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Grad school growth puts Brown's identity into question

Expansion of master’s, PhD programs drives shift from university-college to research university

This series will explore the first 1,000 days of Christina Paxson’s presidency. This story, the first of three, will look at the way her policies have affected the University’s identity. 


As Christina Paxson’s P’19 presidency passes its thousandth day, a debate that has been brewing since before her tenure continues to mount.


Bolstering the size and the strength of graduate programs, a major goal in her strategic plan, has incited tensions between the “university” and “college” components of Brown’s university-college identity.


Fortifying doctoral programs attracts strong faculty members across disciplines, while expanding master’s programs generates huge revenue through tuition fees.


Benefits like a stronger faculty and financial gains also allow the University to stay competitive with its Ivy peers.


The specifics for just how much and exactly what kinds of growth the University anticipates remain abstract.


Provost Vicki Colvin said plans for growth in the Graduate School do not necessarily indicate that the University cares most about graduate programs. “It’s more a correction in that we haven’t focused on the Graduate School very much. For example, in the last 10 to 15 years, we grew our faculty quite substantially, but we held the number of graduate students flat. That’s devastating for our academic programs.”


The rate of graduate student growth did not match the University’s overall expansion in a number of previous administrations.


“Somewhere along the way in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, we did fall a little bit behind,” Paxson said. “The University grew, but the graduate program pace didn’t keep up to where it should be. So we have been catching up over the last decade.”


From ‘university-college’ to research university


Subtle adjustments in dialogue about the University’s mission suggest a change in emphasis from a model that prioritizes undergraduate education to a full-blown research university.


The first version of Paxson’s strategic plan, released in September 2013, made no mention of Brown as a “university-college,” a phrase that has been used to describe the school since 1946, when former President Henry Wriston coined the term.


After forceful pushback from the Undergraduate Council of Students on the omission of the term, Paxson added it back into her plan.


“When the strategic plan came out, one of the first things that we were so acutely aware of is that that term originally was left out of the plan altogether,” said UCS President Maahika Srinivasan ’15. It was a “very intentional choice to leave it out,” she said.


“It’s very clear that, for the last two administrations, the emphasis has been more on university and less on college,” said Senior Lecturer in Education Luther Spoehr.


“We use a concept at Brown known as a university-college, a college with a small graduate school,” said Luiz Valente, professor of Portuguese and Brazilian studies and comparative literature. “In the early 2000s, (former President Ruth Simmons) decided that we needed to reaffirm our position as a research university by hiring faculty and by growing some of the graduate programs.”


The shift in emphasis has occurred gradually, but faculty members who have been on campus for decades have taken note of the change, and some regret the University’s departure from focusing on undergraduate, liberal arts education.


“It’s a growing emphasis, inch by inch, row by row,” said Spoehr, who has been at the University for 19 years. “The next thing you know, liberal arts seems like a luxury, and persuading people otherwise is hard.”


“Brown was one of the last holdouts for a liberal arts orientation, but it looks like that is eroding,” said Professor of Sociology Gregory Elliott, who has been here for almost 32 years.


As a university-college, Brown has long tried to balance excellence in undergraduate liberal arts with robust research.


“Growing the graduate program is the University speaking to its research profile, and in talking about undergraduate education, it has to speak to its liberal arts profile,” said Sara Matthiesen GS, a member of Stand Up for Grad Students, an organization that promotes graduate student rights. “Brown tries to straddle those two missions.”


But some feel the University is veering too far from its mission as a university-college.


“The University has gone through a sea change in its emphases,” Elliott said. “We used to call ourselves a university-college. … That term is gone. That’s symbolic, but it does reflect a change in the understanding of the mission of Brown University.”


Nevertheless, administrators maintain that the strategic plan’s initial omission of the term does not signal a shift away from the “college” component.


“What you label Brown matters less than what we offer at Brown, which is a superb undergraduate liberal education and a top-notch research university,” said Dean of the College Maud Mandel.


“I really am uncomfortable with a formulation that pits one against the other in a zero-sum game,” she said.


The idea of a zero-sum game is at the heart of concerns that the growth in graduate programs will in some ways detract from the undergraduate college.


“The view that there’s some zero-sum game and that gains in one come at the expense of the other — that’s something I really resist,” Paxson said. “There could be truth in that if we let there be truth in that, but I am determined not to.”


Doctoral expansion entices researchers


Growth in graduate programs refers to growth in both doctoral programs and master’s programs, two distinct academic endeavors.


“The doctoral students is really where the growth focus is right now,” Colvin said.


