Assessment, planning under way in Grad School

By Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- He's been a faculty member, director of graduate studies, department chair, University committee member, researcher and Ph.D. adviser. William Russel has a background that seems tailor-made for his latest challenge -- serving as dean of Princeton's Graduate School.

On Aug. 1, Russel succeeded John Wilson as dean of the school, which this year enrolls about 2,000 students. The Arthur W. Marks '19 Professor, he has been a member of the faculty in chemical engineering since 1974. In addition to serving his department as director of graduate studies and as chair, he has served the University as a member of the Committee on Appointments and Advancements, the University Research Board, the Committee on the Sixth College and search committees for key administrators.

He also has been active as a researcher and administrator with the Princeton Materials Institute, the Princeton Center for Complex Materials and the Princeton Environmental Institute. He has advised 30 Ph.D. students now in academia or industrial research.

Russel spoke with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about his impressions of the Graduate School so far, and his plans for the future -- which include moving into Wyman House near the Graduate College with his wife, Priscilla, sometime next year.

Why did you decide to take on this job?

There's no single answer to that. I have enjoyed administrative positions over the years, along with the life of a professor. As I was considering the job, John Wilson offered a remarkably extensive and detailed sense of what the school does, what the issues are and what the future might hold. Through these I gained a much better appreciation of the depth and breadth of the job and began to realize that I could enjoy it. The numerous components that are important to faculty and students weighed heavily as well.

How have you been spending your time over the last several months?

Most has been devoted to acquainting myself with the Graduate School, the departmental programs and the graduate students. First I talked with all available members of the staff to hear what they do and think. To learn how the graduate programs in the various departments operate, I am visiting them one by one with [Associate Deans] Sandra [Mawhinney] and David [Redman]. That's been helpful in both directions -- we've learned much from them, and they've occasionally gained from our suggestions. Meeting with the Graduate Student Government and the House Committee of the Graduate College have been informative, and I expect to see more students during office hours this spring.

One of the big challenges must be dealing with a program that is somewhat de-centralized.

That's true, but we're far more centralized than most other universities. We manage admissions for everybody, whereas some schools leave that to the departments. We monitor and manage the financial support centrally, even though much comes from the departments. We oversee academic standards, but generally rely on the judgment of the departments. And we also take care of housing and student life, which some schools are realizing belatedly is better done centrally.

So do you think that we have the right kind of balance here?

I think so, but the issue merits periodic review. We're amidst a self-assessment of the administrative structure of the Graduate School assisted by [Associate Provost] Jed Marsh. The time is right, given other long-term planning prompted by the Wythes Report. Internal brain-storming sessions with individual components of the staff started the process of identifying our strengths, areas in which we might be weak and those that might profit considerably from some attention.

Similar sessions will solicit views of directors of graduate studies and graduate assistants from the departments and key individuals in administrative offices. At that point, the associate deans will probe our peer institutions about their practices. Then comes the difficult task of organizing the information and transforming ideas into actions. Jed, the associate deans and I hope to complete a draft by late February or early March. In addition to assessing our administrative practices and staffing, we must also emerge with a space plan for our move into Clio Hall in 2004.

What other plans do you have in store?

Our overall goal is to position the Graduate School to fulfill its mission of advancing graduate education within the University. That means supporting and helping to develop outstanding graduate programs in the departments, while continuing to advocate the importance of the Graduate School and graduate students across the University.

Part of that requires improving graduate student life. The new undergraduate colleges will bring graduate students into undergraduate residences. That's a solid step forward involving a modest, but significant, number of students who will organize intellectual and cultural activities. In the fall before the Priorities Committee we proposed to hire a residential life coordinator for the apartments, motivated by the success of Lisa Sherov at the Graduate College. The initiative was received well by students living in Lawrence and Butler.

Princeton has a wonderful balance between undergraduate and graduate activities. We preserve a clear focus on undergraduate education, but also recognize graduate education and research as essential components of this "research university with the heart of a small liberal arts college." Supporting that balance with appropriate resources on the graduate side is an ongoing task.

What are other issues the Graduate School faces?

With respect to funding for graduate students in the humanities and social sciences and providing housing, Princeton has been a leader for some time. However, other top research universities, particularly Stanford, Harvard and Yale, are moving forward very quickly. To avoid being left in their wake, we must continue to expand fellowship funding and build more housing. The University has taken substantial strides recently with summer stipends for the humanities and social sciences, first-year fellowships in the sciences and engineering and the 206 units being added to the Lawrence Apartments. But we should not stop there.

Is there a particular topic that captures your attention on the academic side of things?

The question that most interests me is how to educate graduate students effectively in the "hot" interdisciplinary areas prevalent in academic research. Members of our faculty have already adapted sufficiently to succeed and lead in many such fields, ranging from nanotechnology to the psychological side of economics. Our mechanisms for educating graduate students have not fully adapted, because of the difficulty in balancing depth in one discipline with the breadth to work in a second. We need to think seriously -- in select areas -- about mechanisms to better attract and educate top students. The impetus and vision must bubble up from the faculty. Our job is to encourage and respond with guidance that leads to pedagogically sound structures capable of providing education of lasting value to the students.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from the University community so far?

From the graduate students, there's still anxiety about post-enrollment, housing and health insurance. Many concerns are tied to the extended time many take to earn a degree, which often exceeds the period of support. We recognize that the Degree Candidacy Continuing (DCC) status [a new affiliated status implemented this fall for first-year post-enrolled doctoral candidates] is not the final answer, but feel additional effort is best invested in tuning up the academic programs, particularly in the middle years of enrollment. Steps already taken, such as stipends for five summers that effectively add a full year of support, should yield results in the near future.

"Best practices" identified in the process of establishing the DCC status have shortened time to degree in some departments. Examples are seminars focusing on preparation of dissertation propositions and committees that include faculty beyond the adviser to monitor progress on the dissertation. Other departments are recognizing the merits and devising similar procedures as we continue to seek other mechanisms.

From several departments we hear a desire for a few more students, which would require more fellowships and housing. There are some solid reasons for modest growth -- exciting new programs in the neurosciences, through psychology and molecular biology, and genomics, via the Lewis-Sigler Institute, and distinguished departments in the humanities, such as history, that have broadened the range of their teaching and research.

At Princeton we generally consider smaller (or at least "not larger") to be better. Consequently many, if not most, departments have fewer graduate students per faculty member than their peers. That normally means more personal advising of graduate students and a better product. However, fielding a student body of less than critical size can limit the depth and range of research in some fields. So many factors must be considered.

What about graduate student alumni?

We definitely need to increase our contact with alumni and enlist their support intellectually and financially. That's probably best achieved through departments, where allegiance is strongest. We posted the director of alumni relations position (see box below), seeking an individual to work with departments and schools, the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni and the Alumni Council. The idea is to build on the good will generated during the centennial celebration of the Graduate School, which created events on campus that attracted many graduate alumni and provided an occasion for visiting others across the country.

Have you discovered any surprises since you came on board?

Yes, I've been very pleasantly surprised at the extent of support for the Graduate School throughout the academic and the non-academic administration. I look forward to capitalizing on that as we develop plans for the future.

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