The University Record, January 31, 1994

Mellon funds U-M-based effort to improve grad education

By Mary Jo Frank

National fellowship programs that provide sustained financial support for graduate students don’t always produce quick trips (six years or less) through the doctoral maze, or even a Ph.D.

Surprisingly, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation learned in the late 1980s that “multi-year fellowship programs in the humanities and related social sciences have rarely achieved completion rates as high as 60 percent.”

In its 1991 annual report, the Foundation noted that approximately one-half of the carefully selected winners of these prestigious awards do not complete doctorates. Those who do earn doctorates do not complete their studies appreciably faster than other graduate students in the same fields, attending the same universities.

The median time-to-degree for various subsets of students in the humanities has been at least seven years, and as much as nine or 10 years in some situations.

These findings led the Foundation to initiate an institutional grants program under the direction of Harriet Zuckerman, Foundation vice president. The grants program is focusing efforts on improving the effectiveness of graduate education in specific graduate departments at individual universities, including the U-M and its departments of anthropology (ethnography), classical studies, English and history, and the Program in Ancient Art and Architecture.

The U-M is one of 10 universities that are working on the Mellon Foundation-sponsored project to improve graduate education. Other universities participating include: Columbia; Cornell; University of California, Berkeley; University of Chicago; Harvard; University of Pennsylvania; Princeton; Stanford and Yale. The institutions were selected because of the strong doctoral programs they have in the humanities.

The Mellon Foundation has made grants totaling more than $18 million to the 10 universities for use in 48 individual graduate programs.

As part of the “Mellon Foundation 10-University Project to Improve Graduate Education,” the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies recently hosted the Academic Issues Conference, which brought together deans and departmental faculty from the participating universities to discuss their progress and difficulties.

Mellon Foundation President William G. Bowen, who participated in the conference, said the Foundation “views the 10-University program as an exciting opportunity to work with selected departments to improve the quality of doctoral education in the humanities and humanistically oriented social sciences, and simultaneously to reduce attrition and time-to-degree.

“The program is important, we believe, because of its potential impact on the effective use of the time of exceedingly able graduate students and the effective use of the scarce resources of the universities. The leading graduate programs deserve all the attention we can give them because of the pivotal role they play in educating many of the faculty of the future and, more broadly yet, in shaping entire fields of study.”

Sharon Brucker, social science research associate at Rackham, who coordinated the conference, said participants discussed how they are monitoring changes in departmental and program behavior, the usefulness of curricular changes, the potential impact of job market conditions and resulting perceptions about progress to the Ph.D., the best ways to foster mentoring relationships, and ways to facilitate the completion of the dissertation.

Rackham Dean John H. D’Arms said that the conference “proved exceedingly valuable for two chief reasons. First, it brought colleagues from strong humanities graduate programs across the country together to discuss—in an informal setting—their strategies to make doctoral education more effective.

“Second, it proved to me that Mellon’s program is in fact changing departmental ‘cultures’ in lasting ways: faculty members in all 10 of these universities are, in fact, taking more responsibility for helping students complete their doctoral studies in a more timely way.”

Participating universities and departments have provided the Foundation with baseline data describing the progress of previous and current cohorts of students so that it will be possible to compare the results achieved through this new program with those achieved earlier, Brucker noted. The data base is being maintained at Rackham.

“The Rackham Graduate School is doubly grateful to the Mellon Foundation,” D’Arms said, “for committing substantial resources to help us improve doctoral education, and for its vote of confidence in inviting us to assume leadership for coordinating this national effort.”

Zuckerman said participating universities are deeply committed to making the program work successfully, to careful monitoring of experiences and to publication of whatever lessons are learned The Foundation plans to support the effort for at least five years.