(Grad) School's Out

February 12, 2009

Provost Tom Sullivan has decided to dissolve the University of Minnesota's graduate school, placing more power in the hands of individual deans and his own office. Justified in part by budget shortfalls, the decision forecasts the kind of bold and arguably risky tactics college leaders may employ under increased demands to streamline -- and it quickly began to stir controversy at the university.

“Clearly we have some redundancies and overlap requirements of our graduate students, and in this day and age there’s really no reason for that,” Sullivan said. “We need to be more nimble in how we recruit and admit and support those students.”

“We’re going to put more responsibility in the academic homes, where I think it should be intellectually and academically,” he added.

While the graduate school will cease to exist as a freestanding administrative unit, an Office of Graduate Education will be created within the provost’s office. Sullivan said this new office will continue to focus on big-picture graduate issues across the university, but the new structure clearly gives deans greater autonomy to develop graduate programs.

The graduate school at Minnesota is viewed by some faculty as an important centralized entity designed to help ensure that resources are distributed in service to the broader mission of the university -- not just an individual department or college. On the other hand, there is little question that the graduate school introduces another bureaucratic layer within an already complex research institution. That layer of bureaucracy has at times been a cumbersome barrier to deans who are trying to introduce new programs or recruit students in highly competitive areas, according to two deans who spoke with Inside Higher Ed.

John Finnegan, dean for Minnesota’s School of Public Health, said the graduate school slowed down what should have been relatively straightforward decisions. Finnegan grew so frustrated with outsourcing application reviews to the graduate school -- “very often the process would take so long I would lose some of the best students,” he said -- that he eventually moved that function into his own school. Finnegan also said he had trouble getting new programs expeditiously reviewed for approval, noting that it once took the graduate school nine months to approve the expansion of an existing program onto another campus.

“I think that there’s got to be something there to [evaluate new programs], but nine months to approve a program when there’s not any changes? Come on,” he said. “Where’s the value added in that?”

Alison Davis-Blake, dean of the Carlson School of Management, agreed that the graduate school has been a hindrance in some cases. Admissions decisions, for instance, are handled at both the local level and the graduate school, which Davis-Blake views as an unnecessary redundancy.

“When you operate in a graduate school structure, you have to do many things twice,” she said.

Model Differs at Most Colleges

Minnesota officials cite as models several other distinguished universities, including Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania, where decentralization of the graduate school has been introduced. The “vast majority” of the Council of Graduate Schools’ member institutions, however, have stand-alone graduate schools, an official there said Wednesday.

A handbook produced by the national council also declares: "There should be a separate unit within the university that decides on or has veto power over admissions decisions, ensures that the policies set in place by the graduate faculty are being carried out, and has final degree-granting authority for all graduate degrees. This structure fosters equity in standards across all graduate programs, helps to provide quality control, and stimulates boundary-spanning curriculum development at the graduate level."

According to Sullivan, the Office of Graduate Education will "responsible for oversight," but "ultimate responsibility and accountability for the quality of individual graduate programs will reside appropriately with the collegiate deans and the faculty."

Robin Brown, director of graduate studies for Minnesota’s Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, said that the graduate school has helped to ensure that resources are fairly distributed across departments.

“They are an equalizer, and source of equity and a source of balance,” he said.

Under the new model, deans will be making their cases for graduate school resources directly to the provost, as opposed to going through the graduate school. The vice provost and dean of graduate education, a newly created position, will serve in an advisory capacity, but the

Photo: University of Minnesota

Gail Dubrow, vice provost and dean of the graduate school, was not informed of the plan to dissolve the graduate school until shortly before the announcement was made public, according to several sources.

provost will be making final calls, Sullivan said.

“I’ll have much greater information,” he said. “It will be decentralized where the deans can speak directly to the quality of his or her programs.”

The decentralization is also expected to produce savings, which Sullivan says will be redirected into graduate programs for fellowships and other enhancements. Asked about the potential for layoffs, Sullivan would only say, "We’re certainly going to be eliminating responsibilities and that will affect people. I don’t have numbers.”

Provost Criticized for Approach

The restructuring of Minnesota’s graduate school, announced Monday, came as a surprise to many. Sullivan said he consulted deans prior to making the announcement, but several sources told Inside Higher Ed that Gail Dubrow, vice provost and dean of the graduate school, was not informed until just prior to a press release being issued.

Sullivan was tight-lipped, however, about how much -- or how early -- he consulted with Dubrow, whose role would clearly be diminished, if not eliminated, under the new arrangement.

“The dean was consulted before there were any public announcements,” he said. “I’m not going to get into the details of the conversation.”

Nor would Sullivan discuss whether Dubrow will have a new role in his office. “She and I’ve had a conversation about that, and I’m not going to disclose confidences that we’ve discussed,” he said.

Dubrow declined an interview request, saying Sullivan was the “spokesman” on the issue.

Dubrow wasn’t the only person who was apparently in the dark about the overhaul of graduate education at Minnesota. Graduate students said they were not consulted at all about the plan.

“We totally understand that there were structural changes that needed to be made and that’s been evident, but to go ahead and wipe out the grad school without consulting the community -- it’s really shocking,” said Kristi Kremers, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly at Minnesota.

Kremers said the elimination of the gradate school stands to undercut the influence of the assembly, which represents 23,000 graduate and professional students at Minnesota.

“There’s a lot of issues that students share across disciplines," she said, "and with the current structure they’re able to have more leverage."


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