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Fellowship award increase tops two-year effort to improve graduate experience at SU
Fellowship award increase tops two-year effort to improvegraduate experience at SUApril 22, 2004Matthew R. Snydermrsnyder@syr.edu
Vice Chancellor and Provost Deborah A. Freund says that Syracuse University is improving its abilities to compete for and retain the best graduate students, thanks to a new initiative to increase the attractiveness of doctoral fellowship awards. The change, proposed in November 2003 by Graduate School Dean John Mercer, increases the fellowship award for 2004-05 by 34.5% compared to the 2002?03 amount. It also gives SU’s schools and colleges a new flexibility in awarding a number of these fellowships.
“Aggressive recruitment of outstanding graduate students is fundamental to the University’s Academic Plan, and it advances the reputation of SU as a place where excellent research, creative work and teaching happen,” says Freund. “At the same time, it’s important to ensure that our graduate fellows fully participate in and benefit from the caring community that joins our faculty, staff and all our students, both graduate and undergraduate.”
The award increases since FY 2003-04 provide $270,000 in additional fellowship funding over and above the regular annual pro forma increase of 3.0 percent, and expands the authority of the deans to prioritize award decisions.
According to Mercer, the changes culminate a two-year effort on two principal fronts: Improving conditions for current teaching assistants, research assistants and other graduate assistants (TAs/RAs/GAs); and making SU more attractive to prospective graduate students, either as fellows or graduate assistants. The University has around 1,400 assistants, a number which varies with the number of RAs supported by externally funded grants.
“Our progress to this point has been marked by an overall spirit of cooperation between the University and its graduate assistants, especially those for whom the Graduate Student Organization speaks,” says Mercer. “We have known for some time – and more sharply since the late 1990s as we undertook a major self-study for Middle States reaccreditation review – that SU needed to restore a more appropriate balance between its outstanding commitment to undergraduate education and its historic graduate education role.”
In her 2001 address announcing the Academic Plan, Freund highlighted focused research excellence, increases in graduate student financial aid and strengthening selected professional graduate programs. Since the 2002-03 academic year, several investments have been made to address the first two of the highlights; the University will also begin to tackle the strengthening of certain professional graduate programs in the year ahead. Recent investments include:
- Enhancement of graduate assistantship stipends in selected programs, totaling $475,000;
- distribution of $675,000 to the schools and colleges for financial aid and support of graduate education;
- $43,000 to increase the minimum assistants’ stipend;
- $34,000 to raise the summer fellowship stipend by 27 percent since 2002, and to increase the number of such awards;
- a 66 percent increase in travel grants awarded, totaling $20,000; and
- $19,000 for the first incremental increase of the research and creative work fund and an extension of the new dental benefit to fellows.
According to Mercer, when the additional new funding for doctoral fellows is taken into account, the University has made a total investment of $1.5 million, while continuing its practice of increasing GA stipends in the base budgets of its schools and colleges by the same annual rate as the faculty pro forma increase. Most GA stipends are well above the University minimum.
Other University work with the GA/TA/RA community has improved the access to services and benefits that come with qualifying appointments. “We have learned that there has been uneven treatment ? in some respects, our GAs were treated as students, in other respects as staff,” says Mercer. “We have been working to provide the best possible combination.”
For example, in addition to their long-standing medical benefit plan, full-time assistants became eligible this year to select a dental benefit that mirrors the staff plan; further, a recent rule change brings all University fellows under the medical and dental benefit umbrella. Full-time appointments confer the eligibility to receive 6 credit hours of transferable remitted tuition. A new parking rate schedule that reduces parking fees for the GA community over four years was introduced in 2003; the rates are in an intermediate position between the staff and general student rates. Inconsistencies in the services provided through Recreation Services were also corrected; graduate assistants are now provided the same benefits as other students at no cost.
There have also been improvements in the processing of graduate applications, awards, appointments and degree certification thanks to the creation of the Graduate Enrollment Management Center, which was launched in 2001 and has grown significantly since then. Assistants with families have benefited from the creation of a child-care information portal to assist in selecting services by off-campus providers. The Graduate School continues to work on improving career services issues via the campus-wide Career Services Network and the Center for Career Services.
The University has also made targeted space improvements to address graduate concerns; a $300,000 program to improve TA space took place in 2002, graduate needs have been considered in new building projects and renovations, and the University is in the planning stages of renovating graduate space in the physics department.
SU has also convened a working group of administrators and deans representing the Graduate School, Student Affairs, Human Resources and University Communications; members have met regularly since 2002 to discuss ways of improving communication between the University and its graduate students. These meetings have also involved the GSO leadership, and other meetings between the Graduate School and leaders of graduate student groups have occurred more than in the past.
Mercer says that further investments are planned for the near future. “Graduate achievements, the research and creative work accomplishments, and the contributions they make to the undergraduate experience, including its diversity, and to faculty work – all are sound and fundamental reasons for our commitment to improve the experience of our graduate students,” says Mercer. “We can all take pride in the progress we have made in the last couple of years, and I look forward to continuing this collaborative effort to tackle the challenges ahead.”