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Advancing graduate education through
the fin de millénaire
October 19, 1998

by Robert V. Smith
Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Education and
Dean of the Graduate School

Notable graduate education occurs in an environment where people - particularly graduate students - come first. This "people orientation" manifests itself in strong mentoring relationships among faculty and students and program-wide esprit de corps.

Robert V. Smith
Robert V. Smith
Previous essay in this series

Dedication to excellence in research, together with excellent faculty, students, curricula and support should be sought in all UConn graduate programs - not only for the sake of our students but also because of our obligations as a leading U.S. research university.

Universities that have one or more of the top 10-ranked doctoral programs as determined by the National Research Council, such as the Universities of California-Berkeley, Illinois, Michigan, and Washington, have a strong synergy between great doctoral education and research excellence. The graduate education-research synergy is necessary not only in doctoral programs but in master's and other graduate programs as well.

For the purposes of this essay, the word "research" is used to embrace all university-based scholarly and creative efforts. The term "graduate education" is used to embrace all graduate programs, including doctoral, professional and master's degree programs.

Vision for the Future

Although this broad range of graduate education is essential to the life of a research university, we also recognize that to achieve excellence with limited resources the University must make choices of programs and emphases. This quest, known as selective excellence, requires continual planning and assessment.

The Office of the Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Education and the Graduate School will assist the assessment and planning efforts, working with the Graduate Faculty Council, graduate faculty, academic deans and department heads to help refine and implement the graduate education components of the University's strategic plan, "Toward 2000: Change."

UConn has embarked on a program that will lead to assessments of all University units during the period, 1997-2002. This program will be useful in determining faculty and programmatic strengths to help guide future directions in graduate education. This, in turn, will guide resource allocation and reallocation decisions for existing programs and new program development, focusing on the quality of faculty, students, curricula, and support.

Ensuring Quality
High quality graduate programs begin with high quality graduate faculty. These are faculty who have appropriate advanced degrees, notable scholarly records, and experience in graduate education. Likewise, these are faculty who are skilled at mentoring graduate students - assisting the transition from student-to-colleague - and who are dedicated to the holistic (intellectual, professional, and personal) development of graduate students.

Effective mentoring bolsters program success in recruitment and retention of underrepresented students, whether they be women in some areas of science or engineering or ethnic minority students in a number of fields of study. In short, excellent faculty mentoring speaks to the "people first" philosophy.

Successful graduate student recruitment requires proactive efforts, including the development of informative and attractive recruitment materials and websites. Faculty involved in recruitment also find it helps when prospective graduate students come to the University for interview. Recruitment and its funding continue to be important topics for discussion by the Graduate Faculty Council.

The most important feature of recruitment, however, after faculty and program strength, is support. UConn currently has one of the strongest graduate student support packages in the country, including a stipend of approximately $14,000 per year, complete tuition remission, and full health insurance benefits.

This package is a phenomenal asset, but one that is frequently compromised through the practice of dividing full-time stipends in half, which produces packages that are barely competitive with mediocre programs nationally. Besides compromising our ability to attract the very best graduate students, the divided packages handicap students because the resulting stipend support is below what is needed for subsistence.

The Graduate School leadership will craft a plan with the Graduate Faculty Council and the Graduate Student Senate for major reallocations in the fellowship program so that the vast majority of the University's graduate assistant resources are devoted to full-time support of graduate students.

We envision an effort to convert a major portion of the current pre-doctoral fellowship program into fellowships that would be coupled to half-time teaching or research assistantships or added to full-time packages to attract and retain the very best graduate student candidates worldwide.

Fellowships would be allocated on a competitive basis, based on proposals from departments and programs. We hope the reallocation program will be implemented by 2000-2001.

Through the internal reallocation of current Graduate School resources, we intend to signal to our internal and external constituencies that quality and people come first.

The Graduate School is also interested in working with UConn's colleges and schools to raise funds, primarily from private sources, for special professional growth and interdisciplinary opportunities for graduate students.

One example of such an opportunity is a partnership with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages that enabled faculty to attract an outstanding journal editorship (Sites-The Journal of 20th Century/ Contemporary French Studies) to the University. The students supported through such efforts gain a competitive edge that will serve them well when they enter the marketplace, at a time when graduates - particularly those from doctoral programs - are having to look more broadly at professional placement opportunities.

With respect to interdisciplinary studies and efforts, it is important for the Graduate School leadership to be aware of new and emerging fields that may offer opportunities for graduate students. For example, several UConn faculty have recently recommended that the University consider developing a doctoral program in biomaterials sciences, an area that cuts across the fields of physical and biological sciences and engineering and in which significant postdoctoral and employment opportunities are anticipated.

We also wish to explore the creation of an individual interdisciplinary Ph.D. program that would support pursuit of doctoral research across a range of disciplines. A possible proposal for the development of such a program will be brought to the Graduate Faculty Council for review before the end of 1999.

In the longer term and as a part of UConn's forthcoming fund-raising campaign, the Graduate School intends to engage in development efforts to secure funds for significant new and refurbished physical facilities. Through a partnership with the University Libraries, including the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, we will propose that the Dodd Center, Homer Babbidge Library, and the Graduate School's Whetten Center be designated collectively as UConn's "Research Triangle."

Our vision for integrating the three "corners" of the Research Triangle includes the construction of an advanced research methods and information science pavilion which would house state-of-the-art equipment and facilities to assist graduate students in their thesis and dissertation work.

We hope to raise sufficient funds to refurbish the third floor of the Whetten Center, for graduate student study and meeting areas, along with offices to house the proposed UConn press described in the March 30 Advance.

These new and refurbished facilities may not be available for a few years but establishing goals for them will come on the heels of a University-funded renovation of the first and second floors of the Whetten Center. This renovation is scheduled for completion during 1999-2000 and is intended to support development of the new Office of Sponsored Programs on the first floor and consolidation and upgrading of the Graduate School's administrative and student services offices on the second floor.

Continuing Commitments
With "people-first" as a motto for planning and action, it will be important for the Graduate School to ensure continuity in its commitments. One way this will be accomplished will be through the development of "best practices" statements in collaboration with the Graduate Faculty Council and Graduate Student Senate.

The Graduate School is also collaborating with the Division of Continuing Education to determine "best practices" for delivering continuing education and graduate course work through technology, with a view to developing proposals for professional master's degrees by distance education to serve place-bound students in Connecticut and beyond.

Processes for Change
The vision for graduate education will continue to evolve. Conversation s with faculty, students, and research staff will be supported through our website and periodic postings there. We hope that thoughtful written reviews will be posted on the site, so that common understandings emerge.

Through this process and through our planning, development, implementation, assessment, and selective excellence efforts, we hope to assist the University in its quest for excellence in graduate education - to contribute to Connecticut, the nation, and our world community.