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Mission & History
One of the main goals of the GSC is to improve graduate education at Vanderbilt University. As part of this goal we have five priorities: improving career development infrastructure, funding, teaching/mentoring, administrative support, and faculty/departmental support.
We facilitate communication between the graduate students of all Vanderbilt University academic departments and the community.
We act as a forum and a clearinghouse for issues, discussions, and complaints. When a graduate student perceives that a problem, a need, or an opportunity exists, he or she may contact a departmental GSC representative or a GSC officer. The Council will examine the issue and determine what action can be taken. The GSC then contacts members of the faculty, administration, and campus staff capable of addressing the matter. Any point that affects graduate students is an appropriate subject.
We serve as a liaison to the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students (NAGPS). NAGPS lobbies Congress on issues affecting education, keeps us in touch with other graduate programs, and maintains a job bank and a Web page full of useful information.
We provide the Graduate Honor Council which hears any cases involving graduate students and protects our compact with the university.
We co-sponsor seminars on career planning, dissertation writing, financial matters, and other important topics.
We serve as a volunteer organization, collecting clothes, food, and toys for various community programs, and allowing grad students to volunteer a little time out of a busy schedule.
Finally, we throw killer parties.
The University avows as its essential task the unique fusing of the quest for knowledge through scholarship with the dissemination of knowledge through teaching. Creative experimentation, the development of high standards, and an enhanced atmosphere of intellectual freedom are both evident and valued on this campus.
Currently, Vanderbilt University is undergoing a process of Strategic Planning. Of the many issues being considered, “improving graduate education” is a high priority of Strategic Planning. However, above and beyond the concerns of Strategic Planning to develop the research mission of the University, the quality of graduate student education and life at Vanderbilt is critically important to the task of improving graduate education. We offer the following contribution in the true spirit of a university–i.e., according to Vanderbilt’s mission of fostering a place where the free exchange of opinions is encouraged, valued, and respected.
The following are five issues that are of great concern to graduate students at Vanderbilt. We recognize that continued communication is necessary to bring these suggestions to fruition and pledge our support for this process. We believe that the best means of doing this is to initiate University committees (with graduate student participation) to discuss and develop these proposals and to supplement the initiatives of the Strategic Planning process.
1) Career Development Infrastructure
- According to the Vanderbilt Ad Hoc Committee on Graduate Education’s October 2000 Report on Assessment of AAU Recommendations (Professor Robert Pitz, Chair), departmental reviews conducted under the direction of the Provost’s office are “not successfully used and in some cases not used at all to help improve graduate studies in specific departments.” Consequently, graduate curricula in many programs may not be meeting students’ needs. In light of this, graduate students should be more involved with shaping the curricula of their programs. Moreover, the Graduate School and the Graduate Faculty Council should play a much greater role in reviewing and shaping curricular policy and policies concerning the composition of dissertation and thesis committees.
- The Career Center has historically done a poor job of serving graduate student needs. There should be a full time staff to provide career advice to graduate students. The Graduate Student Council and Associate Provost Nick Zeppos began working to improve the Career Center’s level of service to graduate students last year; as the new Student Life Center is developed, providing full time staff in the Career Center to assist graduate students should remain a high priority. Also, the Career Center should coordinate its efforts with the Center for Teaching’s F2P2 program.
- Graduate student research facilities need to be improved for some departments. Also, in the Graduate Student Council’s quality of life survey, many graduate students indicated lack of sufficient research material. According to this survey, the areas most in need of improvement are computing facilities and library holdings in books and journals. Finally, adequate office space should be supplied for teaching assistants and researchers.
- Graduate students have expressed a great deal of frustration with the Institutional Review Board process. Last year, in particular, delays in the IRB processing of research proposals directly affected the timeliness of student-directed research that involves the use of human subjects. Although some improvements have been made, Graduate Student Council surveys indicate that much more needs to be done to clarify and streamline the process. In the coming years, there should be greater oversight of this process to facilitate graduate student research and minimize time-to-degree.
