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Observations on the University Plan to Reorganize the Graduate School

The following essay was sent to me:

It is widely recognized that the manner in which the plan to reorganize the Graduate School was decided violated all the norms of wide-spread consultation and faculty involvement in major decisions in the University.

The precedent is alarming if it portends the future of the University as a highly centralized bureaucratic decision-making apparatus that excludes the faculty from any meaningful participation. But equally alarming are the consequences the reorganization will most probably have for graduate education and its ties to research that mark a high quality research university. It is important to explore the program and its origins carefully.

The Provost has stated that the plan was based upon a study of the organization of graduate education at Stanford, Chicago, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania. One must wonder why a public research university like Minnesota with aspirations to greatly improve its standing as a public research university would choose as models four private universities which are outliers even in the ranks of private universities.

Why not look at the outstanding public universities like Berkeley, UCLA, Wisconsin and Michigan as possible models? The organization of graduate education in these places stands in striking contrast to that of Stanford, MIT, Pennsylvania, and Chicago. All of these private and public great universities have exceptional graduate programs. Why the enormous difference in how they are organized to deliver graduate education?

Private research universities generally have from two to three – sometime four – times the number of post baccalaureate students as undergraduates. The culture of graduate education and research permeates the entire campus. The incentive system compatible with that culture leads naturally to behavior that strengthens and invigorates graduate (and professional) education and research. Chicago was founded as primarily a graduate university. Undergraduate fields grew from graduate programs. MIT after the Second World War greatly expanded graduate education compared to undergraduate. Neither place has inter-collegiate athletics which in public institutions is one of the features that provides a common rally point primarily for undergraduates.

Public universities were created primarily - if not exclusively - to provide education opportunities for citizens of their states. Boards of regents are primarily concerned with issues of under-graduate education. Regents who have advanced research degrees are rare. This is not said as a criticism. The political process that is involved in the selection of regents at most state universities tends to repel people with a research background but every faculty member must be grateful for people who will go through what is often an unpleasant process to be of service to the state and university. The basic self selection of Boards of Trustees in private research universities typically means that people with direct experience with graduate education and research are on these boards.

It is not only the boards that are different. Legislators hear much more from the parents of undergraduates than of graduate students. They may not be entirely happy with a graduate population that has a big component of foreign students, and may wonder why they should finance graduate education with local tax dollars. It is not surprising that the campuses of these public universities tend to be permeated by a culture of undergraduate education.

And thus it is not surprising that public universities that decided to increase significantly their emphasis on graduate education and research needed a strong graduate dean who operated with a great deal of autonomy. The graduate school structure one sees today at Michigan, Wisconsin, Berkeley, UCLA, and Illinois emerged from that experience.

Graduate Schools and Deans at those places have high prestige, and they occupy important high and relatively autonomous places in the authority structure. The dean at UCLA is also a Vice Chancellor; at Wisconsin the Vice President for Research is also Dean of the Graduate School. (If one is concerned about how Graduate Schools and graduate education emerged in public universities, one could do no better than to read the chapter in Gray’s History of the University of Minnesota dealing with Guy Stanton Ford and his 27 years as Dean of the Graduate School. The chapter is called “The University Achieves its Maturity”. Many other public universities had similar experiences. One might wonder why the others continued that tradition and became some of the best research universities in the country, public or private and why Minnesota has been abandoning that tradition for some time, and is now going a good leap further from it.)

What is the difference between graduate and undergraduate education and why is there some incompatibility? Yaroslav Pelikin, a Dean at Yale, published a book in the early 1980’s on understanding graduate education. At the very beginning he says that one can not understand graduate education unless he or she recognizes that graduate teaching is not an extension of a professor’s undergraduate teaching. Rather it is an extension of his or her research. When the Provost describes the new organization for graduate education that he is putting in place, he sees a close parallel between the approach of the Associate Provost in his office for undergraduate education and the new Associate Provost. He is saying very clearly, “Let’s do graduate education the way we do undergraduate education.” This does not recognize that they have very different well-springs.

The proposed plan is based on an assumption that the way graduate education and its fundamental links to research have been pursued in the great public research universities is not appropriate for Minnesota. This plan is forcing graduate education into a basic under-graduate structure. The Provost is telling the graduate faculty that the kind of graduate school structure that has produced great graduates schools at Berkeley, Michigan, Wisconsin, UCLA and elsewhere—and which continues to support and improve graduate education--is inappropriate for Minnesota.

Instead, in eliminating the graduate school and its dean, he is bifurcating graduate functions, putting part of them into undergraduate colleges that simply have no traditions, knowledge, organization or incentives to foster graduate education, and the other part into the bureaucratic recesses of the Provost’s Office. The strong, relatively autonomous position of Graduate Dean which has served these institutions so well will not be emulated. The Associate Provost for Graduate Education is not a position that will attract a top-flight scholar who can be a focal point for strengthening scholarship, research and a dynamic, challenging graduate education, a person who can join with colleagues at a national level to help enhance the nation’s environment for graduate education. It will attract the consummate bureaucrat who has little independent standing and thus will be responsive primarily to the agenda of the Provost.

We must return to the question of why—why make this particular change and why do so immediately rather than after due consideration of meaningful deliberation and faculty input? The Provost would have us believe that he and others were concerned about increasing the rate of improvement in graduate programs which was below what was needed to become one of the top three public research universities in the world. He also believed that there were gross inefficiencies in the Graduate School operations that could be eliminated by reorganization. This would free up money for fellowships and other goodies.

