On the agenda for discussion at Council on January 17 was the graduate education at the University. Speakers focused on two broad issues: the application of common rules in a decentralized structure, and suggested ways to frame Penn's response to growing constraints on the tradition that academic graduate education is primarily an apprenticeship for professorial careers. Following are highlights taken from a lengthy transcript.--Ed.

Council: Tensions in Graduate Education Today

Provost Stanley Chodorow delivered the opening remarks in a secheduled discussion of graduate education at the January Council meeting, noting that the Vice Provost for Graduate Education, Dr. Janice Madden, was away on University business.

He began by distinguishing "academic graduate education," from professional education--the latter highly structured, and controlled jointly by strong professional-school faculties and the accreditation agencies which certify or license the graduate to practice the profession. While there is a long-standing tension between the basically conservative professional organizations and the faculties of the professional schools--especially the best ones, where the faculty have a tendency to want to expand and innovate--this is "a tension which is generally managed and plays out around accreditation visits to the schools," he said.

In graduate education, the tensions are different because the educational process is different, and more decentralized. At Penn, not only the School of Arts and Sciences but also all of the professional schools have academic graduate programs (Ph.D., M.A. and in some instances an academic M.S.) In fact, only 45% of the Ph.D. students on campus are in SAS, making its graduate student body the largest but leaving the majority distributed all over campus.

"Academic graduate education is really fundamentally different from professional education or undergraduate education," he said. "It is not hierarchically organized, on the whole. Students do take courses, but what is critical to the programs is not so much the coursework but the general examinations--which are general in the sense that they go to the whole field--and the dissertation. The key to the program is that you can succeed in your courses and fail your general exams--it is very common to do so--and you can succeed in your general exams and fail to write a dissertation that is acceptable." To get a degree, the student must make an "original contribution to knowledge, and that doesn't mean a contribution to a person who doesn't know anything about the field, to whom any contribution is a contribution, but to those who are the absolute leaders of the field," he continued.

"It is the most personal form of education that we offer in the University," the Provost emphasized. In contrast to professional school students, who may have a number of faculty to turn to for guidance, the graduate student ultimately ends up in a a mentorship, hard to manage from the center. "One of the things that the Vice Provost for Graduate Education spends a great deal of her time doing is trying to provide an avenue of appeal or of advice, or just an ear to complain to, in the inevitable cases in which things start to break down. But the fact is that these are, in essence, personal relationships and are hard to manage in any real way."

The Provost also related Penn's decentralization to issues in planning and containment of enrollment. "Since 1991--just taking Fall enrollment figures as for comparison--the number of graduate students has fallen from 4500 to about 4000, a little more than 10% overall. This is a response, in part, to the fact that the market for graduate education has been declining. Most people who observe this and who look at the numbers would say that our graduate programs and those of other institutions like us are not reducing their size fast enough, given the market. In part, that is because of the need for graduate students for research purposes and for teaching purposes. Graduate students play a large role in the teaching program of the University, a very important role in the education of the undergraduates--at all research universities. They are, after all, apprentice faculty in many cases, and that's appropriate. And while undergraduates will complain from time to time about a graduate student assistant, they probably complain less about them than they do about faculty; they will relate to graduate students in ways that they don't generally relate to faculty, for obvious generational reasons."

Reviews on the Agenda

Penn's schools do manage their programs very actively, he said, citing professional schools that have, as a result of the review process, intentionally reduced the size of their Ph.D. programs and emerged with stronger ones. "Part of the Agenda for Excellence is an emphasis on improvement across the board in all aspects of the University. And you cannot improve unless you know what is necessary to do it--what's wrong, what could be better--and that requires evaluation.

"One of the key elements of the strategic plan is the development of a comprehensive, frequent, regular review of our schools and our departments and our programs, and that includes, of course, the graduate programs. You will see over time even an increase in the number of management issues which are engaged in by members of the faculty in these graduate groups. We do this by graduate groups, as many of you know, to develop the programs, to improve them, and to correct any problems which may arise in them....

