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The Graduate Dean as Pope?

Tomorrow's Academy

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Nevertheless, graduate education requires a campus advocate who can speak and work for all graduate faculty, students, and programs. Such advocacy is needed because responsibility for graduate education is so fragmented across the university. With such fragmentation, how can the university address such pressing and troubling concerns as the dual role graduate assistants play as students and as university employees?


The posting below looks at the role of the graduate dean and how to improve its effectiveness. It is by Philip Cohen dean of the graduate school and vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. ( The article first appeared in the May-June 2007 issue of Academe, Volume 93, Number 3, and lays out one possible road map for graduate deans interested in becoming more effective campus advocates for graduate education. Copyright ©2007 American Association of University Professors. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academia

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The Graduate Dean as Pope?

Stalin famously asked how many divisions the pope had. Graduate deans need to learn how to back up their titles with some real power if they want to get things done on campus

By Philip Cohen

I begin with that noted academic administrator Joseph Stalin, who asked, "The Pope? How many divisions has he got?" To whom and when Stalin uttered this contemptuous, albeit rhetorical, question is a matter of some debate among historians. While Stalin's much-cited query may be apocryphal, its significance is clear. The Soviet autocrat reserved his respect for raw power alone. That is, he was blind to the force that the pontiff's spiritual and moral authority could wield.

Without trivializing the context of Stalin's remark or risking potentially blasphemous comparisons between popes and graduate deans, I wish to point out the remark's relevance to the role graduate deans play in improving graduate education on university campuses. Like popes, graduate deans are unable to muster any troops. Although some graduate deans may review tenure and promotion cases at the university level, most of us do not hire, mentor, or review faculty. Nor do we supervise, or have direct responsibility for, students. Although many graduate deans oversee the academics and administration of graduate programs, graduate advisers, graduate faculty, and graduate studies committees, we lack budgetary responsibility for these areas. As a result, some academic deans and chairs are prone to view us as minor irritants at best or presumptuous interlopers at worst.

Nevertheless, graduate education requires a campus advocate who can speak and work for all graduate faculty, students, and programs. Such advocacy is needed because responsibility for graduate education is so fragmented across the university. With such fragmentation, how can the university address such pressing and troubling concerns as the dual role graduate assistants play as students and as university employees?

Yet graduate deans may find it difficult to establish the necessary credibility and trust on campus to enable us to be effective champions. Moreover, graduate programs across the disciplines are so different from one another that perhaps no single graduate dean is able to represent or improve all of them. In addition, if we represent everyone involved in graduate education-faculty, administrators, and students, then arguably we represent no one. Academic administrators may be forgiven their skepticism that "doctoral education is a unified concept" that "argues for the existence of graduate schools and deans with real authority and sizable budgets," as Robert Weisbuch puts it in the November-December 2005 issue of Academe.

But one common denominator among graduate deans is our passionate commitment to advancing graduate education on campus and our equally strong conviction that we should play a central role in doing so. As Weisbuch argues in Academe, graduate deans "can help remove barriers between graduate departments. Graduate deans can cross the gridlines of the disciplines; they can create interchange among departments, influence campus culture, and help to link a university with its local community." This commitment is the source of what power we may have.

Academic deans may measure us cold-bloodedly with the same standard Stalin used. But we shouldn't let their ruthlessness blind us to the real power that we possess. This power to effect change must be exercised sparingly to maximize its impact, but it is, for all that, still power. In what follows, I lay out one possible road map for graduate deans interested in becoming more effective campus advocates for graduate education.

1. Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country-or, first things first.

Whatever a graduate school's current core mission may be, a graduate dean should improve its components decisively and promptly. If you have responsibility for graduate recruiting, graduate admissions, and enrolled student services, for example, work overtime to develop efficient and effective policies and procedures. My university's Office of Graduate Studies was a slow-moving, rule driven bureaucracy with more than its share of inflexible and outdated policies that often seemed to work against the interests of students, faculty, and even the institution. Many of our outdated policies-from recruiting and admissions to theses review to certification and graduation-came from an earlier time in my university's history when graduate enrollments were much smaller. We had complicated paper-driven processes that had become more and more Byzantine as federal and state laws and accreditation policies shifted. As a result, students, faculty, and administrators across the campus viewed the office as an institution run by people who were equal parts Darth Vader and Dr. No. Before we could ask units on campus to undertake initiatives with us, we first, like physicians, had to heal ourselves.

One example should suffice. The university's academic program review process for undergraduate and graduate programs, a process that my office oversees, was broken. In fact, our practices resembled nothing so much as the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. You'll recall that at the conclusion of that movie, the ark of the covenant is deposited deep in the bowels of a mammoth U.S. government warehouse, presumably never to be heard from again. Like the ark, the reports and recommendations from our academic program review teams disappeared somewhere in the provost's office. Occasionally, a program and its review team did not have access to the previous review, let alone the improvements that had resulted from that review. Since properly administered program reviews can help address, realistically and pragmatically, issues related to faculty members, students, administrators, and curricula, we devised and implemented a process whereby the program staff, chair, dean, and provost now respond to the review teams' reports. The respondents develop a specific improvement plan with short- and long-term components and timelines. The recommendations of review teams are never accepted wholesale, of course, and sweeping changes do not occur overnight. But improvements that strengthen programs as a result of the review process are now the norm instead of the exception.

