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Graduate Education at Penn: The Middle States Review

Peter Conn
Deputy Provost

Over the past two years, members of the Penn faculty, administration, and student community have devoted a considerable amount of attention to Ph.D. education. Most significantly, the new strategic plan puts a high priority on graduate education (an important shift in emphasis from the predecessor plan). The plan states, as one of Penn's central goals, that the University aspires to "strengthen the quality and national visibility of Ph.D. education across all of Penn's schools." Penn's "standing as a university of the first rank," the plan continues, "depends in large part upon its reputation as a center of ... Ph.D. education and its commitment to train a new generation of scholar-teachers."

Simultaneously, the University has been preparing for two separate but related external reviews: the decennial assessment of graduate programs, conducted by the National Research Council (NRC); and the decennial accreditation review, conducted by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Our ultimate purpose, as the strategic plan makes clear, is to strengthen Penn's graduate programs across the nine schools that offer the Ph.D.  Since the future choices we will make must be informed by full knowledge of our current practices, we chose to make graduate education the focus of our Middle States review.

The Middle States review entails a detailed self-study. Professor Walter Licht, professor of history and associate dean of graduate studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, has led this effort. We organized our investigation under six headings, each of which was assigned to a committee:

--degree requirements, rules and regulations (Rebecca Bushnell, chair);

--preparation for teaching (Dennis DeTurck, chair);

--support systems for graduate students (Janice Madden, chair);

--admission systems, and placement strategies (John Monroe, chair);

--performance measures and quality review of graduate groups
(Herb Smith, chair);

--administrative and financial structuring of graduate education
(Dwight Jaggard, chair).

(A list of all the sub-committee members is contained in the report.)

These sub-committees met regularly over the academic year 2002-03. In addition, a steering committee, consisting of the six sub-committee chairs and convened by Professor Licht, also met to guide the work of the sub-groups and eventually to draft the self-study report. To support their inquiries, the sub-committees made extensive use of statistical data and surveys that were distributed to all of Penn's graduate chairs. The steering committee also conducted extensive interviews and held several public meetings with faculty and graduate students.

The report which the steering committee has produced is available for comment at: This document distills the work of the six committees, including their recommendations for change. This represents the most extensive inquiry into Penn doctoral education undertaken in the past thirty years. We now know more than we ever have about graduate education at this University. The findings and recommendations in this document will have substantial implications for the future of graduate education at Penn.

To convey something of what the report contains--and what it does not--let me quote a few paragraphs from the prefatory essay.

"Key factors lie outside the charge and purview of this study. For one, the strength and reputation of our graduate programs obviously rest on the excellence of the faculty. That premise did not require investigation and recommendations would be superfluous: sustaining faculty distinction is the primary agenda of the University.  Second, the health of graduate studies at Penn and elsewhere is shaped by forces far beyond the control of educational institutions. The state of the job market affects both the quantity and quality of applications to graduate programs as well as the morale of students and faculty; this in turn has an impact on time to degree. Similarly, the financing of graduate education is influenced by general economic conditions and by endowment performance of universities and outside private agencies. Finally, of course, politics and the fiscal solvency of the federal government have direct consequences for all of higher education, including doctoral studies. 

"If this report stops short of fundamental or revolutionary findings and proposals, nonetheless it provides a systematic and detailed scrutiny of our current policies and practices--the most comprehensive appraisal of the past thirty years. At the same time, it includes dozens of specific recommendations which, if implemented, will substantially improve the quality of Penn's doctoral programs.

"Stated summarily, these concrete suggestions can be categorized into the following propositions. The University should:

  • Strengthen the federal system of governance, with improved cross-school information systems and a more robust centralized review process that utilizes systematic performance measures;
  • Facilitate cross-school collaborations in admissions, recruitment, curriculum, and alumni relations;
  • Encourage curricular experimentation which acknowledges the different pedagogical needs of our diverse graduate programs;
  • Improve the clarity of program expectations and requirements for students;
  • Universalize best practices in mentoring students, monitoring their academic progress, their training as teachers, and post-degree placement; and
  • Examine alternative tuition cost arrangements (e.g., credit unit vs. annual tuition charges)."

I urge all of Penn's faculty and students, and in particular those directly involved in Ph.D. training, to read the report and respond to the steering committee at the e-mail address included there.



  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 29, April 13, 2004