Distinguished and Distinctive Graduate Education Strategic Planning Committee Holds First Public Forum

Attendees explored what criteria should be used to evaluate graduate programs and stressed the importance of retaining a diverse graduate student body.

Attendees discuss the future of GW's graduate ecosystem with committee chair Carol Sigelman.
Attendees discuss the future of GW's graduate ecosystem with Distinguished and Distinctive Graduate Education Strategic Planning Committee Chair Carol Sigelman. (William Atkins/GW Today)
October 28, 2019

By Ruth Steinhardt

The Distinguished and Distinctive Graduate Education Strategic Planning Committee held its first public forum Thursday, giving the George Washington University community the opportunity to provide feedback on questions that will inform a five-year strategy for achieving preeminence in graduate programming.

The committee—one of four tasked with developing recommendations for each of the strategic plan’s pillars—is charged with developing a strategy “to identify, resource and elevate 10 or so doctoral programs to national preeminence, as well as a strategy and criteria for the creation, evaluation and termination of professional graduate degree programs.”

Carol Sigelman, a professor of psychology in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and chair of the committee, opened the discussion by clarifying that the committee’s goal is not to choose 10 doctoral programs to elevate while eliminating or deprioritizing others.

“What we do want to do is develop some criteria defining what good graduate programs look like…and also look at decision-making,” Dr. Sigelman said. “Who should be deciding things about grad programs—which to start, which to downsize, or merge, or whatever? That’s really what this is all about.”

With over 200 doctoral and masters’ programs to consider across the university, each with its own unique context and criteria for excellence, Dr. Sigelman said, the exercise is “tough.”

Attendees agreed, with many noting the difficulty of comparing disparate graduate programs to one another. Academic Program Reviews (APRs), in which a  department completes self-assessments and undergoes internal and external evaluations, are supposed to be done every five years. But attendees said the APR process, while theoretically a useful tool for appraising a program’s success in the context of a department’s other activities, is not uniformly carried out across schools and, even when it is, does not always result in needed changes.   

Attendees also asked the committee to consider a broad definition of postgraduate success. For instance, while some doctoral students seek a lifelong academic career, many others are choosing careers in industry or non-profit organizations. Other audience members questioned whether high employment rates should be the sole measure of a graduate program’s preeminence or whether an institution of higher learning has other, less quantifiable responsibilities—for instance, to promote critical thinking in an increasingly anti-intellectual political climate.

Some attendees pointed out that eliminating too many graduate programs would conflict with GW’s aspirations to preeminence as a comprehensive global research university, since narrowing GW’s fields of study might affect its comprehensiveness.

Attendees also raised concerns about GW’s ability to fund graduate students sufficiently and train them in professional skills such as teaching.

While recruitment of promising students is important to achieving preeminence, they said, retaining those students may be even more so. Retention initiatives have particular importance for graduate students of color and students from challenged socioeconomic backgrounds, attendees said. Besides making sure these students receive competitive funding packages, they said, GW should also try to provide resources for nontraditional students and mental health support for its entire graduate community.

Members of the GW community are invited to submit feedback through the strategic plan website. Feedback from faculty, staff, and students will help inform recommendations to be shared with the Board of Trustees in February, with the final plan submitted to the Board of Trustees for approval in May 2020.

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