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Commission discusses Ph.D. programs

By Susan Trulove

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 30 - May 2, 1996

In the wake of an article in the Roanoke Times (April 22, 1996) that appeared to be about limiting enrollment of Ph.D. students, Joe Schetz suggested the topic be on the Commission on Research's agenda for 1996-97.

"This newspaper article implying limitation on Ph.D. enrollment is pretty ominous for the university," Schetz said.

Ernie Stout, associate provost for research, explained that President Paul Torgersen added a sentence to section 4.10 of the University Plan for 1996-2001. The original wording (in Spectrum insert Dec. 21, 1995 as 4.9) was, "We will continue our strong commitment to graduate education, recognizing the close link between research and graduate studies. Furthermore, we must acknowledge the competitive nature of financial support for research and teaching assistants and for graduate scholarships." The document approved by the Board of Visitors had the additional sentences: "We also recognize the present imbalance between the numbers of people graduating with Ph.D.'s and their sometimes limited opportunities for employment. We will keep this situation under review and make necessary adjustments on a discipline-by-discipline basis."

Ann McNabb said, "The president didn't want it to look as if Virginia Tech is sticking its head in the sand while other institutions are taking a hard look at the issue."

John Muffo, director of academic assessment programs, told the commission, "SCHEV is talking about changing the standards for review of graduate programs. I believe we'll see more oversight from SCHEV and more effort to prevent duplication." He said physics would be the first discipline to be reviewed.

He also said that "Democrats and Republicans in Congress are questioning the cost of higher education and there is an assumption that research causes the cost of education to increase." Muffo added, "Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. A clarification would be helpful."

"The question is not whether research pays its own way or whether we should expect it to," said Gene Brown. "Research is part of the educational enterprise. The question is whether undergraduates are subsidizing graduate education."

"A reasonable, thoughtful discussion would be helpful," Muffo said.

McNabb said that during a recent visit to campus, Peg Miller, assistant director at SCHEV, said there are certain "buzz words" about what the public sees as waste in higher education, and "duplication" is THE buzz word.

"So the legislature and SCHEV keep approving new and duplicating programs, such as engineering," Schetz said. "Anything that weakens doctoral programs is a spear in the chest of research programs."

Muffo said there is only one institution in the state where more than half of the graduate students receive some form of financial support. "Three-quarters of our graduate students are on financial aid," he said. At UVa, fewer than half of the graduate students receive support, although this is because of the numbers of medical and law students, who don't traditionally receive such support. "If the research money is not coming in to support graduate students, we won't get graduate students," Muffo concluded.

Gene Brown reported that the Commission on Graduate Studies and Policies has had a "vigorous discussion" of Ph.D. enrollment, "and it will probably continue to be discussed."