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Aldrich Interdisciplinary Lecture 1999

Students near clock tower

"The Role of Graduate Studies in a Comprehensive University"

by Evan Simpson
February 24, 1999

Frederick A. Aldrich devoted 18 years to graduate studies at Memorial as dean, but his famous passion was for the giant squid. People would send parts of the beast to him from hither and yon. Alas, the living animal always eluded him, as it continues to elude scholars today. This did not hamper his distinguished scientific career, which is emblematic of higher education, animated as it is by a quest for discovery that may remain forever in the future. The bits and pieces picked up during the journey succeed in justifying the passion for new learning. I approach my subject tonight in this spirit.

It was only a few days after I took up my job in January that Dean Kealey invited me to give the Aldrich Interdisciplinary Lecture. He suggested that it might have to do with a new Vice-President's perceptions of graduate studies at Memorial, so that I had to ask myself what I knew about the subject. After only a moment's reflection, accepting the offer seemed the best way to learn a little more. If the expression of this learning is, in its brevity, the Aldrich version of the Gettysburg Address, I hope that the result will be as provocative as the talk is short.

Necessarily, this speech will be an example of thinking aloud. I will express thoughts rather than settled opinions - not idle thoughts, however, but ideas stimulated by recollections of my own graduate-student days, obvious contemporary realities and straightforward logical inferences. Although these meditations will not all be comfortable, I hope that they are as timely as they should be frank. This university is amidst a serious planning process, which, if it is successful, will affect many of the ways in which Memorial pursues its mission, including graduate education. If I can make a contribution to the process this evening by setting out some appropriate questions, then it will have been a good night's work.

Before attempting to discuss graduate studies, I should consider the context provided by my title, the realities of a so-called "comprehensive university." This expression was devised by journalists at Canada's largest news magazine, who chose not to recognize that the University of Toronto, UBC, Alberta, McGill and Montreal make up a tier of universities whose resources are enormous. At the other end of the spectrum are small liberal arts colleges. Betwixt and between are universities like Memorial, which are pulled in both directions, seeking a breadth of coverage that spans professional and graduate education with resources that are appropriate to offering a superior program of undergraduate studies.

A mid-sized university like Memorial has to choose between futures of limited comprehensive-ness. It is a real challenge to resist trying to support all of our existing activities in the manner to which they have become accustomed. The unfortunate result of opting for that status quo would be chronic dissatisfaction that frustrates serious attention to the things we are in a position to do best, including graduate studies. In saying this, however, I have to express some puzzlement that many at Memorial assert the need for graduate studies to expand as a seemingly a priori truth. I would like to examine the foundation of this conviction, determine what drives the passion and identify the circumstances in which the judgment is sound. I want, though, to avoid groundless hubris or longing to emulate those large-sized universities, the likes of which Newfoundland and Labrador will never be able to sustain during my lifetime. Before explaining my own convictions, I should pause over another matter of definition. When I speak of "graduate studies," I do not think of the School of Graduate Studies. Graduate studies are academic programs. A school of graduate studies is an administrative device for facilitating these programs in various ways, attending to such necessary functions as admission, financial aid, counselling and testing. Or it is at least this. When the present Dean of Graduate Studies agreed to be considered for the job he articulated a more ambitious vision. He said,

The S[chool of] G[raduate] S[tudies] at Memorial should be a "school" in a tangible sense that transcends being simply a bureaucratic clearing house for graduate students and programs. The SGS should provide the meeting place for the best and most dedicated researchers and scholars at Memorial and the best and brightest apprentice scholars and professionals. . . . It should also be a place where the University's role in the national debates about Research and Development and Science and Technology is discussed and defined.

Dean Kealey's vision is appealing, but it is wise to be moderate in the pursuit of ambitious ideals. A "school" of graduate studies is unlike the others. It has few academic programs of its own and no faculty or academic space. The School as a meeting place can only be a metaphor. Organizationally, it is not the main place where debates about research are pursued, since we have a Vice-President for Research whose province this is. (It is arguable - this is an ongoing discussion - that the functions of administering graduate studies and research should be combined, but since graduate students do not normally attract research awards and contracts such a union might be artificial. And research is not the sole responsibility of graduate studies: it should be expected of all students as well as all faculty.)

Another ongoing argument is whether many of the functions of the SGS - - admissions, financial assistance, counselling, examinations - might be better performed elsewhere. Certainly, the clerical tasks of admission, data collection and analysis could be transferred to the University Registrar. Financial support might be administered by the Scholarships Office. Counselling might be undertaken by the schools and departments who know their students best. So, too, for examinations. Of course, most of this work has to be done somewhere, so that such a reorganization would be no financial panacea. One might agree with the most recent report on the Graduate School that there should be a "consultative review of . . . of the objectives and activities of the School of Graduate Studies," but this far from my purpose tonight.