"On the whole if you look at our programs, most of them have been improving in their quality over the last five years. If you say, 'Well, how do you know what their quality is?', there are numbers of measures. GRE scores are one--not perfect but okay. What you're really asking is 'How many offers do we have to make to graduate students to get the number of students that we need in our programs? What percentage of those that we accept actually come? What percentage of the students who apply are accepted?' We're also interested in 'What happens to the students when they get out of here?'--a critical issue for us. Tracking is not always easy.

"Finally, I will say that the critical issue in graduate work and the quality of the graduate program is the quality of the faculty. It is simply the fact that the best faculty and best departments and graduate groups attract the best students, and that is true in every place. Young faculty want to take jobs in institutions which have superior students in them, and those are programs that have senior faculty that have attracted those students. So the quality of the faculty, the recruitment of faculty, and the retention of those faculty is critical--and the support of them. And that is basically a decanal, and in the larger schools, a departmental issue. It is not something the center does, not something the Provost or the Vice Provost does. We cheer about it, we goad, we ask questions, we review; but the work is done in the schools, by the faculty themselves and by their leadership, the deans."

Response: 'Follow Through'

Opening the discussion period, Surya Ghosh of GAPSA called for attention to coordination and follow-through on those common rules and guidelines that have already been developed, if the Agenda for Excellence is to work. Citing instances where the student groups would propose and transmit guidelines only to find them already on the books, he said, "I would say that a very important thing that needs to be put into the process is follow-up from above."

The Provost agreed. "Let me say that there are some rules that the Vice-Provost enforces, but she has to know about violations in order to enforce them, and generally speaking it's graduate students who have to bring those issues to her attention. The second thing to say is that in fact we are designing an evaluation procedure which among other questions asks the extent to which graduate groups follow University regulations in managing their graduate programs, and of course in the way in which they deal with their students." Reviews are usually done under the authority of the Graduate Council of the Faculties, and it is "up to them to say what are we going to do about the problems that were found," the Provost added. The Vice Provost convenes that Council and the Council of Graduate Deans. "It's a function of the Vice Provost, along with the relevant deans in those cases in which a program is really embedded in a school, to ensure that the program in fact carries out a reform if reform is necessary, or corrects practices if that's necessary. So we are in fact very much aware of the need to come back and make sure that these things are done."

Mr. Ghosh suggested as a further improvement to collect input from the graduate students themselves. "I'm finding that various departments in, for instance, the School of Arts and Sciences or the Engineering School, have different knowledge of what the rules are. So it's hard for graduate students to say that there's a violation of a rule when they don't really know that these rules even exist. When the dean or the grad chair says something, that's what we accept as the rules.

Oversupply and Sizing

Dr. Larry Gross expressed to the Provost a concern that research universities--this one as much any other--have not thoroughly thought through "the degree to which they are, if you like, continuing to produce a product that is in oversupply. Ingrained in everything we do with graduate students, or in most things we do with doctoral students, is the expectation that of course what one is there for is, as you said, to be an apprentice faculty member. [But when] we look around at our own university or any other, we realize that in most cases that is not realistic.

"At the same time, we're reluctant to cut down on the number of graduate students for all the reasons that you enumerated and others, particularly in research grant-dependent situations. I don't know that there's an answer to this and it varies enormously across fields, but I think that there may be some importance to cen-trally motiviated discussion, consideration, thoughtfulness, about how we face this--for example, to try and help redefine the Ph.D. as other than 'the degree you get to become an assistant professor in a tenure track job.'

"If we don't do that," Dr. Gross continued, "then we're continuing to mislead people whom we attract and train because, you know, those jobs aren't there." Citing the end of mandatory retirement as one cause of changing projections for graduate students' careers, he said that some responses may tend to be area-specific--expanded postdoctoral opportunities are routine in some fields, scarce in others--but that the decentralization the Provost talked about makes it "less likely that there will be University-wide attention to the problems.

"The councils that you refer to...are very much taken up with business, reviewing procedures, reviewing programs, dealing with various kinds of business. They are not necessarily, and not typically, forums for this kind of discussion. I think that is something that might be useful, particularly if it involves students to a greater degree than their representation on the Graduate Council of Faculties, which is, you know, two or three people who represent an entire body."

