Ready for the big leagues?

In what league does WSU want to play?

Basically, that’s the question, said Orlando Taylor, dean of the Graduate School and vice provost for research at Howard University. Taylor, who was invited to co-chair WSU’s Graduate Education Commission last year, said WSU is a good institution with the potential to be great — if it can marshal its resources and use them well.

“If you’re going to compete with the great land-grant universities, it will be necessary to make certain strategic choices,” he said. “You can get there.”

Funding priorities, curricular changes and hiring criteria all need to be examined with an eye toward improving graduate education, he said. One major decision is whether or not WSU can support 115 different graduate programs.

“That’s a lot for the size of your institution,” he said. “Seventy-five that are world class is better than 115” that aren’t.

The National Resource Council is a good place to go for an objective assessment of WSU’s strengths and weaknesses, Taylor said.

 “It is the most important assessment of doctoral programs in the United States,” he said, and it will provide useful benchmarks for determining which programs are at the top, which can be pushed up to the next level and which programs might better be merged into a robust interdisciplinary unit.

“No institution can do it all,” he said. “You need to be focused.”

Last spring the Graduate Education Commission, which Taylor was a part of, released a report that outlines a vision of a new identity for graduate education at WSU.

The 26-member commission spent untold hours looking at data, talking to colleagues and each other, reading other reports and, ultimately, hammering out a set of 13 recommendations that are a starting point for transforming WSU into one of the best land-grant research universities in the country.

 At the top of WSU’s 22-member peer group, according to various performance measures, are schools such as U.C. Davis and Purdue. WSU, while unquestionably top-tier in a number of areas, generally lands somewhere in the bottom half of our peer group in overall rankings in graduate education.

“The most important thing it takes (to improve) is commitment by the institutional leadership to make it happen,” said Taylor, speaking from his office at Howard in Washington, D.C. Leadership is important, he said, but one person can’t make it happen. Instead, he said, it will take champions at every level from the president and board of regents to faculty leadership, department chairs and administrative support.

“Change only occurs when there are champions (at every level) with the capacity to influence others,” he said. 

But, he said, one area WSU cannot afford to shortchange is its commitment to creating a more diverse university environment.

“You can’t have a world-class university without having a very diverse faculty and student body,” he said. WSU’s location in rural Eastern Washington makes diversity a challenge, he said, but not an insurmountable one.

“It can be overcome,” he said. “You’ve done it in certain areas.”

Setting priorities, making difficult choices and finding the money to support those choices — those are the challenges facing every university, including WSU.

“You are starting from a strong base,” Taylor said. “You are a good university. The question is whether you want to be great.”

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