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Feature

A woman looks in a computerized microscope

The U is home to many competitive graduate programs, such as Rutherford's in the College of Veterinary Medicine. A new proposal aims to create a pilot project that makes it easier for applicants in biological and biomedical sciences to be considered for more than one at a time so the U doesn't lose out on top talent.

Innovating to transform graduate education

Competition yields ways to make the U a leader

By Gayla Marty

Brief, June 28, 2006

It was February. Associate professor Mark Rutherford knew how tough it was to get into his comparative and molecular biosciences graduate program at the U. If these incredibly gifted students didn't make the cut for the College of Veterinary Medicine, where would they go? At least three other programs right on the Twin Cities campus could meet their needs--including one lab whose lights he could see up the street in the early dusk--but he had the nagging feeling that the U would lose them to competing universities. Rutherford wondered: What if those students could easily identify and apply to all the U's related programs simultaneously?

Meanwhile, on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis, a dissertation workshop was gathering on the third floor of Johnston Hall, steamy cups of coffee in hand. Coordinators Noro Andriamanalina and Patricia Jones Whyte knew the workshop was making a difference for graduate students of color, shaving eight months off the average time-to-completion. That day, a student came up to Andriamanalina by the door. "This is my friend," the student said softly, pulling her friend inside the room. "She's been working on her dissertation for three years and she really, really needs this workshop, and she's not really eligible, but I'm wondering, can she sit in just for today?"

Back in St. Paul, nine people sat around a campus conference table working out plans for graduate programs in their two merging colleges and another department. They couldn't believe how much of their work crossed all these disciplines and even more college and campus boundaries--such as water-related research in every part of the state. What bothered them were the stories of faculty members with great ideas, yearning for interdisciplinary freedom but facing barriers. "What if?" they wondered. "What if...departments wouldn't lose money or time whenever a faculty member spent a semester or a year in another part of the U?"

In each of these three cases, the people involved wrote up their idea and submitted it to the Graduate School, which sponsored the first Innovative Ideas competition this winter. And they won. Because of their proposals, the Graduate School will explore innovative methods and approaches to match their innovative ideas, solving problems and making the U stronger. Every winning proposal dovetails with themes and recommendations that emerged from the U's strategic positioning task forces.

"I feel very fortunate that the entries addressed both incremental reform and bold ideas," Gail Dubrow, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School, told those gathered for a celebration last month. The Graduate School has the ability to implement and apply solutions broadly, but Dubrow knows that partnerships with individual units are essential. "They have ideas, believe me, we never would have thought of!"

Dubrow came up with the idea for the competition during her first year on campus and put up some hard cash as a reward. A committee headed by professor Jean Bauer reviewed 31 proposals.

Recruiting top students

"At first, I thought my idea was a little ridiculous," says Rutherford. "The U is so big. Students are drawn to one grad program and it can be hard to find out about others because programs in the life sciences--although they're interdisciplinary--are kind of put in boxes."

Mark Rutherford
Mark Rutherford, associate professor, College of Veterinary Medicine.

In Rutherford's case, the related graduate programs include microbiology, immunology, and cancer biology; pharmacology--available at both the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses; and biochemistry, molecular biology, and biophysics. Each program requires an application fee. How are individuals and institutions matched in an ever more complex environment?

Rutherford's department in the College of Veterinary Medicine already had a practice in place that gave him an idea. Its graduate students identify their advisers by completing three ten-week research rotations. A few of those students, when offered a rotation with professors in other programs, have ended up identifying mentors outside the program.

"Our philosophy has been to find the best fit for the student even if we risk losing them," says Rutherford. "What has actually happened is that our program now has two faculty members who were [previously] unaware of its breadth and who were impressed enough to recruit those students to their labs. They never would have met if we didn't encourage the students to throw a wide net in choosing research rotations."

Rutherford won first prize for his proposal to apply some of the same principles to the U-wide graduate application process. The proposed pilot project will prompt applicants to select several key words to describe their interest, which will generate a list of potentially relevant graduate programs. He suspects it will be a boon for the U because he knows that his program is not the only one with closely related programs across U department, college, and campus boundaries.

"Yes, [our department has] lost several applicants to other programs when they applied to more than one," he says, "but that's fine--so long as the best students choose Minnesota."

