Daniel Diermeier: Report by the Committee on Graduate Education

April 10, 2019

To: UChicago Faculty, OAAs, Students, and Staff
From: Daniel Diermeier, Provost
Subject: Report by the Committee on Graduate Education
Date: April 10, 2019

Graduate education is integral to the University of Chicago's purpose and has been since its founding. The goal of the University, as explained by President William Rainey Harper, was “to make the work of investigation primary.” This commitment to rigorous inquiry has guided the development of PhD programs over the nearly 130 years of the University’s history, programs which have contributed immeasurably to the University’s eminence. While our PhD programs continue to be a source of pride and distinction, we must continuously explore opportunities to make improvements and further define our unique point of view on PhD education.

To that end, about a year ago I charged the Committee on Graduate Education – composed of faculty and PhD students from across campus – with providing a thorough and comprehensive assessment of the present state of PhD education at the University. The Committee has now submitted its report, which is available here. I would like to express my deep gratitude to the members of the Committee for their thoughtful process and recommendations, their level of engagement and thoroughness, and their commitment to PhD education at the University of Chicago.

In 1980, University President Hanna Gray issued a similar charge to the Commission on Graduate Education, which resulted in the Baker Report of 1982. The Baker Report stated that “the University’s future as a center of graduate education will depend in large part on the distinctiveness of its conception of the nature and purpose of that activity.” The Report of the Committee on Graduate Education constitutes an important next step in the continuation of that process.

Notably, the Committee has called for “a new paradigm in doctoral education” while asking, “what outcomes of doctoral education merit the extraordinary investment required of institutions? If we are not doing all that we can to meet these objectives, what changes might draw us closer to that goal?” In answering those core questions, the Committee identified several key issues affecting the education and experience of PhD students and offered a variety of recommendations, including “the need to effect cultural change among our faculty.” On topics ranging from faculty mentoring and pedagogical training to PhD funding, health services, administrative problems, climate issues, and space, the Committee has highlighted opportunities for the University to take action that will directly improve the graduate student experience. Some issues had already been identified and work is under way; for others, we will begin the necessary work immediately.

Several of the recommendations focused around how the University could ensure that our PhD programs are achieving their primary purpose: to educate and prepare the next generation of field-defining scholars and researchers. The Committee identified ways in which we can rigorously evaluate and strengthen these programs.

  • PhD Program Reviews. The Committee recommended regular reviews of doctoral programs, both by the school or division and by the University, to ensure that programs are continuing to achieve their mission. In consultation with the deans, we will discuss the nature and timing of such reviews and the necessary level of support from the Office of the Provost.
  • Time to Degree, Late Attrition, and Mentoring. The Committee stated its serious concerns around extended time to degree and prevalence of late attrition. Further, the Committee suggested that solutions to these issues must be holistic in nature and may require the willingness to engage in cultural change, improved faculty mentoring, and consideration about the size of a program's entering class and its total size such that “program size should not exceed mentoring capacity.” Much of this work will take place in discussions at the program level. The Office of the Provost will support these activities administratively and explore additional programs to help faculty to become more effective mentors.
  • PhD Funding. The Committee underscored that secure funding of PhD students is both “an educational and moral imperative.” The deans of the Division of the Humanities, Division of the Social Sciences, the School of Social Service Administration and the Divinity School have already announced substantial improvements to PhD funding. In addition, by the end of the Spring Quarter, the Office of the Provost will develop an alternative funding model to address some of the challenges of implementation of the Graduate Aid Initiative (GAI).
  • Pedagogical Training. The Committee pointed to various short-comings in properly preparing our doctoral students as teachers, while noting the valuable training offered by the Chicago Center on Teaching. I will ask the deans to work with their department chairs and faculty to conduct a thorough review of teaching expectations in each of the PhD programs, including availability of teaching opportunities, the role of pedagogical training in particular fields, and the appropriate timing of pedagogical training within the PhD curricula. Some of this work has already commenced in the schools and divisions, but it is important that we accelerate and broaden the discussion. In particular, we need to explore the current linkage between teaching and GAI funding. This process will commence in collaboration with the College to ensure that the needs of undergraduate and PhD students are coordinated and aligned. We will also explore additional opportunities for pedagogical training in collaboration with the Chicago Center for Teaching.
  • Career Support. As recognized by the Committee, since its formation UChicagoGRAD has provided career and professional development resources for graduate students across campus. We are committed to further enhancing career support for PhD students, especially in the area of field-specific career preparation.

Another key theme that emerged in the Committee’s recommendations was ensuring that graduate students have a meaningful voice in decisions that affect them and their education.