If there is a valid conceptual basis for doubts about a school of graduate studies, it is that graduate studies should be integrated with everything we do rather than being sequestered from the rest of the university. A necessary condition of this aspiration is a clear place for the Dean of Graduate Studies in the senior councils of the institution. Even if there were no School, if we are to have solid graduate programs then we need the cross-university quality- control, the focus on policy formation and review, and the effective advocacy that a good dean provides. The dean should not be too burdened with the administration of a bureaucracy. Rather, the dean's role might be usefully expanded to include

  • interviewing candidates for permanent academic positions
  • bringing an institutional perspective to questions of tenure and promotion
  • having more time for invigorating the Graduate Council, and
  • generally focusing upon academic leadership rather than management.

Given such an enhanced role, what might graduate studies at a university like Memorial become? In order to answer the question, let me identify a few points of factual reference. At the beginning of the 1960s, there were some 7,000 graduate students in Canada. Three decades later, there were 110,000. Memorial has shared in this growth, now having about 1500 graduate students, ranking 25th in this respect among our approximately 60 universities. Much of the growth here occurred later than elsewhere. In 1996 (the last year for which comparative figures are available) there was a 16% increase - 10th in Canada - exceeded only by the likes of Athabasca, Bishops, UPEI, and the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design. Meanwhile, enrolments were declining at many of the country's better established graduate universities, including McGill, Ottawa, UBC, Toronto, and Queen's.

Growth at Memorial has come at obvious expense. Graduate studies entail the provision of graduate courses, scholarships and assistant ships for masters and doctoral students, specialized libraries in the areas of graduate work, and additional research facilities. These costs are manageable under the right circumstances. The leading graduate schools built their programs during a period of expansion for Canadian universities. Memorial has accelerated its programs during a period of overall contraction. The resulting tensions need to be addressed. Our basic patterns of expenditure were largely shaped by the availability of a government grant that primarily supported undergraduate education. With that grant declining, any transfer of resources to graduate work has to create strain in the system.

Why bother with graduate studies then? Can the strain be relieved? My basic proposition is that, in order for graduate studies to develop further at Memorial, they must be a resource to the rest of the University rather than a competitor for scarce resources. The objectives of graduate study need to reinforce those of the University generally. This is easy to say, but it represents a severe challenge. It means, for example, explaining how graduate studies benefit Grenfell College, which might reasonably prefer that several million dollars a year be available for activities in which they are directly engaged. I believe that this explanation can be provided.

Memorial's first objective, I have no doubt, is fine undergraduate education. Undergraduate education is the bread and butter of the University. It is, as I have suggested, the principal reason for the government grant. It is the chief source of alumni support. If we are not attractive to undergraduate students, the resources available to us will decline, making it difficult to do anything well. Graduate students, I suggest, can help us pursue our mission very well indeed.

I by no means diminish the importance of research, which graduate students certainly enhance, especially in such areas as science, engineering and medicine, where the organization of knowledge makes apprentices invaluable. In the arts and some professions, graduate students function less as junior colleagues. Instead, they more commonly help to test their professors' research by providing a critical audience for it, though this too is useful for the advancement of knowledge and understanding. However, research is not the sole end for universities. It can be conducted in government labs and by private scholars. For us, its interest is inextricable from its contribution to teaching. It makes us better teachers by invigorating our classes directly. Fred Aldrich was one of Memorial's most memorable teachers.

The relationship between graduate students and research is well established, but the role of graduate students in teaching is less immediately clear. To be sure, many universities have recognized that the growth of graduate studies does not require a transfer of resources away from undergraduate instruction. They stretch their resources by making graduate students themselves participants in this instruction; and, in principle, this participation has other things to recommend it as well. One of the best ways of entrenching one's knowledge is to explain it to others, so that for graduate students to play an integral part in undergraduate instruction is for them to improve their own learning. And since undergraduate students often learn better from those who are more like them than professors, the benefit exists on both sides.

Unfortunately, these benefits are not realized fully unless graduate students are trained to be good teachers. For many years, professors in Canadian universities - people like me - were hired to teach without any training in the art, as if teaching was something that comes naturally. For many of us it does not, yet we are slow to apply this knowledge. Canadian universities still have a tendency to put graduate students in labs, tutorials and classrooms without adequate preparation. By contrast, Memorial can be a leader in graduate studies by recognizing explicitly that learning how to teach is part of graduate education.

We have made a good start by giving graduate students the opportunity to take a course on teaching. The teaching fellowships in the Faculty of Arts are another example of this progressive tendency. By making these opportunities more widely available, by making them the norm rather than the exception, we have the capacity to provide graduate studies at Memorial with a distinctive dimension. It will not appeal to everyone, but a mid-sized university will not appeal to everyone. We should try to appeal to those who share a passion for teaching.