As of now, there are “no specific targets for the number of doctoral students,” wrote Dean of the Graduate School Peter Weber in an email to The Herald.


Faculty members said they believe PhD candidates’ presence on campus enriches the University’s educational offerings.


Doctoral programs are “intimately connected with the mission of a research university,” Valente said. “They have a positive impact on the undergraduate college as well as on the research university.”


Advocates for more doctoral students argue that they are essential to attracting and retaining a strong faculty.


Faculty members “want graduate students here,” Colvin said. “That’s what motivates them.”


“If we didn’t have PhD programs and we weren’t a research-intensive university, we wouldn’t be able to get the best faculty,” said Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12, adding that a strong faculty benefits undergrads.


Navigating the teaching, research divide


Another motive for growing doctoral programs is that doctoral research in STEM generates indirect revenue for the University through external grant funding.


The push to increase the number of PhD candidates in science is “based on more research money flowing through the University,” McLaughlin said, adding that PhD education will grow most significantly in STEM.


“We are really trying to push on research, especially in the sciences,” Paxson said. In the recent past, the University experienced “a decline in external awards, which was the source of roughly half of the budget deficit.”


Productive research programs augment an institution’s prestige. “Once the prestige is there, you’re more likely to get grants,” Spoehr said. “You spend money to make money.”


Enabling an increase in research involves attracting the doctoral students necessary to aid faculty members in their lab work as well as allowing professors time to focus on their research.


“It has become very clear … that the University is trying to become a singularly important research university to compete with the big boys at getting known for its contributions to research, which no faculty member here would say is a bad idea,” Elliott said. “But the question is: Does it change the balance of the use of resources?”


“The balance is already more on research and less on teaching,” he said. “If you increase that imbalance, that’s going to have an effect.”


Administrators recognize this difficulty and are contemplating how to navigate it.


“There are only a certain number of hours in a week, and our faculty have to negotiate that,” Colvin said.


Colvin is a strong proponent of “double teaching,” a model in which professors teach twice the number of courses they normally would in one semester and focus solely on research during the other.


“I think we need to find ways to help (faculty members) get the space they need to be productive scholars as well as excellent teachers,” Paxson said. “Whether it’s double teaching or the idea of a winter term or Jan-term that could build in some more flexibility for faculty … we will need to move in that direction,” she said.


Double teaching is especially pertinent in STEM fields, Colvin said.


After receiving grant funding, the faculty member leading the research project must typically visit the funders four or five times, she added. “If you have no ability to travel because you’re teaching for nine months of the year, you cannot have a leading research program in STEM.”


In addition to allowing the University to stay competitive through generation of revenue, research also leads to important advances in knowledge that will carry Brown’s brand.


“Yes, we have a short-term budget deficit, and we need to get the research back on track, but at the end of the day, we want our faculty to be scholars who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge,” Paxson said.


Differences in disciplines


In contrast to doctoral programs in STEM, those in the humanities and social sciences impose a financial burden on the University.


“The humanities and social sciences do not have the same kind of external funding available to them,” said Joel Simundich GS, president of the Graduate Student Council, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in English.


“They see doctoral students as taking money from the University, and this is because we’re always looking for funding,” he said.


Securing funding, especially after the fifth year, is a current point of contention for doctoral students.


“Part of the strategic plan is to simultaneously make us a better research institution while effectively shortening time to a degree and limiting resources for humanities and social science,” Simundich said.


Doctoral programs in STEM fields typically take five years, while those in humanities and social sciences tend to span seven or eight, he said.


In the strategic plan, there is a push to “make the humanities and social sciences meet the timeline of STEM,” he added.


“There is this sense that we are here on Brown’s dime,” said Matthiesen, who is pursuing a doctorate in American studies. Doctoral students’ contributions to undergraduate teaching — mostly as teaching assistants — often go unappreciated, she added.


Because their doctoral work generally does not receive external grant funding, “it’s humanities and social sciences professors who really want and need more support for the Graduate School,” Colvin said.


Doctoral programs in these departments are valuable because they expand the course offerings for advanced undergraduate students, in addition to drawing faculty members.


In the humanities and social sciences, “most professors will open graduate courses to advanced undergraduates,” Valente said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for undergraduate students.”


A new avenue for revenue


A potential source of revenue for funding doctoral students, as well as for shrinking the deficit, is additional tuition-funded master’s programs, Colvin said.


“When they say they want to grow the graduate programs, embedded in that is expanding master’s programs as a source of revenue for the University,” Matthiesen said.


Two distinct types of master’s degrees can be pursued at Brown: a degree from a traditional master’s program, run through an individual department, or a degree from an executive master’s program, run through the School of Professional Studies.