Retaining and supporting student talent

With only about half of Ph.D. students across the nation completing their degrees, retention in the dissertation stage is a serious concern. In response, some U departments and the Twin Cities campus University Counseling and Consulting Service (UCCS) have developed support groups and workshops for students writing their dissertations. Yet there's no large-scale effort to make proven resources readily accessible.

Noro Andriamanalina and Patricia Jones Whyte
Noro Andriamanalina and Patricia Jones Whyte, Graduate School Diversity Office.

Retention of students of color has been especially challenging. That's why, five years ago, the Graduate School Diversity Office designed a curriculum for a series of workshops, which is now raising completion rates and shortening time-to-degree. Expanding that program won second prize in the competition.

Students get feedback from faculty and staff, which the coordinators believe has been the major component to help students make progress, says Andriamanalina. The series includes components for both planning and writing a dissertation.

"It's been successful, and we wanted to share it," Jones Whyte says. "I am so proud of our entire staff...We do consider ourselves a hotbed of ideas!"

Dubrow sees the initiative as a good example of how some of our best practices grow out of diversity initiatives. During the coming year, she plans also to create a task force on graduate writing.

Advancing faculty mobility

"You've probably heard that the world's greatest ideas happen at the interface of disciplines," says Susan Galatowitsch, associate professor of horticultural science. "Not just the U but society loses out when universities can't support interdisciplinary scholarship."

Lisa Wiley, Susan Galatowitsch, Gail Dubrow, Deborah Allen, Rex Bernardo
Four of the nine members of the graduate education planning group for the new College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) celebrated with the Graduate School dean. Left to right: Lisa Wiley, Susan Galatowitsch, Gail Dubrow, Deborah Allen, Rex Bernardo.

Third prize went to Galatowitsch and eight others who were part of a group focusing on graduate education in the new College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS), forming officially July 1. They recognized that faculty members want and need some freedom and mobility to pursue their ideas and passions. Lack of mobility is a nationwide problem, so changing universities won't necessarily end a scholar's frustration.

The CFANS group envisioned a program or structure in which faculty members could take part in a U program outside their home department for up to 50 percent time and up to three years.

Within the U's current structure, the cost to departments of increasing faculty mobility would seem prohibitive. Putting a price tag on it helps simply to illustrate the problem, but the Graduate School has set out to find ways to achieve the goal without millions of dollars.

The challenge to increase intellectual mobility was identified by several strategic positioning task forces: those on discipline evolution, science and engineering, research infrastructure, and research collaboration. So far, some legislative initiatives in the 1990s and some endowed chairs have created joint appointments between departments or colleges to work on particular problems of special social concern. Interdisciplinary graduate programs--such as conservation biology and water resources science--also provide opportunities for faculty working with graduate students. The CFANS group knows more is needed.

"We believe that interdisciplinary scholarship needs to be sustained for the faculty, not just graduate students," says Galatowitsch, "and it should involve more than the few faculty members who hold joint appointments."

Developing public engagement

Honorable mention went to a fourth project for which the implementation wheels are already in motion. A group of several professors is developing a teaching theory and practice for public engagement.

The discussion addresses such problems as what happens to students who are motivated to enter graduate school because of a compelling desire to address a social problem, who then get the message--intended or not--that "real" research can be done only by a researcher without a personal investment. And what happens to a community that opens itself up to research only to be left with nothing to show for its efforts? What happens to the U's reputation in that community?

The University does have an initiative that educates graduate students about ethical issues in research, scholarship, and professional practice. That in turn grew out of a research ethics program, required for many faculty researchers.

"What if we used that much-groused-about requirement as a place of excitement?" asks philosophy professor Naomi Scheman. "We want to think about engagement broadly, about particular communities and particular projects and about how the U is already engaged."

Next steps

The Graduate School staff is now following up on all the winning proposals to develop concrete ways to implement them. In addition, a national conference on interdisciplinarity, to be hosted on the Twin Cities campus in 2007-08, is in the planning stages. Dubrow was gratified by all of the proposals. Contestants, reviewers, and Graduate School leadership have all expressed their interest in seeing the Innovative Ideas competition become an annual event, since good ideas abound. In the context of the U's ambitious transformation and what Dubrow calls "blue-sky thinking," drawing on wisdom and perspectives from the local level, across the U, is a smart move.