This prescription has a number of practical implications. I will list several in no particular order of priority. First, the proportion of funding for fellowships and assistantships should change. Currently, Memorial expends more funds on fellowships than on assistantships, but in order to weave graduate studies into the mission of the University, we need to view teaching assignments as carrying the greater prestige.

Second, the balance of Ph.D. to masters-level enrolments should be revised. Of Memorial's 1500+ graduate students, about 1300 are in a masters program, while about 200 are Ph.D. students. It is not practical to give extensive training to masters students in the techniques of effective teaching. Since they are with us only briefly, they would have little time to practice and apply what they have learned. Of course, they can benefit from short sessions at the beginning of the year, but doctoral students have more time and can develop greater capacities.

Third, we should attract more domestic students overall. About 40% of our doctoral students are international or visa students. Only the University of Regina has a greater proportion. By contrast, McGill has 25%, Toronto 14%. There are many reasons for wanting a healthy contingent of international students. They add to the diversity that is important for higher education, and they address a debt that Canada owes the rest of the world. In absolute numbers we may want more, but there are also reasons for wanting to increase the ratio of doctoral students from Newfoundland, Labrador and the rest of Canada. They include having students whose research focuses on topics that express our unique geography or address the economic and cultural needs of the province. These will tend to be domestic students. The reasons also include a capacity to relate easily to undergraduate students, which can come more slowly for those from abroad.

Fourth, we should attract more female students in selected areas. Currently, just over 50% of our graduate students are women - a good number -, but their distribution by program differs widely. There is a marked gap in some disciplines, such as Pharmacy and Engineering, where representation is under 20%. Female undergraduates need appropriate role models if they are to flourish in subjects dominated by men, creating better circumstances for learning.

These suggestions are meant as avenues to be explored rather than complete thoughts. They lead to further questions. The current ratio of graduate to undergraduate students at Memorial is about 1/10. I have suggested that it should be higher. A frequently cited number suggests that it should be 1/7.5, but this number has been based upon little more than comparisons with other universities. I have tried to suggest a better rationalized objective in terms of the concentration of graduate students that makes them a sufficient presence in our teaching (while leaving most teaching to the professorial staff).

Where should an increase in the number of graduate students occur? This is a complicated question because graduate programs are not homogeneous. As I have suggested, more Ph.D. students are to be desired in virtue of both their potential contribution to a program's need for tutors, demonstrators, and instructors and their contribution to research in the University. The role of masters-level students is less easily stated because of substantial differences between programs and the motivations of persons in those programs. At one time, masters-level programs were primarily a training ground for future scholars, the best of which would enter Ph.D. programs and ultimately replace their professors. Today, there are two further categories of masters program. First, there are those that promote vocational advancement, including the Master of Business Administration, Master of Education and Master of Social Work. Second, there are interdisciplinary programs, such as Toxicology, Biopsychology and Aquaculture, where the course of study crosses traditional boundaries. These two types of programs have been areas of recent, substantial growth at Memorial and now comprise about 40% of all masters students. In the case of the former, students' intentions may be less conducive to teaching assignments, but the programs also place substantially fewer demands upon the resources available to their academic units. Some of them are almost self-supporting and place no inherent pressure upon the other things we do. In the case of the latter, the programs are more similar to traditional masters-level study, but opportunities to participate in teaching may be limited by the absence of corresponding undergraduate programs. I am certain that we can be more creative in overcoming this limitation. I am therefore confident that a university of 2000 graduate students, many of whom were responsible for an undergraduate course or cluster of labs, could significantly enhance our common enterprise.

What, a final unanswered question, about Grenfell College? Many graduate students would benefit from experience in contributing to teaching in a liberal arts context, and the College would benefit from having some of them for periods that did not interfere with thesis writing and the like. Where the will to mutual benefit exists, the benefits can accrue. Although it is possible to construe such benefits financially, it is not necessary to do so. The expense of graduate studies need not be fully recovered if they are designed to achieve purposes that make sense of our whole enterprise. I have tried to indicate one important part of such a design. This bears saying in another way. It has not been my intention to discourse on the economics of graduate study, but I have wanted to extend an invitation to look seriously into the financial dimension of an integrated approach to graduate and undergraduate studies. Until we are clearer about the resources that can be recovered through the prudent use of apprentice teachers and scholars, after the costs of training them in the arts of instruction, we will not have a fully formed academic plan for Memorial.

My vision of graduate studies in a relatively comprehensive but only mid-sized university is a picture of connections. Given these connections, I see the further expansion of graduate studies at Memorial as desirable. But I express this thought diffidently, fearing that finding the right place for graduate studies may be as elusive as the giant squid. I only hope that the other things I have said this evening are less outrageous than this final evocation of Memorial's first dean of graduate studies. May there be many more!

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