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Graduate School to double Ph.D. research, enrollment

Howard Grimes recently was named dean of Washington State University’s Graduate School. Having filled that role on an interim basis since July 1, 2002, he already has established some very clear insights and goals for the school.

WSU Today interviewed Grimes recently to get his comments on where he hopes to guide the Graduate School in the near future, as well as some insights on the new dean himself.

Q: The past nine months gave you an inside look at the dean’s job and an chance to decide if you wanted to continue. During that time, did anything surprise you about the job or the school?

Grimes: I’ve enjoyed the past nine months. It has been challenging, but in a positive way. There are huge opportunities to make significant positive changes in our institution, and I’m excited to be part of the team that will go after that.

One thing I realized is that the volume of work this office handles is e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s. That was a surprise for me. I was amazed at the amount of work that goes through the Graduate School office and the efficiency with which the staff handles that volume.

The sheer number of applications and inquiries that come by mail, the Internet, e-mail, phone, fax and in person, is huge. Each year, thousands of inquiries are coordinated and delivered to the unit level by a staff of just five admissions people. And, the average person contacts our office about six times, between their first contact and the time they are accepted or turned down.

Q: What is the Graduate School’s greatest strength at this point?

Grimes: Although I knew it before I started as interim dean, my belief in the strength of our graduate faculty and their commitment to our students has been confirmed and reinforced. The graduate faculty are the Graduate School. So, its strength is determined directly by the strength of those faculty.

Our next strength lies in the opportunities ahead of us. We are fully committed to moving our institution to the next level. Willingness to embrace these opportunities is an important strength that will lead directly to faculty and student success in the future.

Q: What major goals do you see for the Graduate School in the next one to three years?

Grimes: We’re currently launching an aggressive marketing effort that focuses on our graduate programs. Selected universities in the state, region and nation are our target audience. Even though our advertising will focus on five specific programs, all WSU graduate programs as a whole will benefit from this effort. It will increase the university’s exposure, as well as strengthen our image and reputation nationwide, it will help people understand the significance of graduate education and tell our story statewide. And, we have a great story to tell.

One of our weaknesses is that is we haven’t effectively marketed our graduate programs in the past. We don’t have a lot of momentum right now, but we will in the future, and this is just one method we will use to do that.

To complement this effort, we are developing several approaches to build our Ph.D. programs and to grow our graduate education efforts statewide.

Internally, we need to develop incentives to attract, invest in and retain graduate students, especially Ph.D. students. And, we need to identify the barriers we have to achieving those goals and take them down.

Q: Why the emphasis on Ph.D. students?

Grimes: The reputation of research institutions like WSU is built on Ph.D. programs and students. By and large, Ph.D. students are the ones that go on to be the leaders in their fields — in academia, government, or the private sector. We need to be more involved in building these leaders. Investing and engaging in this activity is critical to enhance our national and international reputation.

Other degree programs, obviously, are essential as well. These will not be ignored, but we will intensify our efforts toward our Ph.D. students. Essentially, you have to break the problem into parts and focus on the first step, and Step 1 for us is the Ph.D.

Another step we will pursue is the development of graduate programs statewide, using the strength of our urban campuses and our land-grant university system to develop a statewide network.

Q: Is this a significant change of course compared to the past?

Grimes: Yes. In addition to marketing, we’re seriously emphasizing growth in high-quality Ph.D. programs, and we’re developing and implementing statewide access to graduate programs. These are major changes.

Faculty already have seen, and will continue to see, new programs emerge from the school, as well as the development of collaborations between the Graduate School and the Office of Research. We will put resources and tools into the hands of the people directly involved in building our Ph.D. programs. The focus is on quality and developing the necessary infrastructure.

Q: How long do you think it will take to complete this phase and move on to Step 2?

Grimes: From a measurable standpoint, our goal is to double the annual number of Ph.D. students graduating by 2010. That is pretty ambitious, but doable.

To accomplish that, we have to plan backwards to see what steps we need to take. At WSU, the typical Ph.D. student usually completes his or her degree in less than six years.

Using that timeline and the goal of 2010, we need to have our students recruited and in place by the fall of 2005. So, we’re going to be working really hard the next two years at marketing and recruiting.

Q: How is that going to impact WSU?

Grimes: It will increase the quality and quantity of scholarship and research done at WSU, which will build our reputation and our ability to attract extramural grants — federal, state, corporate, all types. It also directly impacts the ability of our faculty to publish their work.