Again the Provost agreed with the speaker. Although Penn is more decentralized than most institutions, he said, "Janice and I talk a lot about this, and I talk a lot about this with the deans, and some deans are in a position to do something about it and some are not, or at least not yet. But this is becoming an issue which, while it's not strident, is there all the time for us. Some programs are really cutting back and others are not, and I think that we will begin to put more and more pressure on programs to cut back in order to size their programs appropriately. One of the only tools that we have is the graduate funding that we give out from the center, and we are trying to use that as effectively as we can, both to improve support for the graduate students we bring in, and to reduce the size of the graduate program in some places."

Dr. Gross responded: "Reducing the size is one important component to consider, but one other thing is, I think, to think creatively--which is not to say people aren't doing it--about ways to redefine doctoral education so that realistic job opportunities or career opportunities are viable; so that not ending up as an assistant professor somewhere is not a failure that destroys the investment of years--but thinking about the kinds of job possibilities that are possible. Many of our [Annenberg School] graduates work in universities, but many of them prefer other kinds of options. And I think there are many fields in which the faculties have neither been required nor particularly been encouraged to think about anything except the next generation of Shakespeare scholars, or whatever the current faculty profile is. And that may not be the way to do it. If universities want to be in the business of being Ph.D.- producing machinery, which they certainly seem to, then I think they need to give some thoughts to what those produced Ph.D.s might do, besides compete for a shrinking pool of tenure track jobs."

Some of the Schools are beginning to think very creatively about that, the Provost replied. "There's an interesting issue here, and that is that the Ph.D. degree is a research degree--a product, basically, of a research program. When we start talking about other uses, one of the questions we ask is what are other uses of the research capacity-- or are we talking about some-thing else, in which case we may want to create a different kind of degree and reduce the size of the Ph.D. programs to preserve their purity. These are issues that I've had to deal with, both here and at my previous university, and also in the accreditation process. One of the fields where this was raised is in psychology, where the 'Psy.D.' is raised as an alternative to the Ph.D.- -in most cases it is a professional degree and not a research degree, and doesn't look anything like a Ph.D. degree. It's a really interesting set of issues."

'Empty Semesters'

Graduate Student Alex Welte, confirming that most graduate students have a sense of those difficulties "of understanding how all this nice exercise we get here really fits into life after leave," linked the Provost's comments on the quality and attractiveness of the faculty to the proposals students have made in Countil to have student input into the faculty tenure process.

Mr. Welte also brought up questions about the concept of "20 or so courses you must complete to get a Ph.D. In the physics department, and probably in others too, you should not be spending 20 courses--that takes 3 courses a semester over 7 semesters, and you really should not be spending 7 semesters doing courses in a Ph.D. program

"What in fact happens," he continued "is that many people I know take a lot of so-called independent study, which is simply working on their thesis without having it written so in their registration. But that means that you pay three times the fees per semester, in exchange for which you do not get course instruction. This places a burden on the individual to have to pay the tab...."; he applied the term "empty semesters" to this. "I know a lot of students don't get anything for at least the last three or four courses that they take, so I wonder if this very rigid requirement cannot be made more flexible, so that people pay for what they get and are not forced, perhaps as an alternative, to take courses which are essentially irrelevant and don't contribute to getting on with doing the thesis."

Dr. David Hildebrand said in response to Mr. Welte: "Bravo, huzzah, and amen!"

Teaching to Teach

Bryan Huey of GAPSA said in connection with faculty involvement in the process of getting "more jobs down the road" for those getting Ph.D.'s, "I hope that you don't consider creating more post-doctoral opportunities as an excellent option there. At least for those of us in the sciences, those are valuable times in our lives to be a post-doc, but the opportunity to do several of those in a row is more a case of indentured servitude, from my perspective.

"More importantly, though, certainly it is the case that a good fraction of the doctoral students from a university such as Penn will become teachers, hopefully at other classy universities. As a result, it is important for the departments, our advisors, and the school itself, to make sure that we are good teachers when we come out of here. I don't know the extent of programs that are available throughout the University to improve upon our teaching skills. It seems to me at this point, that is left up to the individual advisors and maybe the departments.