Similarly, we revamped processes and procedures in graduate recruiting and admissions, enrolled student services, and certification and graduation. We even implemented an electronic thesis and dissertation option. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we stole it whenever we could by adopting the best practices of others unless there was a compelling reason not to do so. We respected differences in academic cultures among various disciplines, but we also produced reform. As a result, we changed the image of the Graduate School and built up a certain amount of good will on campus.

2. God bless the child that's got his own: get yourself a budget.

Many graduate schools lack significant budgetary authority. But respect on campus accrues to those units with budgets, especially substantial ones. Persuading administrators and faculty members to join you in improving graduate education on campus and to generate funds for doing so is easier if you are able to bring your own dollars to the table as well. Graduate deans should make it a priority to seek ways to increase their budgetary authority. If your office does not currently receive the revenue produced by the various fees required of all graduate students, find out who does and why. Then devise and lobby for some modest proposals to receive a portion of these funds. Develop specific plans for expending these fees in ways that are clearly tied to strategic institutional goals in graduate education that most campus stakeholders support-for example, that of increasing financial support to attract outstanding graduate students. Work with your provost, vice president for finance, students, and other campus groups to develop and obtain approval for pragmatic tuition and fee proposals and capital campaign participation that allow you to fund your mission and undertake important new initiatives in graduate education.

3. No man is an island, nor is a graduate school; get involved.

Graduate deans should involve themselves in all discussions among academic managers about issues critical to their institutions -for example, strategic planning, enrollment management, tuition setting, or major technology acquisition and implementation. At many universities, consultation with the graduate school on such matters can be an afterthought, and administrators make decisions that do not take into account the distinctive nature and needs of graduate education. At my university, for example, the Office of Graduate Studies often learned about campuswide policy decisions after the fact. Because undergraduate stakeholders drove the discussion without input from the graduate school, we had to work hard to adapt new policies and processes to graduate education.

Now, however we work much more closely with the offices of the provost, enrollment management services, institutional research, financial aid, and information technology. Thus our graduate school's involvement in the university's implementation of a new student information system and customer relationship management software from the beginning of the project through all levels of it has kept us from being locked into a structure that privileges the undergraduate side of the house.

4. How to make friends and influence people; or, it's not about the money.

Wordsworth may have admonished us nearly two hundred years ago that "getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." Nevertheless, the amount of influence you're able to wield on campus increases in direct proportion to the amount of new dollars you generate. Bought friends may be less faithful than those who share your fundamental interests and goals, but fund raising that permits you to put new money on the table for graduate student support and other initiatives is a surefire way to generate willing and eager partners among the colleges and individual programs that can participate in your initiatives through cost-sharing. At my university, folks are already lining up to join the graduate school in a wide-ranging, long-term project to improve our time-to-degree and completion rates. A skeptic might say it's because I've pledged significant annual funds to support this initiative.

So take a leadership role in developing, negotiating, and finalizing cost-sharing agreements with U.S. and international government agencies and foundations to help support graduate students. If you don't have a development officer and a fund-raising effort that's appropriate to the graduate school, seriously consider getting them. We now share a development officer with the campus libraries.

As you might expect, graduate schools face particular challenges when they undertake a development effort. Graduate deans often come late to the fund-raising table and may be accused by other deans of poaching alumni and donors. After all, how many divisions does the pope have? Or, as one dean told me, students are graduates of particular programs within our college, and they're already pursuing them, thank you very much. Whichever development strategy you select, be sure to negotiate with other deans and their development officers first. We defused some resistance to our efforts by pledging to apply money we raise to expanding our pool of graduate fellowships.

5. Reach out and touch someone; or, make a difference.

Once you've improved your core mission, established your credentials and credibility, generated significant new funds for graduate education, and attracted campus partners who are eager to work with you on projects, you need to put your increased political capital to work. Achieving goals that enjoy broad support-say, increasing funding for graduate students-may allow you to make progress in areas of graduate education that are more difficult and controversial. If you have the means, the motive, and the money, aim high and begin to tackle one or two of the complex problems that require the participation of a diverse group of folks from all over campus. Perhaps you should address an issue that everyone would like to resolve but no one has the leadership, funds, or organization to handle.

We've focused on developing a flexible campus infrastructure to support practices that encourage students to stay in their graduate programs and complete their degrees sooner rather than later, such as the early selection of a mentor, improved mentoring, social and academic integration into programs, and professional development. We have few illusions about the task we've chosen. Moving the needle on completion rates at the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the modern research university is a difficult task. But we're going to give it a try.

I close with one last suggestion: remember to play well with others. If you wish to raise the profile and impact of the graduate school on your campus, you'll need to undertake genuine collaborations with deans, chairs, faculty members, and students. Success in these efforts is possible only if others perceive your office as an entity that works with campus partners effectively to improve those aspects of graduate education that matter the most to them. If you're able to get and spend your political capital in this fashion, you may also be able to inspire and lead other people's troops even though you have none of your own. This strategy would have been anathema to Stalin, but I believe that most folks on our campuses will have a different opinion.