- Much improvement is needed toward the AAU’s recommendation for best practice in the area of funding: “Financial support should be designed to assist students in their progress to a degree. To the extent possible, this support should not involve work that draws students away from their graduate programs. In particular, students should not be supported as teaching and research assistants without progressing to greater levels of responsibility and independence; students supported primarily to meet the teaching needs of departments or institutions, or the research needs of faculty research projects, should be reclassified and compensated appropriately.” (AAU-CGE Reports and Recommendations, October 1998; see also the Pitz report’s assessment of this problem at Vanderbilt)
- Lines of funding for graduate students should be increased for some programs to help maintain critical mass and attract the best students. Funding for graduate students should not be determined simply by undergraduate enrollment in particular programs, and the interests of graduate students should not be made to compete against all other interests of a School for the attention of that School’s Dean. These funding problems are particularly acute in the Humanities due to the lack of external funding for research.
- Department by department, funding should be competitive nationally with similarly ranked programs. This would require better benchmarking and periodic review by the Graduate School of graduate programs nationwide. At the same time, small programs that report good placement for their students but cannot otherwise be ranked should be supported despite their problems with critical mass.
- Some attention needs to be paid to funding equity issues. Similar programs or similar teaching/research duties should receive similar support (for instance, there is a discrepancy between funding for Peabody Psychology and A&S Psychology). The Graduate Student Council recognizes that funding disparities are due to the varied culture from department to department. However, there should be more transparency in the reasons for the level of funding each graduate student receives.
- All departments should pay health insurance for their graduate students; most do already.
- The Graduate School should have a development/recruiting officer that helps secure funding for graduate students. Particular attention should be given to the role of such an office in recruiting minority and international students. There are several models for such an office within existing graduate programs that have access to external funding. For instance, the Biomedical Graduate Research Education and Training Program under Senior Associate Dean Roger Chalkley is exemplary in this regard. The University should encourage other programs with access to external funding to take similar steps to assist graduate students in obtaining funding, and in the case of smaller programs and those that are not funded externally (e.g., Humanities programs), the University should provide the necessary support.
- The Graduate School should have greater resources to fund graduate student research, travel, and recruitment awards.
- The Graduate School should monitor time-to-degree averages for departments. Graduate Student Council surveys show that many graduate students often work on projects unrelated to their own research area. In some cases, this issue seems to be one of funding (see above); in other cases, it may have to do with program curricula or pressure from faculty members.
- The University should explore the issue of providing incentives to faculty who do an outstanding job of mentoring. The Report for the Association of Graduate Schools to the AAU (September, 2000) suggests that “institutions should develop appropriate incentives and other mechanisms to assure that faculty are providing effective mentoring of graduate students.” Specifically, the University should continue to support initiatives of the CFT and provide incentives for faculty to help graduate students fulfill the requirements of the F2P2 program. Also, because teaching strategies vary from department to department, there should be incentives for departments to institute departmental teaching programs in consultation with the CFT.
- Apart from faculty mentoring, graduate students interested in preparing for careers in academia require administrative training in addition to their research/academic training. That is, many graduate students may have glimpsed something of what will be expected of them upon graduation, but only rudimentary efforts are currently made to prepare graduate students for the administrative aspects of tenure-track academia. It may not be an exaggeration to say that no university formally focuses on such efforts. For this reason, we believe that further developing programs such as F2P2 and GradStep and embracing other opportunities for graduate student participation in administration could prove a viable strategy for distinguishing Vanderbilt as a national leader in graduate education. (This mentoring priority intersects with concerns addressed in the “Career Development Infrastructure” priority above and the “Administrative Support” priority below)
- There should be clear policies explaining when graduate students are allowed to teach 200-level courses. Many departments should encourage graduate students to teach 200-level courses both because of the teaching experience it provides graduate students and because it frees faculty to teach a wider offering of graduate seminars.
- Vanderbilt must do a much better job of hiring and retaining minority faculty. Among the many reasons this should be a high priority for the University, we wish to highlight the critical importance of minority faculty to the mentoring process for all students at Vanderbilt.
