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DU’s graduate programs and research strengthen the University

Ninety DU faculty scholars, including chemistry Assoc. Prof. Andrei Kutateladze, received $15.8 million in external research funding last year. From monitoring automobile exhaust emissions to strengthening marriage and families, DU research is making a difference. Photo: Matt Suby

The University of Denver is at the top of its game. U.S. News & World Report recently ranked us 90th among national doctoral institutions, and our Daniels College of Business was recognized by The Wall Street Journal as one of the world’s top five schools for producing graduates with high ethical standards. Our enrollment is up, our endowment is growing, and our campus facilities are among some of the best in the world.

To what do we owe this success? Certainly, the quality of our students, our faculty and our programs are critical. But, the role of graduate studies and research must not be overlooked.

Graduate students comprise more than 50 percent of our student body. DU stands out among other universities for its large graduate enrollment, relative to its undergraduate enrollment. The University offers 24 doctoral degree programs and more than 60 master’s degree programs, earning us a Carnegie Foundation classification as a Doctoral/Research-Extensive university. This classification places us in the top 10.5 percent of institutions of higher education in the United States.

Indeed, our graduate programs earn notice: U.S. News recently ranked several of our graduate programs as among the best in the nation, including the Sturm College of Law at 77th, the Graduate School of Social Work at 38th, the Daniels College of Business at 80th, the public policy program at 76th and the clinical psychology program at 49th.

Our research also is drawing attention. Projects range from converting mine tailings into construction materials to reducing aggressive behavior and substance use among children. In the last fiscal year, 90 faculty members received $15.8 million from governmental and private sources to support their research. Another $5 million went to 53 faculty members for activities such as training child welfare workers and funding community outreach efforts.

The positive national attention directed at DU can be traced directly back to graduate studies and research, which help provide the strong foundation upon which the University stands. Schools with the strongest graduate programs attract the best faculty scholars, which in turn boost a university’s ability to recruit both undergraduate and graduate students. Because most of our faculty scholars teach both undergraduate and graduate courses, the caliber of our faculty directly impacts the learning opportunities—and hence DU’s appeal—for undergraduates. Funded research sustains graduate education by providing financial aid for students in the form of research assistantships. You can’t have one without the other.

Despite all our successes, we can do better. To start, we need to increase our responsiveness to market forces by creatively structuring programs to meet the needs of students. For example, we should expand programs that allow students to complete both a baccalaureate and a master’s degree in five years.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to increase financial support for graduate students. For this fiscal year, we have invested $300,000 to raise graduate assistant stipends, and we are investing $360,000 to provide health insurance for graduate teaching and research assistants. This is a good start, but over time we will need to do more. Currently, graduate students receive approximately 60 percent of the financial aid offered by DU. But, almost 80 percent of this aid is in the form of loans rather than scholarships or grants. We need to generate more research grant funding from sources such as the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, which would allow us to adequately compensate research assistants. We also need more named scholarships dedicated to graduate students.

Not every faculty member needs to be a funded researcher, but right now, just 22 percent of faculty members are funded, with 64 percent of those receiving less than $100,000. Just five departments account for 63 percent of DU’s overall external funding. I think we can do better. We need to help departments that aren’t currently seeking external funding to do so. We must encourage more scholars across campus to seek external funding. We need to encourage those who do seek funding to go after larger grants. And in order to gain more resources to support the research infrastructure, we must to concentrate more of our grant proposals on funding sources that pay the full overhead rate.

To accomplish these changes, I am beginning a series of faculty discussions to help determine the appropriate research funding target for DU. Key questions are: What is a realistic target, what is our timeline for getting there, and what resources must we commit to carry out our plan? I also am working to improve communication between our grants office and faculty researchers. In addition, I will be holding quarterly meetings with all faculty researchers to explore their concerns, and will work to improve the support structure for research by sponsoring grant writing and research administration workshops.

The changes and proposals that I’m putting forth are all in service of the University’s vision: to be a great private university dedicated to the public good, to give our students an extraordinary education and to engage in a daring search for knowledge.

More than 70 percent of our graduate students are studying in programs—including education, law, professional psychology and social work—that call on them to be committed to serving common interests. Much of our scholars’ externally funded research also contributes to the public good. Examples include development of a remote sensing device that has revolutionized the monitoring of automobile exhaust emissions, improving public responses to natural disasters and efforts to improve interpersonal relationships and family functioning. The list goes on.

Each year, my office surveys graduate students as they near completion of their programs of study. The students laud their DU experience—their close relationships with faculty, the personal attention they receive, the serious-yet-relaxed atmosphere, small classes and excellent faculty. Having begun my DU career 17 years ago teaching social work graduate students, the nature of these comments does not surprise me, but they do fill me with pride that we are truly providing a meaningful education for our students.

Ultimately, everything we do comes down to education. That is our business. In all of our graduate programming, we seek to provide strong foundations for a lifetime of personal development. We help our students build problem-solving and communication skills, and we promote an ethical understanding of issues in today’s world. Our faculty scholars work side-by-side with our graduate students to give them hands-on experience, helping them to move from theory to practice.

What our students and scholars are studying in the classroom and in the lab can actually make a difference in people’s lives. My task is to provide those graduate students and researchers with the resources and support they need to continue the work that is so valuable to the community, the world and the future of this fine institution.

Jim Moran is vice provost for graduate studies and research.

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