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New Blueprint for The Graduate School

Five-year strategic plan focuses on diversity, service and engagement

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January 17, 2013 | by Storer H. Rowley
Dwight McBride
Dean Dwight A. McBride

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The Graduate School at Northwestern University launched its five-year strategic plan this month by unveiling a visionary blueprint focused on the three pillars of diversity, service and engagement.

Dwight A. McBride, associate provost and dean of The Graduate School (TGS), introduced the 44-page plan with a letter on the TGS website explaining the importance of data in the formulation of the document and highlighting the significance of work and outreach around the three pillars.

To view the full plan, go to The Graduate School’s 2013-2018 Strategic Plan: Diversify, Serve, and Engage: Northwestern’s Blueprint for Graduate Education.

“Our plan is highly data driven,” observed McBride, the Daniel Hale Williams Professor of African American Studies, English and Performance Studies. “In it, we examine the changing face of graduate education using demographic data and information collected from a number of our annual surveys conducted by our research and analysis team.

“The data appendix to the plan provides information about many issues we discuss on a daily basis, including degree completion rates, time to degree, career outcomes and student demographics.”

The plan also notably supports and closely parallels important goals outlined in Northwestern University’s Strategic Plan, announced in 2011, including:

  • Discovering new knowledge and encouraging students to put what they learn here to good use
  • Connecting with our community
  • Growing stronger through the richness of diversity
  • Creating connections between programs and people

In a wide-ranging interview recently, McBride shared some of the thinking about key principles, goals, challenges and strategies that went into The Graduate School’s strategic plan. An edited transcript follows:

How did you formulate this plan?

As you know, we have been working on this for quite some time. This is my third year as dean, and it’s hard to believe it’s already been that long. I’m really pleased with this document and where we are with it. It’s a strong plan, a plan that is actionable. It’s measurable, and it dovetails extraordinarily well with the University’s plan in some important ways, so I’m pleased with it on all fronts. We’ve had a lot of people involved in discussions that have informed the plan: the TGS administrative board, graduate students and graduate student leaders, directors of graduate studies, doctoral program staff, postdoctoral fellows, administrators from partner schools, our leadership team here in TGS and the staff in The Graduate School.

The world of graduate education is changing. Is that reflected in this plan?

There are some really important changes happening nationally in graduate education right now, and I think this plan addresses some of those in a very head-on way. One is, of course, the incredibly quickly shifting demographics of the American population, which we talk about in the plan. There’s a whole series of data tables at the end that talk about and make the case for the importance of diversity on the demographic level. What we want to make sure of as a nation is that we are not losing ground -- or continuing to lose ground -- in terms of preparing scientists, engineers, researchers, analysts and thought leaders who can do the kind of work that is absolutely critical to the nation. The data clearly show that we are no longer preparing doctoral candidates for work solely in the academy -- though that certainly remains an important part of what we do. But we also need to be preparing them for thought leadership in a variety of sectors of our society where the skills acquired in graduate school are applicable.

How behind are graduate schools in general on keeping up with those trends?

Right now, if you look at our demographics, we’ve been doing great with international students, and we, of course, want to continue to have a very international population. But one of the worries that we have in graduate education broadly in the country right now is the decrease in the numbers of U.S. citizens who are actually doing Ph.D.s, especially in the sciences and engineering. So this is one of the things that we have taken head-on, and part of that challenge is about making sure that we are developing all of the members of our population who have both the potential and the interest -- and making sure that we are reaching out through the work that we do in our outreach and recruitment efforts.

How are you approaching the challenge of increasing diversity in your programs?

We’ve been engaging in a lot of recruitment visits to different places, and not just one-offs, but really building relationships and partnerships with specific minority-serving institutions in the U.S. and now also in Puerto Rico. We’ve been doing visits to these institutions to meet their students and to build ongoing relationships with their faculty and administration. One example is our relationship with both Spelman College and Morehouse College. We visited them last year in Atlanta. We’ll visit them again this spring. We had five students from Spelman and five from Morehouse who came to Northwestern to participate in our Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) this past year. And this is only part of the work we’re doing. The work has to take place at every level -- from pipeline and recruitment to degree completion. And we’re committed to working on all of these fronts in TGS.

Can you talk about the SROP program, what it is and what it does?