Executive master’s programs were introduced in 2012 and feature a “blend” of online education with brief residential stints geared toward mid-career professionals, said Karen Sibley, dean of the School of Professional Studies.


The two existing executive master’s degrees are in business administration and healthcare leadership, and degrees in cyber security and engineering are currently being developed.


The total number of degrees offered is projected to reach “eight to 10 in the next three to five years,” Sibley said, adding that demand for these programs is growing.


Brown faculty members teach the executive master’s courses in conjunction with practitioners in the field of study.


“It’s very important that we have Brown faculty, because that’s what the students want, but they also want experts from their own expertise,” Sibley said. “Over time, we are clearly going to have to grow the faculty.”


But until the faculty expands, “it’s a zero-sum game,” Elliott said. “You have a finite number of faculty who will be committed to teaching a larger set of courses, especially in these master’s training programs,” he said.


In the Department of Computer Science, which is collaborating with the School of Professional Studies to develop the curriculum for an executive master’s program, the question of increasing faculty members’ duties is being closely examined.


“It’s a question that we thought hard about,” said Ugur Cetintemel, professor of computer science and chair of the department, adding that the department is looking at “what can be done over the summer, when faculty aren’t actually teaching courses.”


Expanded programs, increased demands


Both traditional and executive master’s programs add work onto faculty members’ existing course loads, which could strain their ability to focus on undergraduate teaching.


“In master’s programs, there is a teaching burden,” Mandel said. At the same time, master’s students “do not necessarily help the faculty like PhD students do,” she said, noting that master’s students generally neither work on research grants nor work as teaching assistants for courses.


Growth in traditional master’s programs “will probably entail no new hires,” McLaughlin said. “We would expect the departments to be able to absorb that with their existing faculty resources. As part of their workload, they would teach a course for a master’s program,” he said.


But faculty members are wary of the heightened workload and wonder whether it will be sustainable.


“We’re often told that these programs don’t require huge commitments on the part of the faculty, but everyone has a limited amount of time, and if they’re going to invest their resources in these types of programs, something is going to suffer,” Valente said.


“There’s some question in my mind and in the minds of several faculty members as to whether these programs are going to have perhaps a negative impact on the research and teaching mission of the University,” he said, adding that the master’s programs are intended to provide individuals with credentials for their careers rather than to add to the University’s intellectual endeavors.


“There is pressure on this school from the change in focus to turn us into a glorified vocational school,” Elliott said.


An evolving identity


But the value of increasing master’s programs is that they provide the University with necessary financial means.


“I am convinced that Brown cannot really thrive for any of its students or any of its faculty if it remains primarily dependent on undergraduate tuition revenue,” Paxson said.


The School of Professional Studies, which also runs the University’s summer programs, yields an annual profit of $5 million, Sibley said, adding that the school’s general gross revenue is expected to increase by at least 50 percent over the next three to five years.


Srinivasan also acknowledged the practical value of more master’s programs. “If we institute master’s programs, it ends up generating more revenue that could potentially go to undergraduate things,” she said.


Running master’s programs to generate revenue is “very much a reality of how schools finance different operations,” Simundich said, though he cautions the University about using the term “revenue stream” to refer to master’s students.


“There is a huge tension between genuine investment in what these programs will yield for master’s students and seeing them as a source of revenue,” he said.


Administrators say Brown needs to grow master’s programs not only for financial reasons but also to remain competitive with its peers.


“Most of our peers have master’s programs that dwarf ours,” Colvin said. “Everybody else is growing them because of their importance, particularly to revenue.”


“When I look at Brown and I benchmark it against our peers, what we see is that other universities tend to have more master’s programs, and they tend to have more professional schools,” Paxson said.


But determining the University’s needs based on comparison to “peers” depends on which institutions it identifies as peers.


“Who decides what our peer institutions are?” Spoehr said. “We compare ourselves to Harvard, despite the fact that they have an endowment that’s seven times bigger than ours. … It’s a real question of institutional identity. Is our peer institution Harvard or is our peer institution Wesleyan?”


Paxson titled her plan “Building on Distinction,” reflecting her intention to follow the direction set by Simmons and elevate Brown to a new position in higher education. For Paxson, the goal to build on distinction prioritizes building graduate programs.


This brand of distinction represents what at least a few faculty members call a departure from the university-college model, and it has positioned Brown between two different identities: the university-college it has long been and the large research university it aspires to be.


“It used to be that Brown considered itself kind of an anomaly in the Ivy League,” Elliott said. “But that’s gone.”



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