Boosting graduate education

Spring 2007 Interaction

L.A. Cicero

Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Professor of Education Patricia Gumport says she is looking forward to ensuring that the Commission on Graduate Education's proposals are made reality.


Outstanding graduate programs are the hallmark of a great university. Stanford has reached international prominence in large measure because of the strength of its graduate programs at the master’s, professional, doctoral and post-doctoral levels, which contribute to making Stanford a recognized center of intellectual innovation.

How should graduate education at Stanford be enhanced in light of emerging opportunities and needs in the 21st century? In September 2004, President John Hennessy charged the Commission on Graduate Education with conducting an extensive institutional self-study to answer this question.

The commission worked for over a year and answered the president’s call with a bold vision: to be the place that attracts the best graduate students and provides them with unparalleled education in preparation for their leadership roles in a complex, global society. The mission for those involved in graduate education is to foster interdisciplinary learning, educate a more diverse graduate student population and cultivate leadership potential so that our graduates will be able to bring their full talent to bear in solving the most vexing problems facing the world.

I find this vision compelling, as it encapsulates the central teaching and research roles of the university. When I was offered the opportunity to serve as the university’s first vice provost for graduate education (VPGE), I saw it as a unique opportunity to help bring these ideas to reality.

I also saw it as a chance to put my research into action. I study the challenges of academic restructuring, as universities seek to both forge and keep pace with knowledge change. These are defining moments that touch every dimension of teaching and research. I have learned that it is essential for a university to build on the best of its institutional legacies and distinctive strengths when reallocating resources and reshaping the structures that support intellectual activities. Stanford’s advantage is its depth of disciplinary expertise and demonstrated success in innovation. We must continue to support excellence and innovation in the wide range of disciplines that are the essential intellectual bedrock for the advancement of knowledge. I also respect the highly decentralized nature of graduate education that fosters educational experimentation. Moving forward together requires collaboration as we reflect on who we are as a university, what we do and what we could do differently to achieve our goals.

The VPGE staff opened our office in January, bolstered by encouragement from colleagues around the university. In just a few short months, we are well on our way, identifying short-term priorities against the backdrop of this long-term vision for graduate education.

A key arena of activity I’d like to highlight in this article is our interest in expanding initiatives to facilitate cross-school interactions for graduate students. Working collaboratively with colleagues in departments across the university, we are piloting a number of programs.

In 2006 the Stanford Graduate Summer Institute (SGSI) ( began offering free, intensive, team-taught interdisciplinary courses for graduate students. Most classes are scheduled between the end of summer quarter and the beginning of fall. Enthusiastic feedback from faculty and students who participated in the 2006 courses—"Frontiers in Genetics," "Adventures in Design Thinking" and "Introduction to Entrepreneurship"—suggests that SGSI is an effective model for facilitating networking across the university.

Five classes, plus the very successful entrepreneurship course ( will be offered in September 2007:

Adventures in Design Thinking

Global Warming: Good Science or Bad Politics?

Managing Groups and Teams

Music and Human Behavior

Solving Complex Problems: Responding to Pandemics

We also aim to expand opportunities that cultivate leadership skills—another form of cross-school learning—in pedagogy, communication and entrepreneurship. In this regard, my office is collaborating with offices across the university such as the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), the Graduate Life Office and the Writing Center.

Taking courses outside one's home department broadens students' intellectual perspectives, but it is an organizational challenge, given Stanford’s decentralization. My office will help ensure that organizational structures and policies support such efforts. For example, we encourage departments to create courses aimed at nonspecialists in other fields. In 2007-08, the Law School is offering several such courses, including "Scientific Evidence and Expert Testimony," "International Human Rights" and "Health Law and Policy." We also want to persuade faculty to team-teach and create courses drawing from expertise in two or more disciplines. Stanford’s new graduate joint-degree programs (see the May 2006 issue of Interaction) are a more formal effort in this direction.

Finally, we encourage faculty and students to form new groups to study emerging knowledge areas. Toward this end, we have been working with the Stanford Humanities Center to expand some of their workshops. Three were selected this year: "Global Justice," "Law and History" and "Visualizing Knowledge." One idea for expanding this kind of group work is to establish an intensive seminar for a select group of graduate students who would meet with me monthly. Another is to select a cross-section of faculty to collaboratively study a specific question for a quarter, naming them as members of a Stanford Faculty Academy.

It is a rare privilege to work with the finest young minds in the country and the world; Stanford graduate students are emerging scholars and professionals whose curiosity, open minds and fresh perspectives will launch new ways of thinking and problem-solving. If we all adopt a spirit of experimentation, collaboration and unwavering commitment to push the frontiers of knowledge, we can help prepare them for the future. We in the VPGE Office look forward to playing a key role in facilitating campus-wide conversations about the future of graduate education and providing resources to facilitate new patterns of intellectual interaction.