Sure. SROP is a program that we’ve nearly doubled the size of in the last year, and this is also a part of our diversity strategy. The vast majority of students who come into that program are underrepresented students, and we have something that no other institution has: We have an early admissions component to SROP. The Summer Research Opportunity Program brings current college students (usually rising juniors and seniors) to Northwestern for eight weeks in the summer to conduct research with Northwestern faculty members. The program is designed to expose them to the world of research and the prospect of doctoral education.

How do Northwestern’s doctoral programs stack up against our peer institutions?

Northwestern has invested a lot in strengthening our doctoral programs. We have extremely well-regarded doctoral programs here -- and you know, many that are now top-ranked doctoral programs. We are very competitive among member universities in the Association of American Universities. We work hard to remain as generous as our peer group with regard to student support for our doctoral candidates. One of the things that we're studying closely right now, in fact, is how we compare with folks in our peer group on funding: in terms of duration of funding, in terms of amount of funding, in terms of health insurance. All Ph.D. students are fully funded for five years. There is a base stipend rate, but then, of course, there are also market forces that dictate higher amounts in some disciplines. The Graduate School sets a base stipend rate below which no student may be paid. And that's roughly $22,000 right now. This is an area where we, of course, have to be vigilant in order to remain competitive for the best students. One of the things that is really important to me is that we not lose good students for money reasons. That just shouldn't be happening at Northwestern. We may lose them for other reasons. They may decide that they feel the fit is better for them at Stanford or at Duke. But it should not be because Duke gave them an extra thousand dollars. That shouldn't be the reason we're losing students. And it certainly shouldn't be the reason we're losing underrepresented students.

Is it hard for graduate schools to recruit underrepresented students, and if so, why?

You know, there are several answers to that. But I think one of the things I'd say immediately is that for many students, a lot of it is being able simply to imagine the possibility of doctoral education. If you grow up in a certain area or environment, it’s hard. For a first-generation college student, which also describes a number of underrepresented students' situations, you may see medicine, law and business as the prestige careers often represented from your view of the world. But you may not know anything about the world of research or how you get there or what it means to be a college professor. I don't think it makes sense to a lot of people growing up in certain environments where they're just not exposed to it.

How do you overcome that lack of knowledge?

The one thing that I make sure I talk about with any group of college students is to see how many of them know that you do not have to pay to get a Ph.D. Right? So, part of it is just about the financial issue. That impediment is a huge one for a number of people. So to just even have the information about how this works is an important message. My goal is to make sure that people know the facts and are exposed to their options. If you're going to choose to go to medical school and be a doctor, that's perfectly fine, but I want it to be a real choice for you. I want you to know that there are different options. There's great research going on in the biomedical field. There's great research happening in new drug discovery and therapies that would allow you to not only serve the hundred or two hundred people who may be in your medical practice, but allow you to serve millions of people. So that's the kind of impact that you can have, but you need to have first been made aware of what the world of research is to know that. I think that is important.

How does the data collection and analysis figure in the strategic plan?

Beginning halfway through the plan is the data section, which would be illuminating to any reader, whether they're interested in the diversity snapshot around the country, or whether they're interested in what we look like here. We just have so much information, and it's informed everything that we've written. And it lays out the case as to why we are planning and heading for the time in a few decades when America has a new majority-minority population. It has been a lot of our focus. In addition, the data provides a way for us to measure our success in executing aspects of our plan. We can see through our survey data, demographic data and placement data whether we are having the impact we hope to have. And we can see what’s working and what’s not working so that we can make adjustments as we progress.

Can you discuss other core principles in the plan like service?

I think the other two pillars, service and engagement, are very much a part of that work, too. The Graduate School sees itself, ultimately, as a service unit on the campus. We serve students, the graduate faculty, postdocs and the 63 doctoral programs that we have. We serve as a partner with our partner school deans, like Weinberg or McCormick. We want to have a very strong service ethic. We want to highlight the importance of getting things done. We are supporting the vision that the deans of our partner schools have for their schools even as we support our collective vision for graduate education across schools.

Tell me about your interaction with the other Northwestern schools.

There is a lot of interaction. We are continually meeting with deans and with the associate deans. In each one of the partner schools there’s an associate dean who deals with graduate education who is a liaison with TGS. Those people are members of The Graduate School’s administrative board, which meets twice a quarter. There are seven schools we partner with: Weinberg, Kellogg, McCormick, Feinberg, Music, Communication and the School of Education and Social Policy. And we have the J.D.-Ph.D. program with the Law School. That makes it eight.