Provost Richard Locke announced that the University will freeze undergraduate admission and begin expanding the Graduate School in the University’s new financial plan released at the Oct. 4 faculty meeting.
The financial plan now incorporates an additional 95 PhD and 125 master’s students over the span of 10 years in “targeted areas” such as engineering, public health, the Brown Institute for Brain Science, the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, computer science, public policy and the School of Professional Studies, Locke said.
All programs and departments will be considered for growth, and they will be prioritized based on “building and preserving excellence,” “supporting the promise of future excellence,” “the interests of trainees in the fields” and “the societal benefits of the disciplines,” wrote Andrew G. Campbell, dean of the Graduate School, in an email to The Herald.
The expansion is a “natural outgrowth of the last five years” under President Christina Paxson P’19, said Dean of the College Maud Mandel. The new forecast aims to reconcile the University’s finances with the administration’s “big-vision documents,” such as the Building on Distinction strategic plan, the Operational Plan and the BrownTogether campaign, Mandel added.
The forecast is a departure from the strategic plan’s intentions to increase the undergraduate population by 1 percent each year. “Prior to the operational plan, there was an idea of growth — 1 percent for faculty and 1 percent for undergraduate population — but this hadn’t been modeled out,” Locke said.
Locke said that the administration began discussing freezing undergraduate admission after the realization that the University had been growing incrementally for the last several decades without a clear plan. “We had never thought about the undergraduate population in an ecology that included staff (members), faculty (members), graduate students, infrastructure and buildings,” he added.
In response, the University began to benchmark the undergraduate experience by surveying areas such as student-to-faculty ratio, access to academic advice, number of students living on campus and student satisfaction, Locke said. The numbers showed that there were stress points caused by growth that, if unaddressed, would force the University to hire more faculty and staff members, build new infrastructure and rethink the undergraduate experience, he added.
The financial plan will freeze current undergraduate admission at the number of this year’s incoming class — 1,650 admitted students — which will top out the undergraduate population at 6,848 students, Locke said.
“The idea is to not just grow for growth’s sake,” Mandel said.
Balancing the budget
“It’s not about revenue and cost,” Locke said. “It’s about an experience.”
“The cost of undergraduates is a significant part of why they’re freezing undergraduate growth,” said Reid Cooper, professor and director of graduate studies for the department of earth, environmental and planetary sciences . “If they present it to you as trying to improve the quality of your experience, that’s fine because that’s also true.”
While historically the University has primarily conferred PhDs, they have recently begun giving out master’s degrees in sciences that they did not previously, Cooper said. “The University has been pushing to create master’s programs as a revenue stream,” he added.
The computer science department, which has been growing both its master’s and PhD programs, was listed as one department that would be impacted by the financial plan. For the department, the “primary limitation is space,” said Thomas Doeppner, associate research professor of computer science. “In the span of just a few years, we have grown from a moderate-sized concentration to one of the largest in the University, and we are running out of space to be able to cope with all of our students,” he added.
“To be competitive as a computer science department, we have to continue growing in terms of the faculty,” Doeppner said. Currently there are 30 faculty members presiding over 500 undergraduate concentrators, 95 master’s students and around 70 PhD candidates, he said. The department relies heavily on undergraduate teaching assistants in order to accommodate the number of students, and the TAs “are paid not that great of a salary” because of budget constraints, Doeppner said.
“If we keep on incrementing the size of the undergraduate population, it would change the character of the University,” Doeppner said, adding that the University has “reached the point where if we start increasing it just a little bit, (we) have to construct new dining halls (and) new dormitories.”
“The University’s support for graduate education is pretty important,” Doeppner said. Increasing the number of master’s students — who pay their own tuition — will help alleviate the department’s budget constraints.
The growth in the Graduate School and freeze in undergraduate admission has sparked discussion on the meaning of the term University-College — used in the University’s mission statement — and the balance that undergraduate and graduate programs should play.
A 1985 Herald letter to the editor by Robert Mathiesen, professor emeritus of Slavic languages, tracked the history of the term University-College at Brown. “From its very inception Brown has had the character of a university as well as that of a college,” Mathiesen wrote.
In fact, Brown’s charter of 1764 speaks of it as “a College or University,” noting the function of each in its preamble, Mathiesen wrote. Additionally, in 1793, the Laws of the University provided for graduate studies on campus, even though a modern graduate school was not established until 1927, he added.
But it was not until former-President Henry Wriston, who was president of Brown from 1937 to 1955, that the concept of Brown as a University-College was formulated, Mathiesen wrote.
