April 17, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 14

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    Cohen shares vision of Chicago's graduate education

    Cathy Cohen

    Appointed in January to serve as the University’s first Deputy Provost for Graduate Education, Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor in Political Science and the College, has been working with deans, department chairs, faculty members, graduate students and the Provost’s Working Group on Graduate Student Life to develop policies and processes to better serve the graduate student population on campus.

    A scholar with expertise in African-American politics, Cohen is the former Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, and is the principal investigator in the Black Youth Project. It is a comprehensive national study of youth opinions, which shows that black youth are more likely than Hispanics and whites to use protection during sex, are critical consumers of music and videos, and are more conservative in their social attitudes than other youth.

    Now that the Graduate Aid Initiative and the report of the Provost’s Working Group on Graduate Student Life have been introduced to the University community, what is the timeline for the action steps that have been set forth?

    There are certain things that need to happen right away and other things that need a bit more time to review. One of the things we’re looking at in the Spring Quarter is teaching compensation. We want to review what we’re paying students already, what we’re requiring them to do in the classroom and how that compares to other universities and colleges in terms of what they require of graduate students. Our goal is to make recommendations to the provost and the president regarding possible adjustments to teaching compensation, and we expect those will take effect in the fall of 2008. So that process will move quickly.

    The teaching committee will be looking at the kind of pedagogical support that students receive on campus and the infrastructure for pedagogical training. That process may take a bit longer and run into the fall before we’ll make concrete recommendations.

    As I begin to convene a committee to review our advanced residency system, the Office of the Provost is suspending the annual 5 percent increase in advanced residency tuition for the 2008-09 academic year. This is a temporary one-year suspension of the tuition increase, as the Committee on Advanced Residency begins to examine the AR system. One of the things we want to look at is the out-of-pocket tuition that students are asked to pay. We want to explore the connection between time to degree and how students are supported throughout their graduate careers, with an eye toward lessening time to degree. That includes thinking about tuition payment, especially out-of-pocket costs, mentoring and the progress students are making through their programs, making sure they have a clear sense of what is expected, and that they have the resources and support to make adequate progress. It will probably take us until Winter Quarter to comprehensively examine the advanced residency systems and make some recommendations.           

    The increase in stipends for students who have been under-funded in the past will take effect in the 2008-2009 school year. For example, students in the humanities who never received a stipend before will now receive a stipend of $15,000. As you can imagine, we’re very happy about that. Students in the Divinity School will be included under the Graduate Aid Initiative in the 2008-2009 school year, and some students in the Social Sciences Division also will see their stipends increase. So there are a lot of important advances in programs and policies that will take effect at the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year.

    The teaching committee is nearly formed at this point and will start meeting early in the Spring Quarter. The AR committee is in formation, we’re securing faculty for that committee, and also the Graduate Council will help identify graduate students to sit on that committee.

    The Vice President and Dean of Students in the University, Kim Goff-Crews, is pulling together a committee on international students’ specific concerns . The committees around teaching and advanced residency will be up and running by Spring Quarter. All the information will be disseminated to the University community, probably in the same fashion as the working group’s report and the action steps.

    When the committee makes an official recommendation, the provost and I will discuss it, and it will go on the Provost’s Web site. We always want to make sure people have access to the information we’re receiving, that there’s as much transparency as possible and that we meet with different constituencies around the University.

    As committees begin to evaluate graduate student teaching opportunities and compensation, health benefits and the advanced residency system, are there recommendations or suggestions you anticipate, based on your knowledge of what the University now has in place?

    I think clearly everyone in the University understands that, in terms of our payment of graduate student teachers, there needs to be some adjustment. I expect the committee will make a recommendation to adjust the compensation of graduate student teachers. We don’t know how much of an increase or what forms of compensation might be suggested.

    Pedagogical training happens in different places throughout the University. Some of it happens through the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Little Red Schoolhouse and in the departments. The committee might recommend that, among those sites of training, there could be more coordination, and possibly expansion of the infrastructure that would allow graduate students to receive pedagogical training.

    Do you think there is a consensus among students about what the biggest priority is, and can you explain that further?

    I wouldn’t say that there’s consensus about the priority, but I think there has been a consensus about the need for increased funding. Even among graduate students who weren’t a part of the Graduate Aid Initiative, repeatedly, we’ve heard that they believe the Graduate Aid Initiative was a needed remedy to a loss of standing with regards to the competitiveness  of our funding packages. So I think almost all students would agree that attention to funding—whether it is stipends and tuition for the first five years, dissertation write-up fellowships or support for dissertation research—is a good thing.

    In terms of priority, some students believe addressing AR tuition costs are the priority. Some students believe that increased stipends are the priority. Some students believe increasing teaching compensation is the priority. There is a range of issues confronting graduate students and the University that need to be resolved. I don’t think there’s a clear priority there, but there is a clear consensus about the importance of funding.

    At a recent forum with Provost Thomas Rosenbaum and yourself, graduate students were encouraged and invited to contact the Graduate Student Council representative to find out how they could participate in discussions and provide input for those who are members of the review committees. Have more graduate students asked to become engaged in those processes?

