What makes a great research university? The usual answers to this question are outstanding faculty, excellent and committed staff, talented students, cutting-edge facilities and robust institutional support for scholarly activities. All of these are true, but perhaps the core characteristic of a great research university is the presence of graduate and professional education.
Much of the rhetoric surrounding higher education tends to focus on undergraduate education, including discussions of access to higher education itself, tuition, financial aid, student life and other matters.
However, about a third of the students enrolled at Cornell are graduate or professional students, and in recent months, an increasingly sharp focus has been drawn on the strengths and challenges of graduate education at Cornell. Because of the critical importance of graduate education, and following the strong leadership of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA), we will be focusing more attention on this critical part of Cornell throughout this year and going forward.
We are moving to decrease graduate tuition for research degree students over the next several years. This is part of a larger Graduate School effort to reduce principal investigators’ costs while maintaining strong financial support for graduate students. The vast majority of graduate students are supported by assistantships and fellowships of various kinds; by lowering tuition for research degree students, we are enabling faculty members to appoint more graduate research assistants who can work to advance research and scholarship.
Beyond tuition levels, though, there are other aspects of graduate and professional student life that require our attention. In March 2007, the GPSA presented its Graduate Community Initiative Vision Statement to me and to the Board of Trustees. I asked Vice President Susan Murphy and Graduate School Dean Alison “Sunny” Power to co-chair a task force charged with responding to the concerns in the GPSA report. The task force developed four subcommittees to focus on the areas of career services; housing; graduate and professional life and programs; and communications. Just a few days ago, I received an interim report on the task force’s activities. This interim report, which was conveyed to the GPSA yesterday, touched on a variety of matters including:
• With the closure of the Big Red Barn, the issue of a new graduate center has become a central concern. It appears that the Big Red Barn’s structural issue can be addressed and the facility reopened by early April of this year. The reopening of the Big Red Barn will provide some breathing space for the task force to explore in detail issues related to the long-term issue of the graduate center. (I am pleased to note that until the Big Red Barn can reopen, space has been designated in The Trillium to serve as an interim graduate/professional student center.)
• Many of the short-term suggestions listed in the task force’s interim report can be carried out without additional resources and most likely will be implemented. These ideas touch on a wide variety of issues under the four subcommittees listed above.
The task force will continue to meet during the spring semester to analyze and establish priorities for the recommendations and to determine any cost implications for those that would require new resources. I would like to highlight a few of the ideas, because I believe they are critically important to the graduate experience and demonstrate the responsiveness of the task force to GPSA concerns.
• Create a Graduate Career Services Team;
• Return Thurston Court Apartments and Hasbrouck Apartments to graduate/professional student housing;
• Plan activities to integrate graduate/professional students and their families across the University;
• Develop more innovative ways of communicating with graduate students such as unifying e-mail communications under a few categories and installing digital posting places in the Big Red Barn similar to what is available in Duffield and Sage Hall.
Other issues identified by the task force that continue to need attention include transportation and environmental impact, childcare, diversity, mental health services, services for international graduate students and the isolation of students in professional schools and on satellite campus such as the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.
I am confident that the GPSA will remain closely involved in efforts to improve the Cornell experience for graduate and professional students. Although the GPSA and the task force subcommittees are very effective methods for focusing our attention on issues important to graduate and professional students, with this column I ask for direct campus feedback on the interim report (see: www.gradschool.cornell.edu/gci) and on any other issues which you feel also need to be considered in thinking about graduate and professional education at Cornell. I look forward to working together with graduate/professional students, faculty, staff and administrators to further improve the critical graduate and professional student experience at Cornell.
David J. Skorton is the President of Cornell University. He can be contacted at email@example.com. From David appears every month.