Creating a new position: vice provost for graduate education

The commission placed considerable emphasis on creating a vice provost for graduate education (VPGE) position that could represent graduate education goals at the highest levels of the university, an idea that received strong support from senators. Horowitz said the commission felt that the VPGE should have the funds and authority to implement the report`s recommendations but that the position should not duplicate the functions of the school deans or have any say in graduate admissions or fellowships.

The VPGE would focus on coordinating information on graduate programs, help remove institutional barriers to inter-school education by working to unify disparate academic-year calendars, help determine resource allocation and put structures in place that would help schools manage money in ways that reward excellence and discourage the continuation of mediocre programs. The VPGE would coordinate and facilitate activities at the Graduate Community Center, the Graduate Student Council, the Graduate Life Office, the Graduate Student Programming Board and the Bechtel International Center.

The purpose of the VPGE office would be to improve some of the organizational flexibility and responsiveness that was lost when the university`s Graduate Division was disbanded and its functions were distributed among various university offices in the early 1990s. The distribution of functions caused a variety of inefficiencies and frustrations for students, staff and faculty, the report noted. A VPGE office could minimize those problems by creating a central mechanism for dealing with them.

A new wave of intellectual innovationA section of the report focuses on fostering intellectual innovation at the university and includes recommendations for developing and financially supporting student opportunities for cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary learning. The commission proposed creating a summer program for graduate students similar to the popular Sophomore College seminars that provide two weeks of intensive learning on any given subject selected by the student prior to the beginning of the academic year.

The commission also recommended the removal of some barriers to class access, the adoption of a common academic calendar across all schools and the dissemination of information about courses and other matters of interest to the entire graduate student body. Departments would have to be deeply involved in any plans for reorganization or modification of intellectual activities, the report said. Periodic external reviews of all departments would likely be necessary, and departments should be encouraged to increase ``cross-appointments`` to add to the intellectual traffic between schools. The report noted the challenges of changing programs and opening up new opportunities for students while still needing to maintain the fundamentals of knowledge that a master`s or doctoral student must receive as part of a distinguished graduate program.

The report also recommended creating incentives for faculty to explore new areas of research, including multidisciplinary collaborations. A Stanford Faculty Academy could be created, the report said, as a way of giving faculty additional sabbatical time to work with colleagues on emerging research topics or new interests that might be shared with other faculty. The report also recommended the creation of a competitive awards program to support mid-career faculty who want to move their research programs to new fields. Additionally, the Stanford Fellows Program, which has helped make disciplinary boundaries more permeable, should be expanded, the report said.

Increasing diversity, expanding opportunities for studentsThe report emphasized a need to optimize the graduate experience for students, whether by providing childcare and improving living conditions or providing better opportunities for leadership training to prepare for their roles in society. Classes on communication and organizational skills should be provided, the report said.

Graduate student leaders also recommended improvements to mentoring, specifically that each student have both a research adviser and a separate general mentor with whom the student can discuss life issues, job issues and other more personal matters. Students also should receive clear information about what to expect from a thesis adviser and what to demand from him or her, the report noted.

Increasing diversity is of utmost importance, the report`s co-chairs said. In the past academic year, the university enrolled just over 8,000 graduate students, the majority of whom were in the School of Engineering (38 percent), followed by the School of Humanities and Sciences (26 percent), the Graduate School of Business and the School of Medicine (11 percent each), the School of Law (7 percent), the School of Education (4 percent) and the School of Earth Sciences (3 percent). Sixty-seven percent of the students were from the United States, and the remaining 33 percent were from 87 other countries. Sixty-four percent of the students were male, compared with 36 percent female. In terms of race and ethnicity, 3 percent were African American, 1 percent were American Indian or Alaska Native, 12 percent were Asian American or Pacific Islander, 5 percent were Hispanic or Latino, 36 percent were white and 43 percent were ``other.``

The report noted the need to recruit a more diverse student body at the graduate level, a point that was emphasized by many senators after the presentation. Mechanical engineering Professor John Eaton said he understood the goal of the commission was to not be overly prescriptive, but he said that the system must be broken if there are such low numbers of minority graduate students and that he hoped to see guidance in the report on how to fix the problem. ``I wish we had a specific recommendation,`` Eaton said. ``We should have a major campaign so that we win the Sears Cup of diversity. [Stanford] should do the fundraising and pound the other schools into the ground [on issues of diversity].``

Horowitz responded that commission members frequently talked about issues of diversity and that such issues will remain at the forefront of consideration as the report`s recommendations get implemented.

``We would all love to fix it,`` Horowitz said. ``I think the reason you don`t see more of a prescription... is that this is the start of the process. If you have some ideas on diversity, let's do it.``

Printed copies of the report should be available early next year, and the report will eventually be posted online when the hard copies are ready.