The Provost said that to a very large extent this too, is a graduate group issue: "While there are common elements to good teaching and good practice, it is to a very large extent discipline-specific, and you need to learn how to teach this as opposed to that, and you do that within your graduate group. Some graduate groups are really terrific, and others are not engaging in that at all.

"One of the things we've done," he added, "with GAPSA and the Vice Provost for Graduate Education, is [to start work on] a 'teaching resource center' to help graduate students who need help and aren't getting it at home, so to speak.

"The only other way that we can deal with this is the review process. It becomes one of the values that you have to ask about when you ask a committee to look at a program: to what extent are they doing a good job bringing students along as teachers, and what programs do they have in place. Some of them are really terrific; I know of a couple where students are getting really good--much better than I got-- instruction in that....Those of us around the table who are in this business will tell you that learning to teach graduate students is something that some of us do very well, and some of us not so well. It is also something we can learn something about.

"But we will certainly be setting up a teaching resource center as part of that. Graduate students will be more than welcome in that program, which will deal with technological issues. There are so many new things you can do in a classroom--or outside of a classroom--to teach, that we want to develop and want to disseminate information about, in addition to the more traditional aspects of helping people teaching better by teaching the techniques. So we're very sympathetic to this issue. It's not one that we have direct control over most of the time, but it's something we can stimulate and we're going to try to do that."

Brian Ray of GSAC commended the Vice Provost's Office and Dr. Janice Madden, noting particularly that she is to "trying to get graduate groups to actually implement the University policy of having some kind of written agreement for TAs and Ras." But he said there are other issues related to 'TAing' and 'RAing,' for which policy might be appropriately set from the center, as opposed to within specific schools. One is teacher-to-student ratio, and another the orderly scheduling of assignments. Citing conversations with Graduate Dean Walter Licht of SAS, he acknowledged complexities when course enrollment changes trigger changes in the need for TAs, but suggested "there might be some issues for which some sort of general policy could be set up and maybe incorporated into the review process to determine whether those issues are being addressed or not at a department level."

Where to Explore Alternatives

Dr. Anthony Tomazinis returned to the issue of alternatives for graduate students, and how to approach the issues. "I would like to take two minutes to strengthen the voice of Professor Gross, and pose the question as to whether we have a machinery that permits us to capitalize on new ideas which may be circulating around campus and the country.

"I don't think the Graduate Council of the Faculties is there to explore initiatives or innovations; it is there to be guardian of the quality of what we have. It may be that perhaps the Provost needs to initiate some kind of machinery, some kind of organizational group to explore variations," Dr. Tomazinis proposed. "I have the experience of a number of groups who have been discussing alternative degrees, but there is nowhere for them to discuss it seriously, and produce something. And because the country has been following a similar course of action, of defending what they have, Penn may find an opportunity to innovate on a national scale on new degrees or programs, which are not really teaching-oriented.

Provost Chodorow replied: "I agree with you; I think one of our great advantages is the graduate group, which is much more flexible than the traditional departmental structure at most intuitions. But it too, like all institutional structures, has a way of getting hardened arteries, building walls, and becoming defensive in certain respects." He said his office's newly announced program of supporting interdisciplinary graduate student/faculty seminars could lead to "new configurations, new programs, new ideas; they will naturally not only produce new research opportunities and activities, but also new degree opportunities. In regard to the size of Penn this is a modest program, but I hope that it will grow and we can raise some money for it and that we'll be able to stimulate that kind of interdisciplinary, inter-school activity that will produce just what Professor Tomazinis is talking about."

Erick Santos, a Medical School representative to GAPSA, discussed disparities in assignments of research assistants from one school or department to another, asking something similar to the TA contract to guard against the potential for abuse. He was advised from the floor that there is such a contract, with a written agreement--though the terms of the agreement may be local. "I'm glad to hear it," the Provost said. "I think it's the right thing to do," adding that the Vice Provost would seek to enforce this policy as well as the policy on TA agreements.

-- K.C.G.


February 13, 1996
Volume 42 Number 20

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