Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of Q-and-A’s with the deans of the University’s 18 schools and colleges. John Dalton was appointed assistant dean of graduate studies in 2006. Dean Judith Langlois was unavailable. This interview has been condensed to fit space requirements.
The Daily Texan: Could you tell us about the graduate school’s goals?
John Dalton: Our main objective is to recruit and support the very best graduate students, and that means a lot of things. It means financial support; it means services for graduate students of all sorts. Two of the main things that we have been focusing on over the last couple of years, one of them is graduate student housing. We have a lot of graduate students on campus, and we don’t have a lot of opportunities for them to have housing either that is owned by the University or subsidized by the University. The other issue that we’ve moved the needle on, I think significantly, is career services for graduate students, particularly PhD students. If you’re a non-professional student, like if you’re an MBA student or at the LBJ school or even in engineering, your career services actually does a very good job of helping you facilitate interactions with potential employers, setting you up, but if you’re in a non-professional school, like the College of Liberal Arts or the College of Natural Sciences, two or three years ago, there just literally weren’t services for graduate students, and I didn’t know this until we did our climate study and one of the things that came back was we need more career services.
DT: How are you planning on addressing the issue of low availability of graduate student housing?
Dalton: Most [graduate housing] is done on Lake Austin Boulevard... and the wait list is several hundred students long. There’s a large international student population there. There are a lot of families there. That’s also part of that Brackenridge track which is very valuable to the University. It’s part of the municipal golf course, so there are lots of conversations going on about what’s going to happen to that down the road. We have been working with the Graduate Student Assembly and various administrators and the president to talk about a new facility for graduate students, and we’re in the preliminary stages of that discussion, but it seems to be going really well. I think within the next six to nine months, the campus will see a proposal for a new facility, and we’re not sure of the location yet, but we’re focusing our efforts on east Austin.
DT: Is it normal for a university to have one graduate school that encompasses all of the different graduate programs?
Dalton: The way our administrative structure is set up is very typical across the U.S…. Everything about the graduate student experience is very different than the undergraduate experience. The department makes [admissions decisions], and students become a part of that department. They work with individual faculty. Administratively, the graduate school supports and just oversees the different processes as graduate students move through their programs... We handle all the incoming [admission] applications and distribute those out to the programs to make those decisions and then we verify those decisions, and then at the end we certify the degree, but in the middle, there’s lots of things that happen. We handle everything from late registration petitions to grievances from graduate students who are having either employment issues or academic issues.
DT: What kinds of challenges does this type of structure pose?
Dalton: We have a very large student population: 12,000 students. The graduate school staff in the graduate school is about 30 staff. It’s a lot of services to provide with few staff. We count the graduate coordinators as an extension of our staff; there are over 100 of those, and they’re located in each of the departments. We couldn’t do our jobs without the graduate coordinators. One of the challenges is the diversity of needs. You can’t say something’s going to work for all graduate students. Very rarely will one solution work for everybody. So we’re always talking about the differences between the sciences and the humanities and trying to figure out what their needs are, even in career services, very different needs going into preparation for the job market... We’re getting ready, I think next fall, to engage in a series of conversations about graduate education, and we’re going to ask really basic questions like, “What is a dissertation?” We expect a different answer from every college and school.
DT: How are graduate student stipends looking?
Dalton: Stipends are really paramount in supporting graduate students. That is one of the key factors... It is one of the major factors students use in deciding where they are going to go for their graduate work. To get the very best students, you’ve got to have competitive stipends. Every college in the school has a different stipend amount. They range across the board, low to high, just depending on market forces, depending on the source of funds, so we are always thinking about how to find more money to support graduate students. The graduate school can do some of that. We can work on providing those stipends, but a lot of that money from the stipends comes from external to the University, so in the sciences and the STEM fields, most of that money that is paid to graduate research assistants, or GRA’s, comes from external sources like grants from the federal government. Faculty are getting those grants, and those students will be paid off of that grant and not out of the University coffers. We have lots of conversations with college deans about the levels of stipends. We’re always looking at our budgets and trying to figure out how we can increase stipends.