How to Reform Graduate Education

January/February 2006

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How to Reform Graduate Education

Linda A. Cicero

Stanford’s 8,000-plus graduate students are distributed among 63 departments and programs in seven schools, where they’re pursuing an alphabet soup of degrees, including MA, MS, PhD, MD, JD, MBA, DMA, MAT, EdD, LLM and JSD. More than one-third are women; at least 21 percent are people of color (another 43 percent indicate their race or ethnicity as “other”); and 33 percent are international students, represent­ing 87 different countries.

So in considering how to reform grad­uate education, computer science and electrical engineering professor Mark Horowitz was mindful that “there’s no one size that fits all.” Horowitz and Chuck Hollo­way, professor emeritus at the Graduate School of Business, are co-chairs of the Com­mis­sion on Graduate Education that was convened by University president John Hennessy to “articulate an overall vision of how graduate education at Stanford’s various schools might be enhanced over the next five years.”

After a year of subcommittee meetings and discussions with more than 120 grad students in 10 focus groups, the 20 members of the commission have submitted a 48-page report filled with recommen­da­tions. Horo­witz says he and Holloway “both strongly feel that the world’s changing in some ways and that we need to be active in the develop­ment and improvement of grad­uate educa­tion—that resting on our laurels would be a dangerous thing to do at this point.”

The recurring theme that connects the dots between so many different schools and departments is the commission’s emphasis on collaborative work: “The CGE recommends that Stanford clearly articulate its commitment to cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary education and then deliver on this commit­ment.” To make this happen will take funding—and advocacy, says the commission. The commission recommends appointing a new vice provost for graduate education, similar to the office of the vice provost for undergraduate education that was created as a result of the work by the 1994 Commission on Undergraduate Edu­cation. Among the graduate commission’s other recommen­dations:

  • Seminars where faculty can explore topics they would teach with colleagues from other disciplines.
  • A summer education program for graduate students, modeled on Sophomore College, with topics of cross-disciplinary interest, that would allow students to interact with many faculty and students outside their own field.
  • Using the same academic calendar across all schools and taking other steps to make it easier for students to enroll in other schools’ courses.
  • Reviewing the requirements for joint and dual degrees to ensure there are no arti­ficial barriers to developing new programs.
  • Developing better mechanisms for faculty to engage intellectually with faculty from other departments and schools. These could include an academy where a diverse group of faculty on sabbatical would convene and work on topics of mutual interest, faculty-to-faculty seminars in growing inter­disciplinary areas, and a competitive award program to support mid-career faculty who want to move their research into new areas.
  • Increasing the number of Stanford Grad­uate Fellowships and broadening their availability.
  • External reviews at least every seven years of departmental, interdepartmental and inter-school graduate programs, includ­ing student and alumni data.
  • Better coordination of faculty resources through cross-department and cross-school appointments.
  • Expansion of graduate-student and faculty diversity and creation of support groups for minority students and faculty that span several schools.
  • Reporting of departmental admission statistics concerning minority application acceptance rates and current trends.
  • Reducing the financial burdens on inter­national students and working with peer insti­tu­tions to lobby against immigration laws and procedures that impede their matricula­tion.
  • Creating programs, including the allo­cation of graduate housing space, that encourage interaction of graduate students throughout the University.
  • An increased emphasis on graduate students’ leadership abilities, including expansion of courses in writing, negotiation, problem solving and pedagogy, research and educational opportunities overseas, and project-based classes at the Design Institute.
  • Emphasizing the importance of research advising by, among other things, asking faculty to describe their interaction styles to incoming students and ensuring that there are clear guidelines and procedures for students to change advisers.
  • Providing graduate students with a mentor in addition to their research adviser.
  • Improving University-wide services for graduate students, including an increase in the length of housing assignments and development of policies on maternity leave, child-care subsidies and health care for families.

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