Grad programs hang on

Editor’s note: This is the third in an eight-part series examining the University 2000 plan.
Tom Lopez and
Joel Sawyer

Many perceive University graduate and professional programs as slipping in quality, a belief fueled by declining national rankings and an increasingly competitive market for top-notch graduate students. It’s a perception administrators disagree with — and one that University 2000 seeks to change.
The U2000 plan calls for the University to improve its reputation as a world-class provider of graduate and professional education by recruiting exceptional students and offering quality programs.
“The quality of an institution is measured by the strength of its graduate and professional programs,” said Marvin Marshak, senior vice president for Academic Affairs. “The U2000 program reflects that.”
But despite U2000’s emphasis on top-quality graduate and professional programs, the University has been unable to provide the support needed to accomplish many of the plan’s stated goals. Recent rankings indicate some of the programs may be slipping.
The most recent U.S. News and World Report graduate school rankings show that several University programs — including law, education and engineering — have dropped several notches.
Increased competition from private colleges with large endowments and decreased state and federal funding to bolster core programs and recruit top students may be responsible for the slippage.
“There is an overall perception that the Big 10 schools have, over the years, been quote, ‘slipping,'” Marshak said. “In the last 10 or 15 years, private colleges have done better in obtaining revenue, and the quality is showing it,” he added.
Most University administrators dispute the rankings and the perception of declining graduate and professional programs.
“That’s the perception, but that’s not what’s happening in my units,” said Eugene Allen, provost for professional studies.
Questionable Effects
For many graduate and professional programs, U2000 has had little or no positive impact. Stagnating budgets have hindered their ability to attract top students and faculty, and their ability to strengthen programs.
“We have not had any serious increase in funding, nor has any place in this institution in recent years,” said Graduate School Dean Mark Brenner.
“If we don’t get further funding, the expectation that we’ll hold our own becomes doubtful; I think we’ll slip in position,” Brenner said.
To address funding problems and strengthen top programs, administrators are investing in some programs, restructuring others and adding new programs that are seen as critical to the success of the school and state’s futures.
“We are positioning ourselves to make sure that we have an appropriate array of post-baccalaureate programs that meet the needs of the people of this state,” Brenner said.
The problem is not restricted to graduate programs. David Kidwell, dean of the Carlson School of Management, said his school is also hurting because of lack of money. “The truth of the matter is, we need additional funding,” he said.
But streamlining the graduate and professional programs may mean cutting or eliminating some programs.
“It seems (U2000 is) taking steps to make the strong programs stronger and the weak programs non-existent, and that worries me,” said Tom Foster, president of the Council of Graduate Students. “I would rather see the strong programs made stronger and the weak programs made strong.”
Brenner said he would like to salvage as many programs as possible but that some simply cannot be saved.
Some programs in the biological sciences and language departments, he said, are so weak as to hardly be viable. Brenner added that unless those programs are merged with other programs, they might have to be cut.
New Approaches
The real key to accomplishing U2000 goals, Brenner said, is to strengthen already strong programs that attract top faculty members and students — programs such as economics and mathematics.
Last year the College of Liberal Arts allocated funding to those programs to hire faculty members, a move that Professor Ed Foster, director of graduate studies in the department of economics, said will help his program.
“We’ve had the opportunity to replace some faculty members with strong people who will make a strong contribution to the graduate program,” he said.
The program, ranked 10th in the country by U.S. News and World Report, received more than $270,000 to hire three new professors to assist in teaching and research.
Those faculty members — two have already been hired — will help anchor one of the top economics graduate programs in the country, Foster said.
In professional studies, the Carlson School has also made strides to improve the quality of its program despite stagnant funding.
The school has increased its partnerships with business and industry, reformed its curriculum and added new teaching initiatives for faculty development.
Kidwell cited a new interdisciplinary course as an example of the kind of program that meets the spirit of U2000, even though its inception predated the plan.
Business and engineering students taking the course in new product development are paired together in real businesses. The students develop and market actual products.
“Very few business schools offer the opportunity to make real products in a living laboratory for a real firm,” he said.
The development of new programs and the innovations that result are not limited to professional schools.
New graduate school programs, such as the Professional Masters Degree in Biological Sciences, are being added to give working professionals the opportunity to return to school and receive additional post-baccalaureate educations that might be needed in their jobs.