This scenario is simply preposterous (in the etymological meaning of the word). If the Provost really wanted to improve the organization of the Graduate School to improve quality and wanted to look at some models of success, how could he conceivably overlook how the truly great and successful public research universities organize graduate education? If we rule out ignorance or stupidity, which we will do, there is only one reason. He already had in his mind a model of what he wanted to do, and simply went out and found some research universities that did not have strong graduate schools. That they happened to be private, that they happened to be so different from great public research universities was irrelevant. Who could fault following the example of MIT or Stanford? The fact that he ignored other great private universities like Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton would not strike most people as being more than an odd coincidence.

What did the Provost want to do? Mind reading is not a great strength of University faculties, so let us explore some reasonable speculations. The Provost started with a plan. Given the increase in the centralization of functions in Central Administration over a number of years, it seems reasonable that he wanted to bring important parts of graduate education directly under his thumb. As the present Dean of the Graduate School is also an Associate Provost, something more was needed. Centralizing control in the Provost’s office is a motivation very compatible with what he did.

If the motivation is to centralize more control, no place better to look than at Stanford and MIT. Authority is highly centralized; there are no deans or other officers who have any significant degree of autonomy; there are no traditions of meaningful faculty governance; and wide spread consultation with faculty on important decisions is virtually absent. They are a perfect model if your intent is to centralize; they are a terrible model for high-quality graduate education at a public university.

Of course, no top administrator wants to increase his or her authority with obvious moves. Thus the new proposal emphasizes decentralization. Turn admissions over to departments, programs and deans. Disperse the fellowship funds to the deans. (Deans love slush funds to reward those who in the dean’s mind deserve rewards.) But controlling these funds provides no leverage to influence important decisions in the university. Don’t let them clutter up the Provost’s office.

On the other hand it appears as if the general research funds go into the Associate Provost’s office. Control of those funds provides a real lever of power. More important the McKnight Land Grant program with its $50,000,000 plus endowment goes directly to the Provost. The income from this would make any Provost’s mouth water. Provosts do not get evaluated on the basis of how well he or she runs a program that was devised by someone else, with money raised by someone else, which has little visibility outside the university, and whose big impact comes from the accumulated impact of hundreds of small decisions. Provosts get praised for setting up new research institutes, recruiting to the university famous scholars, and other big visible activities particularly if they resonate with the latest academic enthusiasm. A McKnight Land Grant program under the provost’s control would not survive ten years. This is not because provosts are dumb, or venial, or uncaring. It is because in a highly centralized system with no significant positions of autonomy that provide some checks, the incentives to do visible, dramatic things are overwhelming.

Is this just a paranoid’s delusion? The Provost created an Institute for the Environment reporting to his office and recruited a highly paid outstanding scholar to head it, but didn’t have the money to pay for it, so he skimmed hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the McKnight Land Grant Fund to help cover the costs. Over the next ten years there will be a number of chances to do important visible things for which there is not enough money.

But will this reorganization free up a great deal of money which will go into the support of Graduate education? It is hard to say. The plan is very fuzzy on important details. Some of the supposed savings will never manifest themselves. The misunderstandings of the way in which the Graduate School works are worrying. Applicants for admission do not have to apply to both programs and the Graduate School, although some programs want information which is not required and thus seek additional materials that often can be best be obtained as part of another admissions document. They have that right, but it by no means replaces the official application. Policy Review Councils were designed to bring together similar fields that were housed in different colleges. For example, the Social Science Council represents graduate programs that reside in five different budgetary colleges. What college would one fold that into?

But look at the broader picture. If there were systemic inefficiencies that derive from the way in which graduate schools are organized (rather than from some inadequacies of personnel) then one would expect Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan and Wisconsin would have reorganized the Graduate Schools or at least a reorganization would be in progress. There has been some reorganization in the past decades, but generally they have gone in the opposite direct from what the Provost is proposing. The Dean at UCLA became a Vice Chancellor, the divisional organization at Berkeley probably increased both the authority and the autonomy of the Dean, and Wisconsin has been pleased with its organization that has been very stable and successful over time. The savings proposed in the Provost’s plan are probably phantoms.

One fundamental puzzle remains. The University of Wisconsin is more similar to the University of Minnesota then any other university. Both were state universities before they became land grant colleges. They cover an almost identical range of disciplines. Their student bodies--both graduate and undergraduate--are quite similar. The cultures of the two states are very similar. It is simply beyond belief that Wisconsin was not investigated as a possible model. But the puzzle gets more complex. The Vice President for Research at the University of Minnesota is a product of Wisconsin. He learned his administrative trade under a Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School. He knows how a first class graduate school should be run. He knows how to realize the tight linkage between graduate education and research. If one wants to reorganize graduate education at Minnesota why not simply make the Vice President for Research be Dean of the Graduate School and have the Provost ask him to address the issues about graduate school organization and operations that concern him? The answer is clear. This would be a very easy, effective and efficient change. The president could do it with a stroke of his pen. It would, however, remove the Provost from control over graduate education and the funds administered by that school.

One concluding point: This paper represents an analysis by some members of the faculty who are deeply involved in graduate education and research and are frightened by the possible consequences of this plan – not only for their own work but for the university at large. But they are also concerned about President Bruininks. Bob has had a long and distinguished career at the university as Professor, Dean, Vice President and President. The University is much in debt to him. If this plan is adopted there will continue to be controversy. The Chronicle of Higher Education will cover it. The headline will be: “Minnesota Abolishes its Graduate School.” The controversy will be known and debated across the country. People will wonder why the President ignored the advice of those members of the faculty who know much more about graduate education and research than does the provost and acquiesced in the abolishment of the Graduate School. Why was a distinguished vice president for research who knows a great deal about graduate education never consulted? Bob Bruininks may go down in history as the President who built a football stadium and abolished the graduate school. With a stroke of his pen he can avoid that verdict.

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