Mississippi State in the Silicon Valley

Starkville is a long way from San Jose, but ambitions of two universities are being combined. Many praise creativity of the approach, but some fear impact on California's master plan.
October 18, 2007

San Jose State University has a major engineering program, enrolling several thousand undergrads a year and about 2,000 master's level students. Many of those students would like a Ph.D. in engineering, and have jobs in Silicon Valley, but consider the top ranked programs in the area (those at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley) to be a bit of out of reach economically or academically. At many universities such a circumstance would lead to a proposal to create a Ph.D. program. But San Jose -- part of the California State University System -- isn't supposed to create Ph.D. programs under the much-heralded state "master plan," which leaves virtually all doctoral education to the University of California.

What to do? This week San Jose State announced a program in which its master's graduates will be able to take Ph.D. courses at San Jose State, use the labs and library, meet their dissertation committee members and probably even conduct their defenses for a Ph.D. When they display their doctorates though, the seal will be from Mississippi State University, even though the students may never have stepped foot in Mississippi.

Mississippi State professors will teach the courses online and will lead dissertation committees, in most cases through teleconferencing. Technically, the students will be Mississippi State students, although these California residents will receive waivers of out-of-state tuition rates so they will be treated like Mississippi residents.

In the era of distance education, it's of course become common for students to earn degrees from far-flung or virtual campuses. But the San Jose-Mississippi State collaboration is unusual for the way distance education is essentially creating a Ph.D. program at a specific university that would otherwise be unable to offer one. That this is taking place in a state where the master plan is supposed to clearly define (and limit) missions of institutions has raised a few eyebrows in California since The San Jose Mercury News reported on the development this week -- some raised with concern and others with respect for San Jose State's gumption.

Guna Selvaduray, associate dean at San Jose State's engineering college, said that for his master's students, the new program will be "like having their cake and eating it, too." They want more education, but can't leave their jobs in the Silicon Valley. Graduate students at Berkeley and Stanford are more likely to be full time, while his students are older, working professionals who need more flexibility and already know his campus, he said.

At Mississippi State, about 200 students are currently enrolled in engineering Ph.D. programs, a longstanding part of the land grant university's role in the state. Mississippi State would love to see those programs grow, but frankly acknowledges that Starkville isn't a draw for those seeking a high tech career. "We are essentially a college town in rural Mississippi, so our growth is limited," said Peter Rabideau, the provost.

Rabideau said his faculty would be able to see programs grow (and departments most likely grow) with the additional students from San Jose. No state funds are expected to be needed. "There's the potential for this to involve a significant number of students, which could really strengthen our programs," he said. Mississippi State students also stand to benefit, he added, as they will have opportunities to spend a semester in San Jose, either taking courses or in internships with Silicon Valley companies.

"We really see this going both ways," he said.

Standards for qualifying exams, dissertations and defenses will be as rigorous as they would be in person, he said, but they may take place through teleconferencing.

In terms of the program itself, people aren't raising questions. But the question of San Jose State offering for all purposes a Ph.D. program that it couldn't operate does have some upset (if not ready to say much in public). The master plan in California is viewed as key to the success of the state's public universities, and flagship presidents elsewhere -- many of whom face ambitious non-doctoral universities -- view the master plan with envy.

By saying that only UC would develop Ph.D. and research programs, many believe, California provided enough resources (at least until recently, some would say) to make those public universities world-class. In recent years, California State won legislative approval to start offering doctorates in education -- a move opposed by many in the UC system, even given Cal State's role producing the state's teachers.

Feelings about the issues ran so strong that it took years before Cal State could win approval and during that time, UC supporters turned to such state eminences as Clark Kerr (the former UC president, who has since died) to oppose the changes. In a letter to legislators, Kerr wrote that doctorates at Cal State would amount to "mission creep -- a well-known phenomenon in American higher education in which one segment of higher education redefines its mission to include responsibilities already being performed by another." Kerr added: "Once set in motion, mission creep is nearly impossible to reverse. It has cost taxpayer in most states millions of dollars because it has generated unproductive competition, overbuilding, and duplication of effort."

Murray Haberman, director of the California Postsecondary Education Commission, said that the San Jose-Mississippi State agreement was unusual -- and that his commission had no power over it. The commission has the power to approve or reject any joint degree program (technically this isn't one since the degree is from Mississippi State), and the commission has the power to approve or reject any arrangement between a California State campus and a private institution. There is no authority to review a program like this, and Haberman said it was unlikely that the master plan's authors -- operating in the days before distance education -- could have envisioned Mississippi State awarding doctorates in San Jose. (The master plan dates to 1960.)

"It's a very different world today" than in the days when the master plan was created, he said.

Claudia Keith, a spokeswoman for the California State system, acknowledged that officials there were looking at more doctorates, especially in fields like nursing where there are significant shortages that have an impact on the ability of the university system to educate enough nurses. She said that San Jose State's move and such plans for other doctorates shouldn't be viewed as an attack on the master plan. And she noted that other policies envisioned in it (such as free tuition) have long been abandoned.

The master plan "has morphed" over time, she said, "as the demographics and work force needs of the state have morphed."

While that morphing may yield more doctorates, she said: "I don't think CSU has any intention of becoming a research university. We provide the work force. There's no grand plan to become any sort of research university."


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