Observer Q & A: Richard Morimoto
This is the second in a series of profiles with the deans of the schools and colleges of Northwestern. Richard I. Morimoto, dean of the Graduate School, discusses the role of the school within the University and its new programs with Megan Fellman of the Department of University Relations.
Q. How did you become a scientist, and how do these interests fit with your being dean of the Graduate School?
A. I’ve only done science. I grew up doing science fair projects, which were outlets for my curiosity about the natural world. My first project, in the 5th grade, was about fireflies and why and how they emitted light. In following years I did projects on cryogenics, memory, and on the composition of single-cell plants. Supportive parents and teachers pointed the direction and left me alone, and that works well for discovery.
This fascination with knowledge serves me well as dean. Because I am deeply curious about everything, I find meeting and working with scholars and students in other disciplines fascinating and stimulating. You learn if you explore.
Q. What programs fall under the Graduate School’s umbrella?
A. The Graduate School is charged with supervision of most graduate work leading to advanced degrees, which adds up to more than 60 masters and doctorate programs, ranging from public health to Slavic languages and literatures.
Exceptions are advanced work leading to professional degrees in the Medill School of Journalism, the Law School and the Feinberg School of Medicine; programs based on performance in the School of Music; MBA programs in the Kellogg School of Management; and a few specialized master’s degree programs in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, School of Communication and School of Education and Social Policy.
Q. Can you explain the importance of the Graduate School’s mission?
A. Great universities in the United States and abroad are measured by their scholarship and the reputation of the departmental faculties — in the humanities, the social sciences, medical school, sciences, business, law. The Graduate School at Northwestern is responsible for nearly all masters and all doctorate programs across every school in the University, as well as developing new doctorate programs.
As much as Northwestern has improved its reputation as an outstanding undergraduate school, its long-term ascendancy into the top-rank of institutions in the United States requires that we achieve peer recognition among scholars, which is principally based on the graduate faculty.
Equally, we are measured by the numbers of Northwestern Ph.D.s who serve on the faculty at other leading institutions. The Graduate School really has a very central role in the future of Northwestern as it continues to make a greater impact on higher education.
Q. What responsibilities lie at the core of being dean?
A. The job is a very intriguing one. It’s an opportunity to work with our outstanding faculty scholars to design graduate programs that recruit the very best students worldwide to pursue their graduate studies at Northwestern, to see that the training provided by the faculty is outstanding, and to do our very best to place them at the top of the career path, whether academic, government, industry or in the creative sector.
We offer our students opportunities to hone their teaching skills as teaching assistants, to acquire new scholarly expertise, to mentor undergraduates and to have a better understanding of how their academic pursuits and professional activities can be blended into exciting and successful careers.
Q. What changes have you implemented?
A. Northwestern is among a select number of institutions across the country where all students are recruited to 12-month support for a minimum of four continuous years. In many programs this is extended to five or six years of support. This is regardless of discipline. It has been a tradition in the sciences, but now includes students recruited to the School of Education and Social Policy, the School of Communication , School of Music, and in the humanities and social sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences — everyone now is treated equally.
Another important initiative is the Presidential Graduate Fellows program, which recognizes annually six to eight of the most talented students across the entire Graduate School. They are provided up to two years of funding and are invited to participate as a group of scholars, together with senior faculty, the president and provost and other academic leaders, where they exchange ideas and enjoy the opportunity to communicate across disciplines.
This year we also concluded a University-wide curricular review of all graduate programs. We asked questions on the quality of the applicant pool and matriculating class, on the quality of the curriculum and training, the effectiveness of mentors, and on placement. Together with the school deans and the faculty, we are devoting much effort to these issues. For instance, we now have nearly complete, and reasonably accurate, placement records for all Ph.D. and MFA students going back to 1993. In many ways the placement record is an unbiased indicator of how good we are.
For the first time in Northwestern’s history, each school has an associate dean with the responsibility of graduate education who works closely with the Graduate School deans to make decisions touching on all areas, including admissions, retention, funding and programs.
We have a major emphasis on the recruitment of minority students and provide a series of programs to work closely with faculty and current students. And because 30 percent of our students are from other countries, we created an international summer institute that provides a one-month immersion program, including linguistic, academic and cultural support, right before classes begin.
Finally, last June Northwestern had its first University-wide hooding ceremony for all Ph.D. and MFA students. Faculty welcomed 124 students, representing 34 programs, into this new rarefied group, the academy. Getting a Ph.D. requires remarkable effort, and hooding is a very special event because of the close relationships each student develops with members of his or her committee.
Q. Can you highlight a particular strength of the Graduate School?
A. Our faculty have done an outstanding job of presenting the programs well and identifying the right fit of students. We want students who are really passionate and whose passion matches the focus and excellence of the program.
It’s very different from undergraduate education where one is looking for students who want to look broadly and then only later find what it is they like. Graduate education is literally the reverse. Students have a very good idea of what they want to do. And then the opportunity to look around maybe just shifts them one direction or another or opens them up to interesting interdisciplinary collaborations.
Identifying the right students together with Northwestern’s very strong funding and support of graduate education has put us into a very unique position among the top institutions.
Q. How does this administrative position affect your research and academic life?
A. I have appreciated the trust of the other deans, the provost, the vice presidents and President Bienen to continue an active research program while being dean of the Graduate School. I maintain a large research laboratory in my home department of biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology, and I continue to mentor graduate students and teach classes. This allows me to be close to the front lines and the issues of current graduate students. Of course, maintaining both responsibilities has its moments, though I have enjoyed the opportunity to do both.
Q. What have you learned in your five years as dean?
A. The wonderful creativity of my colleagues, their willingness to trust each other, to try new ideas, to work across boundaries. We seem to do this better at Northwestern. This has made the job possible – no one puts up barriers. Also, as a scientist, I truly enjoy getting to know colleagues throughout the University and to learn what excites them about their work.
Spending time with students has been wonderful, including students in disciplines other than mine. I’m a very strong believer in working with the students. When I became dean, the principal campus-wide graduate student organization had two student members. Now there are four active graduate student organizations across both campuses with many hundreds of members, and I meet with them quarterly.
Students are the most precious resource. And for them to know that we care and are actively engaged is very important. The students’ voice is critical in everything we do.