  • Student Participation. The Committee on Graduate Education included both faculty and students, in notable contrast to previous University committees and reports. To further enhance opportunities for student participation I am asking deans, department chairs, and administrative leadership across campus to increase opportunities for student perspectives to inform decision-making, specifically as it affects graduate education.
  • Grievance Policy. The Committee detailed two primary challenges related to the current grievance processes available to students—the processes vary across the University and there is no process for students to seek resolution outside of their own division or school. This quarter I will appoint a follow-up committee composed of faculty and graduate students to evaluate these issues and make recommendations to me about how to best address these challenges.

A related concern in the report pertained to access to accurate and timely information for current and prospective PhD students. This is an area where the University can do more to ensure data is shared in a transparent manner and students are aware of the resources available to them.

  • Data. The Committee clearly stated that access to data about PhD programs—specifically related to admissions, completion, and placement—is necessary for students to make informed decisions about their futures and for faculty to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their PhD programs. We have already begun to improve access to data and, by the end of this quarter, we will publish data summaries online for each PhD program. Moving forward, this information will be updated on an annual basis.
  • Communication. A recurring theme throughout the Committee’s report was the need for more effective communications, clearer policies, and more accessible information. I have asked UChicagoGRAD to work with Campus and Student Life, the Office of Communications, Graduate Council, and students across the divisions and schools to determine how best to communicate important information to PhD students. I will also ask the deans to work with their departments and programs to review graduate student admissions offer letters to ensure that prospective students have a clear picture of the financial and other supports that will be available to them during their time as PhD students.

Beyond the academic realm, the Committee also highlighted a variety of concerns related to student life.

  • Payments for Graduate Students. Late or incorrect payments to graduate students are unacceptable. I have asked UChicagoGRAD, in collaboration with the offices of the bursar, graduate financial aid, and payroll, as well as the divisions and schools, to assess the functioning of the multiple and complex payment systems, work to prevent late or incorrect payments, and to address promptly any such errors that may still occur. As issues are identified – both isolated instances and systemic problems – improvements will be implemented. If you have experienced any issue with payment, please contact gradhelp@uchicago.edu for assistance.
  • Graduate Student Center. The Committee identified the creation of a graduate student center as fundamental to improving the graduate student experience—space for socializing, for small group study and meetings, and for private meetings between students. We will explore this suggestion with the goal of identifying space before the end of the quarter. Once a space is identified, UChicagoGRAD will work with the Graduate Council and other graduate students to ensure the space meets the needs of graduate students.
  • Health Services Support and Communication. The Committee noted concerns related to student health services and the effectiveness of information available about health services and insurance. The new Student Wellness Center, scheduled to open in autumn 2020, will greatly expand our ability to support student mental health and wellbeing. In the meantime, we will work to ensure that students are aware of all the resources that are available. As part of the University’s recent Campus Health Needs Assessment, focus groups are being conducted to identify the most effective ways to communicate with students. I strongly encourage PhD students, and all members of the University community, to participate and share your perspective and ideas; you can sign up here.
  • Sexual Misconduct Training. The University requires annual sexual misconduct awareness and prevention training for all students, faculty, other academic appointees, staff, and postdoctoral researchers. The Committee raised concerns that the mandatory training is not tailored appropriately for graduate students. I have asked the Office of the Provost’s Equal Opportunity Programs to review this issue for next year's training. The Office of the Provost Student Advisory Board on Sexual Misconduct will provide valuable input in this process, and I encourage students interested in this topic to participate in its efforts.
  • Campus Climate. The observations of the Committee echoed many of the issues identified in the 2016 Climate Survey on Diversity and Inclusion. Since that report, the University has made significant investments in programs and resources designed to foster a diverse and inclusive environment for faculty, students, and staff. There is much more work to be done, and the report calls for both the development of additional support and programs and an evaluation of the effectiveness of current efforts. The University will conduct another comprehensive Climate Survey on Diversity and Inclusion in 2021. In the meantime, we will explore the possibility for additional assessments of campus climate, especially as it pertains to graduate students.
  • Housing and Transportation. The Committee’s report discussed various concerns with graduate student housing and transportation. I will convene a working group to examine the issue of housing near campus. We will also gather more data around transportation, specifically looking to ensure that the University’s investments in transportation are meeting the needs of graduate students.

The Report of the Committee on Graduate Education constitutes an important step in strengthening PhD education at the University. It exemplifies the value of a collaborative process that involved both students and faculty, all committed to a common goal. While much needs to be done, it is this enduring, shared commitment to excellence in graduate education that will guide our future work.

President Gray wrote in her 1980 invitation letter to members of the Commission on Graduate Education:

I expect the work of this group to be unusually important in exploring and shaping the nature and directions of the University's definition of purpose and of its academic objectives in the years ahead. The Commission's activity … will give stimulus and substance to the most significant discussions and decisions that we need to undertake.

I hold the same expectation as we engage in the process of strengthening doctoral education at the University of Chicago today.

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