UI dean: Defending the findings of the graduate education task force


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The final report of the Task Force on Graduate Education: Selective Excellence has drawn much attention in the University of Iowa and the higher education community — and rightfully so. It is rare that such an assessment takes place in a comprehensive research university. All other levels of education in the United States, including K-12, undergraduate, and professional programs, have come under scrutiny for quality and effectiveness, usually through accreditation reviews by various organizations.

Undoubtedly, the study results will provide crucial information to guide higher education, as our institutions’ stakeholders demand increased accountability. In this current economic climate, accountability is more important than ever for graduate-education programs. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in its Postsecondary Education Spending Priorities statement, pointed to a clear need for reform for graduate education. Most telling is the statement that “institutions cannot continue to subsidize unproductive graduate programs of marginal quality.”

The UI’s Task Force on Graduate Education was established by UI Provost Wallace Loh and spent 10 months finishing its work. While most attention thus far has focused on the rating assessments of more than 100 graduate programs, the overall goal of the task force was to seek improvements in the delivery of graduate programs offered at Iowa.

There are several key highlights from the UI report, and it is important that they be recognized and understood. First, 82 percent of the programs were rated as exemplary, high quality, or good, while only 13 percent were rated in the additional-evaluation-required category. Second, the task force reviewed graduate programs, not departments, faculty, or undergraduate programs. The focus of the assessments was on graduate-student outcomes, using numerous quantitative and qualitative parameters. External funding generated by graduate programs was not a specific criterion of assessment. Third, the task force report presented a series of recommendations, which is only the first step in a multistep evaluation process. The report does not mandate specific actions for graduate programs. While it is true that the report raises questions for further consideration about the long-term viability of graduate programs rated in the additional-evaluation-required category, at this juncture, it is premature to conclude the fate of any of our programs.

The task force scrutinized programs in all academic areas equitably. Of the 14 graduate programs identified as requiring additional evaluation, one-half were in the humanities and one-half were in the sciences and social sciences. The report recommends restructuring and reorganization not only for programs requiring additional evaluation, but also for a number of very strong programs in the sciences, including some that were recommended for administrative relocation in order to maximize their impact. No particular area was immune from attention.

As graduate educators look to the future, Iowa works closely with colleagues across the country who struggle with the same challenges of maintaining quality programs while focusing on long-term viability. Our pursuit of excellence begins with assessing our current programs. The task-force report shows that while we have much to be proud of, we also have work to do.

John Keller is UI associate provost for Graduate Education and dean of the Graduate College.

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