    They have, and I think this is a good thing. I really want to work with graduate students to figure out effective and supportive ways to improve their graduate experience—not just providing more money, but what can we do to support and expand their intellectual lives, because that’s why they came here.

    I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Graduate Council, asking them to identify students to serve on the committees. I think it’s important for graduate students to pick their own representatives. They’ve been incredibly helpful—Anthony Greene and Erica Simmons, in particular. And I think if you talked to them, they would say there’s been an outpouring of interest from graduate students to serve on these committees. They want to be a part of the process, add their perspectives and they believe that they have real expertise when thinking about issues such as graduate student teaching. I think that graduate student input is a good thing for optimizing strategies and recommendations.

    In your new role as Deputy Provost for Graduate Education, what are your short-term and long-term goals for graduate education?

    From the beginning, I wanted to help graduate students, in the sense that I wanted there to be a process for the University to think critically and imaginatively about what graduate education could be like at the University of Chicago in the 21st century. We know the storied history of graduate education at the University; it’s such a part of the tradition of what makes this place great. What also makes this place great is innovation, interdisciplinary thinking and hopefully engagement with social issues and social problems that will contribute to human life and human progress. I think that’s what graduate education should be about.

    The long-term goal, if there is one, is to have the University reflect upon what we’ve done well in graduate education. Where we’ve provided innovation, but also where we’re going, what will be the new frontier of graduate education, what are the new methods, what are the new interdisciplinary programs, are there new ways to train graduate students, are there ways in which we can engage graduate students in this process of thinking about the future of graduate education. That’s a big, unwieldy question, but it’s the type of question that’s made for the University of Chicago.

    In the short term, we need to shore up what we do well in graduate education. We know there’s an excellent faculty here, we know that there are exceptional students who come here to study, but we also, in the short term, need to make sure they have the financial and social support they need to excel in their programs. And that means things like the Graduate Aid Initiative, making sure there’s pedagogical training so students are comfortable and are able to be the best teachers possible in the classroom. It means making sure that we have as many dissertation fellowships as possible, so that if a student is working on a really fantastic dissertation, they have the financial support to complete their work.

    It also means paying attention to graduate students and their family structures. Making sure graduate students have a place they can drop off their kids for child care and feel like they’re safe so they can feel better about what they’re doing in the classroom. Supporting family structures, supporting the big decisions they’re making—should they buy a car, should they buy a condo—because they’re in a very different point in their life cycles than undergraduates.

    In the long term, it really is about innovation, what we will look like in 25 years, and how graduate education will happen at the University of Chicago. That will involve new voices, populations and questions by engaging with the surrounding community, city, nation and the world. How do we continue to make sure that the research that happens here has an impact and changes people’s lives? That is what we hope to accomplish by thinking critically about graduate education.

    You recently were involved in the conference “Race, Sex and Power,” co-sponsored by the Center for Gender Studies and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture. Can you talk about what the conference participants were hoping to achieve and what your role was in the conference?

    There were organizers from nine universities and colleges around the city, an organizer from CUNY and one from the University of Connecticut. We’ve been working on the conference for 18 months. It originated from a project funded by the Ford Foundation to bring together scholars who study questions of sexuality in black communities and another working group which studies questions of sexuality in Latino communities. Out of those two working groups, we agreed there should be a national conference to highlight this kind of work. But not just from the people who were part of the working group, but the type of work that’s emerging from all over the country—from artists, activists, undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members. The planning process began, and it was suggested that Chicago was the perfect place to hold this conference. It’s in the middle of the country, and the city has significant numbers of African Americans and Latino Americans.

    Dr. Joycelyn Elders addressed one of two plenary sessions, and she addressed the question: How do we begin to engage a discussion about sexuality in black and Latino communities, so we can talk about the positive things that are happening in those communities, but also the questions that seem to limit discussion and put young people at risk? How do we talk about HIV and AIDS, for example, but also how do we talk about it in a way that doesn’t shut down a discussion of desire and pleasure and sex? This conference was interesting, provocative, controversial and agenda-setting.

    Is your work on the Black Youth Project (http://chronicle.uchicago.edu/070201/youthstudy.shtml) now complete, or are you continuing research that builds on that study? 

    Fifteen to 20 graduate students, almost all graduate students of color, were involved in the study, and we’ve published a research summary on the Web site: blackyouthproject.com.
    We’re now working with a group of 10 teachers from the city of Chicago who are developing curricula utilizing the Black Youth Project data, which we’ll then put on the Web site so teachers all over the country can download lesson plans and use them in their classrooms.            

    It’s a really amazing project, in terms of the life it’s taken on, outside of anything I ever envisioned. I’m desperately trying to finish my book based on the Black Youth Project data. This is clearly a project that will live with me for quite some time—not only after I finish the book, but any number of spin-off projects that keep building.

