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A Ph.D. graduate hugs her adviser on the stage at Northrop Auditorium during commencement.

After receiving her doctoral hood at commencement December 2, a graduate was congratulated by her faculty adviser on the stage at Northrop Memorial Auditorium.

The Graduate School is 100

New dean and vice provost sets agenda for the next century of graduate education

By Gayla Marty

Brief, December 21, 2005

Graduate School commencement may be the happiest day at the University, as hundreds of talented, dedicated people are awarded the highest academic degrees. Twice a year, in May and December, the velvet and satin of master's and doctoral robes fill the front seats under Northrop Auditorium's carved stone arches.

This December 2 was that happy afternoon. In an upstairs gallery, graduates donned their robes--black for the master's degree, maroon and black and gold for the doctorate. Backstage, faculty members adjusted berets, hoods, and robes in the colors of their disciplines and alma maters. To the strains of the pipe organ in the pit, they came together under floodlights and footlights in front of hushed, excited, and exhausted family and friends. As the graduates' names were called and they crossed the stage, bent down or knelt to be hooded, and shook hands with the dean, smiling faculty members jostled in the wings to meet their advisees--now colleagues. They hugged, laughed, and sometimes cried.

The ceremony also marked the end of the Graduate School's centennial year. In 1905, Northrop had not been built; now, it's an icon. In 1905, the 54-year-old University enrolled more than 100 graduate students in a few fields. Now, more than 10,000 students on the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses are enrolled in the Graduate School, earning degrees in about 150 fields.

More joy

There's a lot of joy in Northrop on commencement day. But the new dean and vice provost, Gail Dubrow, would like the entire graduate student experience to be more joyful. Strengthening the graduate student experience is only one challenge she sees ahead. Arriving last August, Dubrow seized the centennial as a time to not only look back but to turn a powerful gaze forward.

A trio of English horn, violin, and piano play an original composition on the stage at Northrop, with faculty in the background.
Music composed for the Graduate School's centennial, played at commencement in December, filled the auditorium with pastoral yet modern strains of English horn, viola, and piano. Read more in the spotlight.

The University of Minnesota has a proven ability to lead. In 1885, for example, when only 17 students were enrolled in graduate study, eight of them were women. The first Ph.D. earned by a woman at the University was conferred in 1892, 15 years before Johns Hopkins University--a leader in organizing graduate education--allowed women into graduate classes.

And it was students themselves who pushed the young University of Minnesota, first to offer graduate study, then to organize the Graduate School to make their needs a priority. Graduate schools are colleges that work with all the discipline-based colleges to provide standards, consistency, and support specifically for graduate students and the research in which they're engaged.

There's no doubt that the Graduate School's quest for academic quality and standards helped to raise the University of Minnesota to international recognition in graduate education, attracting top talent from around the world. But the hundred years ahead look very different.

"The last century was about forming disciplines," Dubrow says, "the next is about crossing disciplinary boundaries.

"The last hundred years was about forming core requirements of graduate disciplines. In the next, we need to assess those requirements to be sure they match the competencies our graduates need.

"In the last century, not everyone was welcomed into graduate education, but our future will be more diverse. Diversity is a matter of social justice, but there's also an intellectual issue. Knowledge is transformed through the experiences, priorities, and insights of those who've been excluded and marginalized."

Setting an intellectual agenda

To provide a place for University-wide discussion, Dubrow and associate Vicki Field organized a symposium in October on the future of graduate education. One of the goals of the symposium was to explore the position of graduate education in the University's ambition to become one of the top-three public research universities in the world.

Portrait in black and white of Gail Dubrow
Graduate School dean and vice provost Gail Dubrow

"It's not enough to have an administrative agenda," she says. "I wanted to help set an ambitious intellectual agenda. [...] We care deeply about the experience of students and about quality. To me, this is all about preparing the next generation of researchers and scholars with what they need to know to be successful."

The fact that only about half of U.S. doctoral students complete their degrees Dubrow sees as a blot on American graduate education. A certain amount of loss is normal and healthy, as when a student leaves graduate school after a year because it's not what he or she wants to do. But it's troubling when thousands of students work for years in programs and never complete their dissertations. What's the consequence when some of the world's brightest citizens "fail" at something in which they've invested themselves so deeply?

The symposium featured several University of Minnesota departments that are turning things around. In the Department of History, before 2000, only 20 percent of the doctoral students who stayed in the program had finished all but their dissertation (ABD) in three years; by 2005, 93 percent were ABD in three years. Professor Ruth Karras said the key was guaranteeing every new student four or five years of funding. As a result, every student now gets teaching experience and the department needs to offer admission to only 35 students each year instead of 70. The department also offers preparation that recognizes three distinct career emphases: teaching, research, and public history. Its current efforts include shaping curriculum and preliminary examinations so they mesh more closely.

"To me, this is all about preparing the next generation of researchers and scholars with what they need to know to be successful," says Dubrow.

Dubrow wants to "connect the dots" between the undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and faculty experiences so there is more consistency and integration among them. Funding agencies are way ahead of universities on recognizing this challenge, she says, and have taken the lead in identifying and investing in best practices. For example, the National Science Foundation sponsors grants for "vertical integration" of research and education in mathematics, helping scholars to interact across boundaries of age and departmental standing. Dubrow wants the University of Minnesota to be positioned to take advantage of opportunities like that and then adopt best practices.

The Graduate School is also reexamining how it can use the tools it already has to make a difference, working in partnership with departments. For example, starting this year, Graduate School-funded fellowships and block grants will reward departments that reorganize their financial offers to new students as multi-year packages. The goal is to draw top students, ensure a fit, promote developmentally appropriate experiences, and reduce the time to degree. It also ensures that programs accept only as many students as they can support with some security.

Evolving disciplines

Interdisciplinarity--work that integrates concepts and intellectual frameworks for more than one discipline--is one of the University of Minnesota's strengths.

Graduate reform as part of strategic positioning

Two strategic positioning task forces are specifically addressing graduate education.

* Graduate Reform: Student Support
* Graduate Reform: Discipline Evolution

For more information, see Transforming the U. Choose "Strategic Positioning Process Feedback" to comment.

"This is an institution that is relatively far into the experiment of crossing disciplinary boundaries," says Dubrow, whose own academic appointments span three colleges and four departments.

Top-level leadership has helped to put the University of Minnesota in good company with top public research universities. But, says Dubrow, none of them has gone beyond seeding interdisciplinary activity to transform policies and practices to sustain it. That would involve tenure, budget redirection, changing the training of graduate students, and other innovations.

The University's strategic positioning process provides the opportunity to do what others have not been able to do. And the Graduate School, with its cross-college scope, is in a good position to provide leadership for interdisciplinary work. Dubrow hopes to host a national conference on the topic at the University of Minnesota in spring 2007.

"That's our opening," she says with a smile.