Critical Questions about the Proposed Graduate School Reorganization at UW-Madison

April 30, 2014 | Blog, News

For more than five years, administrators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been pursuing a restructuring of the Graduate School.  Overviews of that effort and discussions about the controversies involved therein can be easily found via Google.

This coming Monday, May 5th, the Faculty Senate will consider the topic yet again. I’m writing to elevate several key concerns that I hope my colleagues will pursue in active discussion on that day before reaching their conclusions. I thank my colleague and friend Irwin Goldman for his diligence in investigating and illuminating the intricacies of the issues involved and for bringing these questions to my attention.  As he wrote in an email, the current proposal is better than the previous working group’s report.  Specifications for Associate Dean term limits and percentage appointments are gone, and it is now clearer that the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) support needs to remain close and connected to the faculty, and increased if research is to continue to be a hallmark of this institution. The need for separate budgets for administrators, unconnected to the WARF gift, has also be clarified.

And yet, this plan continues to pursue the goal of close integration of research and graduate education while, in sharp contradiction, also proposing to split the leadership of these enterprises.

This is perplexing and deserving of explanation. Of utmost importance, the workarounds to create “integration” under this model involve an expensive expansion of the number of administrative positions.

For example, the proposal separates the research and graduate education leadership into two positions but also calls for having associate vice chancellors and associate deans co-lead the research committees.  This means adding another highly paid administrator plus FOUR new associate vice chancellor positions. Aren’t we in a budget “crisis” with declining resources? Is this truly a case of having to spend money to make money?

In a sense, that’s what the proponents argue, saying that this additional layer of bureaucracy makes us more competitive in the research enterprise and helps us with our “Washington DC presence.”  But we have not be told how this will occur or given concrete evidence that it is likely to happen. What are the expected mechanisms through which the additional of these administrators will generate a better research infrastructure?  We are being told– though not shown– that UW-Madison’s ranking in terms of research metrics is declining, and yetwe  have been given very little data (only on the sheer number of PhDs) to support that claim.  How can we– as researchers–possible assess the case for this change with so little to go on?

In addition, there appear to be substantial consequences for Graduate Education on campus derived by a structural change in which the person leading that work would report to the person leading Research (instead of directly reporting to the Chancellor). Graduate education and research go hand-in-hand, and arguably without graduate education as the justification for the research mission, it could disappear at public institutions entirely.   The university needs to do much more to ensure that graduate education is established as a clear priority.

UW-Madison is a research powerhouse full of bright people known for asking hard questions and using data and analysis to find answers. This process of developing new approaches to facilitating that research must be treated with the same degree of rigor, and careful attention to both positive and negative consequences.  The process need not be rapid, and must not be rushed, since it’s imperative that it be effective.


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