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Faculty debate over master's programs reignites with new concerns

Academic Council has debated the proliferation of master's degree programs since Spring 2010.
Academic Council has debated the proliferation of master's degree programs since Spring 2010.

History repeated itself at an Academic Council meeting November 2013, when proposals for new master's degrees reignited a debate from 2010.

Master's degrees have been featured prominently in the recent meetings of the Academic Council, with five new programs approved for next Fall. The proposals for the new degrees were met with debate—a situation not unlike the Spring of 2010, when five new master's degrees were approved.

A number of faculty members expressed concern in 2010, noting that the proliferation of graduate programs could have adverse consequences for the University, and a Master's Advisory Council was established in order to provide a more thorough review of new degree programs. The recent debate has caused the Academic Council to take a second look at the role of master's degrees in the University's academic environment.

Provost Peter Lange explained that new programs go through a rigorous review process which includes approval by the Master's Advisory Council, the Executive Committee of the Graduate Faculty and the Academic Council.

The Master's Advisory Council was created to provide a more uniform process for the establishment of new degree programs in Spring 2010 after the Academic Council approved five new master's programs—a degree in engineering in February and degrees in biostatistics, Christian studies, Christian practice and experimental and documentary arts in May.

Faculty raised concern at the time that the programs themselves were created more for financial reasons after the economic downturn of 2008, rather than for academic inquiry.

Professor of history John French raised a similar concern during the November 2013 discussion, however Lange said finances were not the main factor behind the proposals.

"It would be a little misplaced to attribute all of these to a financial motive on behalf of the units or of the faculty members who are driving them," Lange said at the November meeting.

Although the financial benefits of the new degrees were mentioned at the November 2013 meeting, the debate focused on the infrastructure for approval.

“This time the debate focused not so much on the merits of any particular program but on a general sense that we were not considering the overall impact of expanding the number of master's programs so significantly,” said Frederick Mayer, professor of public policy, political science and the environment, who has been on Academic Council for the discussions in both 2010 and 2013. “A number of those voiced concerns were not with a particular program, but the fact that we were moving ahead with the programs without having had a chance of considering the impact there might be of adding so many programs and therefore master's students in the mix at Duke.”

Dean of the Graduate School Paula McClain, co-chair of the Master's Advisory Council, said that all five of the degrees discussed November 2013 were brought about by faculty interest and belief in the importance of master's degrees. The five new degrees will be offered in bioethics and science policy, historical and cultural visualization, medical physics, statistical science, and economics and computation—with the first three approved by the Council in November and the last two in December.

Lori Bennear, assistant professor of environmental economics and policy, noted that master's degrees offer an important middle step between undergraduate and doctoral education.

“Master's programs have an appropriate role in the spectrum of degree offerings at Duke," Bennear wrote in a December email. "There are legitimate demands in society for people to receive specific types of training that exceed what is expected in undergraduate programs, but does not require the years of independent research and dissertation writing required for a Ph.D.”

Some professors feel that the added programs could put a strain on resources allocated to undergraduate and doctoral teaching and advising, however.

“Adding master's programs and students without adding faculty inevitably leads to decreased time for faculty to spend on undergraduate or doctoral teaching and advising, to pursue research grants and to undertake top quality research and scholarship,” Paul Baker, professor of earth and ocean sciences, wrote in a December email.

Bennear added that the introduction of new master's programs should consider resource availability, educational necessity and student employability, as well as academic value.

“Many faculty argue that master's programs are worthy and that graduates are in demand for good jobs," Baker said. "I don't disagree. I just don't believe that this is the core mission of Duke University."

Although MAC still plays an important role in the master's degree approval process, some faculty believe more oversight is necessary to look at the role of master's degrees at large rather than the value of individual programs.

Because not all master's degrees are run by the Graduate School—with some being managed by the professional schools—the MAC serves as an important structure to look at all master's programs, said Craig Henriquez, chair of the department of biomedical engineering and the chair of Academic Council in 2010, when the MAC was formed.

“The Academic Council felt that it was necessary to have a committee on campus that looked at the programs globally,” Henriquez said.

The MAC reviews proposals for new professional master's degrees, interdisciplinary and nondepartmental degrees and master’s degrees with global content, McClain said. It also examines economic and infrastructure issues related to both new and existing degrees.

Among the factors the MAC reviews are issues related to campus infrastructure—such as career services and student counseling—the availability of local housing for graduate students, and needs related to the fact that a relatively high proportion of master's students are international, Henriquez noted.

“The impact [of adding Master’s programs] on student services, classroom spaces, lab spaces, parking is real, because adding 200-500 students over several years is not trivial," Henriquez said. "The MAC was formed to get a better handle on all this."

John Klingensmith, associate dean for academic affairs of the Graduate School, noted that the MAC is not a faculty governance committee like Academic Council is. Rather, it provides advice to the provost and to the provost's Academic Programs Committee.

Some feel, however, that discussions meant to occur in MAC are beginning to surface only in Academic Council.

“The faculty and administration have now recognized that some work needs to be done to clarify the place of master's programs in Duke's overall mission and the impacts of master's programs on the full range of resources Duke makes available to its students and faculty," Socolar said.

Henriquez noted that some faculty concerns could be fueled by the fact that a number of current Academic Council members were not on the Council when the MAC was introduced and are not aware of it.

“Each year there are some new faculty members on Academic Council and thus they ask questions," Henriquez said. "Most faculty are not fully aware of the details of the committees at the University level. A continuing concern is that some entity is actively assessing the Master's programs and the growth.”

Some faculty members have noted that though the MAC looks at the programs' merits individually, it does not consider the overall impact of introducing so many programs.

“In Academic Council, at least, we haven’t heard anyone make a case as to why Duke needs a lot of new master’s programs," Mayer said. "My impression is that they have been considering these programs one at a time and evaluating their merits and I think they will have done a good job. We need to do that. But, potentially having many more master's programs and master's students could change the character of Duke in some ways and we ought to think about that.”

This aspect of master's programs will be studied at the committee level this Spring.

"Discussions have begun in several committees and I don't want to speculate now about their outcomes,” Socolar said.

The discussions will examine the collective impact of the new degree programs.

“In response to the concerns I and others raised, there will now be an evaluation of the cumulative impact of the growing number of master's programs and I am encouraged by that," Mayer noted. "That’s really what I wanted to have happen before we approved several programs, but it didn’t. I think we will be taking a bit of a pause before we approve any more.”


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