4) Administrative support
- Graduate students need a clear administrative outlet for their concerns. Currently, there is no effective internal system of appeals available to graduate students who feel that they may have been mistreated by faculty or the ‘system’ writ large. Indeed, there is no full-time administrative advocate for graduate student concerns period. There is no single person whose responsibility it is to manage graduate student experience and facilitate the improvement of the quality of graduate student education department by department in a productive, non-confrontational manner. There should be a full time ombudsperson for graduate students that reports directly to the Dean of the Graduate School and the Provost and who sits on relevant committees including the Graduate Student Council.
- There needs to be better communication of policy with graduate students both administratively and departmentally. Discrepancies in the Graduate Student Council’s own quality of life survey show that most graduate students are not aware even of their own department’s policies regarding funding levels, time-to-degree averages, etc. The Graduate School should work more closely with Directors of Graduate Studies to ensure that policies affecting graduate education are clear and that graduate students are familiar with policies that affect them. Examples of areas where communication could be improved include: a) how grants are really awarded by NSF, NIH, etc., b) how corporate sponsorships are awarded and administered, c) how the Office of Sponsored Research administers research grants, etc. One method of systematizing such communication could be through the use of “kaizen blitzes”; that is, through short, but content-rich meetings focused on sharing and documenting this information. An added benefit of this approach is that annual iterations of how each department conducts academic business will drive a deeper awareness and understanding amongst faculty, staff, and graduate students of the role and responsibilities of each.
- There should be a social space for graduate students on campus to foster graduate students’ involvement with the University. Additionally, the University should take steps to create shared social spaces for graduate students and faculty located centrally with respect to different research clusters–i.e., one for Humanities near the Central Library or in a building housing several Humanities programs, one for the Sciences in the Stevenson Complex, etc.
- Graduate students should be included on University committees dealing with the research/academic mission of the University. In particular, graduate students should be included in the University’s Strategic Academic Planning. As teachers and researchers, graduate and professional students have a keen awareness of possibilities for growth in their own academic disciplines, a genuine enthusiasm for seeing new transdisciplinary initiatives emerge at Vanderbilt, and a great interest in developing new initiatives for improving graduate education as a whole. Moreover, student life for graduate and professional students intrinsically involves their role in the academic/research community of Vanderbilt. Indeed, the graduate and professional student community is similar to the faculty community in terms of its role in the academic/research mission of the University. Consequently, fostering graduate and professional student life at Vanderbilt requires openness of Vanderbilt’s administration to the role graduate and professional students have to play in shaping the very policies that impact their communities.
5) Faculty/Departmental support
- Very few graduate students seem to have tangible opportunities to shape departmental policies. Students contribute to their departments as researchers and teachers but are usually not included in the decision-making process that shapes the research and curricular priorities of their departments. We believe that in most cases this under-representation of graduate students is not due to faculty’s active resistance to including graduate students in such processes but simply because of negligence and lack of initiative on the part of both graduate students and faculty. Graduate students should be encouraged to participate in faculty meetings, in departmental hiring committees, and in all self-study or external review processes. Clearly, guidelines will have to be established either through school deans or through the departments themselves that stipulate how this should be achieved. Our suggestions are that:
- Depending on size of program, graduate students should elect one or two students to represent their concerns.
- Graduate students should elect all additional graduate student appointments to departmental committees. Only if graduate students fail to elect representatives should a department’s Chair or DGS appoint graduate students to committees.
- Policies concerning when graduate student participation cannot be accommodated (i.e., confidential personnel issues, discussions of graduate students’ academic standings, etc.) should be clear, documented, and well-known to graduate students.
- Graduate students and faculty have similar needs and concerns as researchers and educators. Consequently, the University should encourage joint governing bodies for faculty and graduate students. Although the existing model for faculty governance is flexible enough to allow cross-representation between the Graduate Student Council and bodies such as School Faculty Councils and the Faculty Senate, this process should be formalized. In particular, graduate student input should be included in the Graduate Faculty Council and on committees appointed through the Graduate School that deal with graduate education.
Endorsed by the Graduate Student Council February 21, 2001