These programs offer professionals an emphasis on teaching practical applications and skills rather than research.
Brenner said that such programs are a “recognition of the institution that there is a whole clientele group that we, as the University of Minnesota, have inadequately supported, and that is the post-baccalaureate person who wants more education to enhance their skill to meet their professional needs.”
Brenner admitted that many have criticized the development of these new programs, charging that the University should focus on its traditional mission of research and support programs that currently exist.
But Brenner dismissed those concerns and said the University would remain a top research university.
A Vague Plan
Another contested element of the U2000 program is its lack of specificity. Thomas Fisher, the dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, said he has heard complaints that the plan is too abstract, with not enough actual solutions to the problems it seeks to address.
“Some of the goals seem awfully broad, and I know that that issue has been a source of discussion — whether they are specific enough to be achievable,” Fisher said.
However, Marshak said U2000 is not intended to be a catch-all solution. “U2000 is not some pill that the doctor prescribes and you wake up the next morning and you’re fine,” he said.
Marshak added that the plan was a goal that the University was aiming for, but that resources, good management, faculty enthusiasm and student interest were also vital.
“U2000 is a road map,” he said. “But if you don’t have any gas in the car, the road map doesn’t do you any good.”
Al Sullivan, the dean of the College of Natural Resources, said the plan’s strength is its breadth. He added that it is important that individual colleges maintain their autonomy and not see administrative changes.
“You can’t have too many specifics from the top,” he said.
Such autonomy is especially important, Sullivan said, because many U2000 changes are ones that the College of Natural Resources was already in the process of implementing. “It’s giving voice to changes we would have made anyway,” he said.
As an example, Sullivan pointed to improvements the college had already made in accessibility. “The office of student resources is even more user-friendly,” he said.
Sullivan also voiced concerns that U2000 is not widely understood, a criticism that has haunted the program since its inception.
Fisher agreed that many at the University are not familiar with all of the plan’s elements, including some administrators. He attributes the problem to the size of the University and the complexity of the reform efforts.
Fisher added that, overall, he supports the plan. “There are a number of issues facing higher education. An effort by U2000 to form a plan for some of these issues is a good thing,” he said.
Attracting Students
Although administrators say the quality of incoming students has not changed over the last few years, they say they are taking measures to insure that better students pursue their educations at the University.
“We think we’re getting outstanding students at this point, and we continue to compete for the best,” Brenner said. “Will we continue to get all of them? Absolutely not.”
Competing against schools such as Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology requires more fellowship money, something administrators have begun to address.
“It’s a two-tiered market,” Prof. Foster said. “The top private universities provide multi-year fellowships to their top applicants, and they’re quite generous.”
The University has asked for more than $7 million in funding for merit scholarships at the graduate and undergraduate level in their 1997-98 biennial budget request, a move Brenner strongly endorses.
He said graduate school fellowship funds are down about $250,000 in the last year alone.
“We need more funds for that purpose,” he said. “We are very, very weak in the area of fellowships.”
This emphasis on student interest is a factor that pleases many graduate students.
While the Council of Graduate Students has not made any policy for or against U2000, council president Foster said he is “optimistic about the general tone and tenor of the document toward graduate education.”
That optimism, however, is certainly guarded, a feeling Foster said he believes many of his fellow graduate students share. “The devil is in the details,” he said. “One of the things I’ve learned at the University is to never judge a program by its cover letter. We’re waiting to see what’s going to happen.”
Foster said he is impressed with the emphasis on improving the University’s status as a research institution and with improving the conditions for graduate students. He added that the administration has worked to solicit graduate student input.
“I’ve been in several meetings where the University has consulted with graduate and professional students on this. I think they are doing a good job of making it known, short of going door to door individually. You have to draw a line.”
The future of U2000 may rest upon the University’s ability to provide the support that graduate and professional programs need to remain competitive.
Without that support, the University will not be able to maintain its commitment to the graduate and professional programs into the 21st century.
“Disorder is constantly spreading through the universe, unless you do something to stop it,” he said. “It’s like an old building — unless you do something to take care of it and maintain it, it declines.”

For more information, go to: /library/focus/U2000.html. Tomorrow: U2000 and undergraduate education.