You are here

Mission critical

Scott Lanyon, who headed up a University-wide committee on graduate education this fall, talks about challenges and opportunities for the U of M.

When people talk about higher education, what they are really talking about most of the time is undergraduate education. Graduate education is often all but left out of broader discussions about affordability and access. Yet, graduate students play a huge support role in the lab and the classroom. Without them, research universities are at risk of losing capacity for discovery and, ironically, undergraduate education.

Scott Lanyon is keenly aware of what’s at stake. As head of the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, he has played a role in making the graduate program one of the very best in the country, but even his program isn’t immune to the sea change in the way graduate programs are funded. The EEB graduate program has reduced the number of students admitted in recent years in order to best support for its current students in the face of declining fellowship dollars. This fall, Lanyon headed up the Provost’s Special Committee on Graduate Education, which was tasked with identifying challenges and opportunities for research Ph.D. programs. The group recently delivered its recommendations to Provost Karen Hanson and Professor Will Durfee, chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee.

Q. How did you get involved in this process?

A. Last year, I chaired the University’s Senate Committee on Faculty Affairs. What was very clear was that for the most part the first thing faculty and department heads wanted to talk about were their concerns about graduate education. One thing led to another and the Graduate School and Provost Hanson jointly decided to set up the Committee on Graduate Education to look at the issues.

Q. Why should graduate education be a top priority?

A. Graduate education is really central to a research university and I don’t know that people really understand that. Graduate students are heavily involved in all areas of our mission. The quality of our undergraduate programs is dependent, in part, on the quality of our graduate students who are very involved in educating and mentoring undergraduate students. Even the quantity and quality of faculty research is heavily dependent on graduate students. They push us to think outside the box in many ways and are often involved in collecting the data for the research for which the faculty are getting grants. For these reasons, investment in graduate education actually helps the entire institution.

At the same time, we teach graduate students to be creative, original thinkers and researchers who can not only fill positions at research universities, but teach in community colleges, and work in nonprofits, industry and in the public sector. We need people with strong scientific training — critical thinkers who can translate research — in all areas of society, and research Ph.D. graduate programs prepare students to play that role.

Q. Are there particular factors unique to the U of M when it comes to graduate education?

A. There are few institutions nationally that have the breadth of post-baccalaureate programs that we have. Most states have a flagship university and a land-grant institution (e.g. Michigan/Michigan State). We are both in one. So automatically that means we combine the full range of programs you would expect at a flagship and land-grant institution. While the kinds of professional programs we have — medical school, dental school, business school, law school — are found at these other institutions, almost no institution has all of them. The U of M has more than 250 graduate and professional programs in all. It’s really pretty astounding.

With that in mind, talking about post-baccalaureate education at the U of M is very complicated. … It’s easier in many cases at smaller, less comprehensive universities to make a dichotomy between graduate education and professional education. Here, it’s not so easy. We have programs that would traditionally be called graduate and some that would traditionally be called professional and a whole bunch that are sort of in the middle — they’re kind of graduate-like and they’re kind of professional-like. It’s a mess in terms of operations and budgets, but it’s a great thing academically.

Q. What are some of the U of M’s strengths and challenges in regard to graduate education?

A. One of the great strengths of this institution is the breadth, depth and quality of the faculty. We have great researchers who are also great mentors and there is an openness to considering and accepting students who are interested in a variety of career paths. That’s not always true at other institutions where the measure of success is producing more academics.

One challenge is that a lot of what the Graduate School used to do has been pushed to the colleges in recent years. There are no doubt good reasons for that, but one of the consequences is that we have now almost certainly erected new barriers to inter-collegiate cooperation. Another challenge is that the graduate education funding model has changed here at the U in recent years. We know that one of the reasons we lose students to other top programs is that these other institutions include more fellowship support than we have been able to offer. Unfortunately, many graduate programs are no longer able to offer multi-year recruitment fellowships to their top prospects.

Q. What steps can we take to improve graduate education?

A. The report of the Special Committee on Graduate Education includes a long list of both short-term and long-term steps that would strengthen graduate education at the University of Minnesota.

– Stephanie Xenos