Sixty-five percent of the publications leaving this university are first authored by graduate students. So, if you’re going to ramp up research, you have to ramp up the number of graduate students because they do the scholarship and research. They drive the research engine.

Our graduate students also do a significant amount of teaching as teaching assistants. Consequently, a lot of our face-to-face contact comes from these students.

Graduate students are part of the fuel that drives our institution. They bring fresh ideas and their creativity makes a huge contribution. They make the institution an intellectually vibrant place that draws other excellent faculty. As we strive to reach the next level, and retain our best faculty, the role of graduate students in creating this outstanding atmosphere cannot be underestimated.

Q: Give a couple insights as to you personally. What are you passionate about in your off hours?

Grimes: First, I’m passionate about my wife and family. They come first, above the job or anything else.

I also like to be outside. I like to mountaineer, hike, backpack and I try to stay in shape so these things are both doable and fun. I am an avid endurance athlete. For the past few months, I’ve been training to participate in the Coeur d’Alene Ironman Triathlon, which is held June 29.

Q: What does that include?

Grimes: It includes a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run.

Q: Training for a triathlon is pretty intense. How has that impacted you on a day-to-day basis?

Grimes: My productivity at work has been measurably improved by my involvement in endurance training. I am committed to specific goals, both professionally and personally. I find that I stay more acutely focused on those goals by deliberately moving back and forth between them. Anyone who engages in regular, intense physical activity knows how this clears the mind and freshens mental activity.

The discipline involved in serious training is directly transferable to the discipline needed to function professionally and the ability to move on the big goals. I spend months preparing for a long-distance event like the Ironman, breaking months and weeks into daily workouts with specific sessions and goals. You have a final, large goal from which you work backwards to build the strength and stamina needed in the different events. All the pieces will either be there or you’ll have a very unpleasant day.

At the Graduate School, we know where we need to be in one year, two years, five years and 10 years. We’ll work backward from those milestones and do the day-to-day work knowing how each piece fits together.

Q: Do you have a hero or a mentor that has influenced your life or career? And what drew you to him or her?

Grimes: I have to go first with my mother and father. Your mother and father are the people who stand behind you your whole life. My dad had a high school education. But he always stressed that getting an education was the one thing no one could take away from you. I have tons of people that I admire for all kinds of reasons, and I consider many of them to be mentors. I’ll pick just a couple:

Al Ruesink is a faculty member at Indiana University. I walked in as a green, undergraduate chemistry major and asked if I could work in his lab. It still amazes me that he said yes. That’s where I learned I was passionate about research. Al also played a significant role in rounding out my education. Every semester, he encouraged me to take upper division courses in the liberal arts that really broadened me. In hindsight, this has proven enormously valuable to me. He is why I went to graduate school.

Another hero is Wendy Boss, who was my Ph.D. adviser at North Carolina State University. She was the quintessential big boss. You had to be tough to make it in her lab, and I was the first student to survive it. But my skin got thick, and sometimes that’s what you need. I learned a lot from her, especially how to pay extreme attention to detail.

Q: For the past 14 years you have been a faculty member and researcher. Do you think you will miss doing research?

Grimes: I am going to maintain my research program, but will streamline my leadership of that program. I currently have three active grants and two graduate students, and I am committed to making sure those graduate students con-tinue to receive outstanding training and education.

I meet with my students regularly, but would like to meet with them more often. I am still very active in writing results and thinking about the experiments that need to be done. It’s hard not to be there on a day-to-day basis, but we will do it the best we can.

Q: What one message would you like to communicate to faculty and staff about the Graduate School?

Grimes: They need to know that as we pursue our primary objectives of growing the Ph.D. program and expanding our statewide network, we’re also going to help them get the high quality people they need in their programs.

We want outstanding graduate students. It’s not just about growth, but convincing the best students out there to plan their future in partnership with WSU. We are developing strategies to attract, recruit and retain the highest quality students, and to make sure they get the best education possible.

Q: How will the Graduate School do that?

Grimes: We are preparing to develop pipelines to institutions — regionally and nationally — that we know produce the high quality students that we want and need.

Initially, our efforts will focus on five leading WSU programs. Each program will have pipelines to five regional and five national institutions.

Through a variety of methods, we will help pipeline institutions to realize that WSU is an excellent place for top performing students to do Ph.D. work.

I think we also need to develop specific strategies for our international students. There are radically changing demographics in many of the countries that send their graduates to WSU. We need to understand this and develop proactive plans to enhance our recruiting efforts.

We also need state legislators to understand the economic, academic and business value of having a level-one research university, and we need them to invest in that with us.

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