    It’s been a really exciting project for both undergraduates and graduate students here and has provided them with both data for dissertations and articles. It is also a way that they can give back to the communities from which they come and care about, and still it allows them to be rooted in the University. I think it’s an ideal vehicle for students who really consider themselves scholars but are also engaged with communities, and who want to produce work that’s both recognized in the academy but also accessible to people outside of it.

    What made you decide to take on an administrative position at the University? Was graduate education an area you had a prior interest in being involved in?

    It was the importance of graduate education, the ability to learn a lot more about how higher education functions and how the University of Chicago functions, and doing something positive for graduate education.

    How do you balance your responsibilities as Deputy Provost with your role as a faculty member and researcher?

    In addition to that, I would add: The biggest chunk of my time goes to raising my 2-year-old, and it’s also the place where I get the greatest reward, undoubtedly. I think you try to figure out where you think you can have an impact, and from there, you do the best you can. That’s not a big statement, but it’s the truth of the matter. I’m not sure it’s a balance, but it is making due with what’s on your desk at the time and what’s the priority for that day. Sometimes the priority is spending Friday mornings at home with my daughter and taking her to soccer. You’re always juggling, and you’re trying to make sure that you do the best job possible in each of those domains and get some enjoyment out of the work that you do. I’m very lucky to be in a position where hopefully I’m contributing on multiple fronts and really learning a lot at the same time.

    The University is currently implementing new ways to recruit and retain more women faculty members and graduate students, especially in the sciences: As a female faculty member and administrator, how, in your view, would attaining this goal enrich the University?

    Increasing the number of women on campus, like increasing the number of people of color on campus, I think is a critical goal for the intellectual life of the University. The President and others have said that you learn by listening to different perspectives and different experiences, and how you formulate new questions is about putting new people into the conversation by engaging often silenced perspectives on the world and lived experiences. I think this University will only be enhanced by having more women here, by having increased numbers of faculty, students and staff of color, by diversifying the class background of people who populate the University of Chicago because it adds to the mix, it enriches what we ask and who we value as subjects and who we value as administrators and faculty members.

    On a different level, I have found that women do incredible work for the University in terms of mentoring, advising and being role models. I have more and more women graduate students who are looking for women faculty members to talk to about their experiences, to look to as mentors in thinking about questions that might, for example, have a gender component or a racial component. Also, the lived experience of being a faculty member, having women around the University provides a different model of how that happens in the world. I think it shouldn’t depend on women to make the University attentive to the kind of complexity of faculty members’ lives, in terms of children and partners and spouses and parents we need to pay attention to. But I think women faculty are an important voice and vehicle for making that another lens through which we understand the responsibilities of the University.

    It makes us a family friendly place, it makes us understand the wholeness of the faculty and the demands on faculty members’ lives, from their students, to committees, to families and kids, and how we all struggle to balance those many responsibilities in our lives. I think having women on campus and in the ranks of the professoriate are critical for the intellectual work, but also the work that we do with graduate students.

    How does teaching and doing research at Chicago enrich your life?

    For me, the University of Chicago, in many ways, is the ideal place to be a faculty member. First, I have really extraordinary colleagues. In my sub-field, where I study race and politics, and in particular African-American politics, I can’t imagine a better person to have their with me than Michael Dawson, who was both my teacher and someone I consider a good friend and a brilliant scholar.

    Beyond Michael, I have great colleagues in the Political Science Department. In terms of colleagues, the University of Chicago is just outstanding. The fact that it’s committed to interdisciplinarity means my colleagues don’t stop at the Department of Political Science. It means that my affiliation with the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture allows me to interact with sociologists such as Omar McRoberts or Mario Small. It allows me to interact with colleagues in the Professional Schools, like Waldo Johnson or Gina Samuels, so my work is enhanced from having people from very different disciplinary and professional perspectives look at the work I’m producing and ask important questions that I probably never would have thought of.

    Then, of course, we have some of the best graduate students in the country, and I would say, in the world, here at the University of Chicago. And I would make that case for many of the graduate students I’ve worked with, who, no doubt always enhance my work.  In particular those I’ve worked with on the Black Youth Project as research assistants, but also the fantastic students I’ve had a chance to teach in the classroom. And again, these aren’t just Political Science students, but students from all over the University, which again generated by our commitment to interdisciplinarity.

    Cohen added some thoughts on graduate education, diversity at the University and why she dislikes the term “diversity.”

    One of the goals is to enhance graduate education, but also to expand those individuals who have access to graduate education at the University of Chicago, so that means more graduate students of color, different class backgrounds and international students. Again, if we make sure there are people here who embrace different identities and have had different lived experiences—women, LGBT students—the interdisciplinary nature of the University is enhanced and the intellectual work of the University is enhanced.

    We’re going to make sure that when we say diversity, people know what and who we’re talking about. I try to just specify: women of color, students of color or international students. Just to be clear of the multiple groups that we’re talking about here, and also to understand that those groups come with different histories, different relationships to power and different relationships to the state. So when we talk about diversity, are we talking about everybody, or are we just focused on certain groups at a time?  It’s important to be clear about that.