The term is defined by Wriston’s concept of hybridization that aims to narrow the gap between the undergraduate college and graduate university. “In contrast to a college, which exists to educate, a university is essentially an institution for research,” Matheisen wrote.
“What this has to mean in practice is not that graduate scholarship and research are weakened by being handed over to educators, but that undergraduate education is strengthened by coming under the control of scholars and researchers,” Matheisen added.
University-College is a “Brown-specific term,” Doeppner said, explaining that “in many institutions, the university is a collection of colleges,” each with their own administration, where people in different colleges report to different deans. But here, “for undergraduate education, everybody is in the college of Brown.” It’s part of the character of the University that “we don’t have the massive bureaucracy that many schools do,” Doeppner said.
“University-College model is the best of both worlds,” Mandel said, adding, “Faculty are invested in undergraduate education, but they are also world-class scholars.”
For Campbell, the term University-College is about a unified community where the “faculty who teach and mentor undergraduate and graduate students are the same,” he wrote. He added that the “interaction among students and each segment of our community adds vibrancy to our intellectual community.”
Expanding the Grad School does not go against the idea of Brown as a University-College, Campbell said. “Being a robust research university strengthens our academic community and is very much compatible with our longstanding tradition of undergraduate educational excellence,” he wrote, adding that a “strong Graduate School aligns with this identity.”
Modest growth in the research side of the University-College model will attract “people who are dedicated to undergrad teaching but also want to make a difference in the world and push the envelope and solve challenges,” Locke said.
But Cooper noted that the model is not always properly balanced by the University. “My colleagues take deeply seriously the idea of the University-College,” he said. “That idea has fallen to the wayside by the current administration.”
The undergraduate experience
“Graduate students provide many key benefits to the undergraduate population,” wrote Aislinn Rowan GS, the president of the Graduate Student Council, in an email to The Herald.
Almost all doctoral students are required to work as TAs as part of their training for one or more semesters, Rowan wrote. “In this capacity, graduate students are vital resources who lead discussion and review sections, hold office hours, advise students and, in many cases, grade exams or assignments,” she added, noting that in some departments graduate students go so far as to teach their own courses.
“When there are not enough graduate students, departments become limited in the courses they are able to offer, and the existing TAs are sometimes unable to keep up with student demand for their help, especially as they must balance these responsibilities with their own coursework and research,” Rowan wrote. “Increasing the number of graduate students will benefit undergraduate education by alleviating these constraints.”
Graduate students also work directly with undergraduates doing research. Due to a limited number of graduate students, “Laboratories often must turn away interested undergraduates,” Rowan wrote, adding that an increased number of graduate students will expand the capacity for undergraduates to get involved in research.
Iris Bahar, professor of engineering and computer science, said she thinks that the plateau in the size of the undergraduate population will improve the undergraduate experience. “This is a good size, and if we expand it more, we’ll have to rethink about how we’re allocating resources — monetary and human — to make sure they’re still getting the same experience,” Bahar said.
“Brown has always been doing great research. But it has to keep up as a research institution and keep its place internationally or grow its position as a renowned research institution as well as a great undergrad institution,” Bahar said.
Bahar also pointed to new research opportunities available to undergraduate students that will open up with an increased graduate student population.
Rowan also believes that expanding the number of PhD students will attract more faculty members. Faculty members are interested both in teaching and research, and while the quality of the university’s undergraduates appeals to the former and to some degree the latter, “this must be accompanied by sufficient numbers of high-quality graduate students to work and undertake research with if we hope to attract the best and brightest professors to our university,” Rowan wrote. “Having stellar faculty benefits students at all levels of the university — graduate and undergraduate alike,” she added.
“It would be hard to attract top-notch scholars if you couldn’t support them with the correct teaching and grad students,” Mandel said.
Cooper said that in addition to the increased research opportunities available to undergraduate students, a better research profile will improve the reputation of the school. “The more visible the scholarship output of the university is, the more value your degree will hold,” he added.
Campbell noted that graduate students attract faculty members to the University. His vision for the Grad School is to make it “one of the best by raising the level of scholarly excellence in all of our programs,” and to have the University “be recognized as a place and destination for prospective graduate students who want to study with outstanding faculty,” he wrote. He added that in order to achieve that goal, the University must attract exceptional faculty members, which happens when prospective faculty members recognize the University “not only for our excellent undergraduates, but also our outstanding graduate students.”