Achieving excellence in graduate education

September 15, 2017
Achieving excellence in graduate education
Dr. Larry Lyon earned a BA from Baylor in 1971, an MA from University of Houston and his Ph.D. from the University of Texas in Sociology and joined the Baylor Sociology Department in 1975. He began serving as Dean of Baylor's Graduate School in 1998. He is a Vice Provost, a Professor of Sociology, and the Director of the Baylor Center for Community Research and Development. His research interests include community sociology and the sociology of religion.

Before becoming dean of the Graduate School in 1998, you taught sociology at Baylor for 20 years. How did your experience as a faculty member impact your work as dean?

Because I had been an undergraduate here, Baylor was my dream job. Although I realized how fortunate I was to come back as Baylor faculty, I also came to realize that in terms of graduate education, we could do more. As a dean, there was a chance I could help expand and enhance graduate education and research at Baylor.

Fortunately, that’s what’s happened. We’ve reduced teaching loads, increased course offerings and research expectations, added new graduate programs, and expanded existing graduate programs. So now, most Baylor faculty can work with graduate students on research projects and have opportunities to pursue grants supporting their scholarship.

How does the Graduate School interact with graduate students?

The first thing that a department should do for a graduate student is to immerse him or her into the discipline. The student must become a mathematician, a psychologist, a historian. That’s job number one. And it’s more intensive and focused than anything the student experienced as an undergraduate.

Job number two is to prepare them for their future careers in a broader sense and help them grow socially, emotionally and spiritually. Job one is so intense at the graduate level that sometimes there isn’t sufficient time, energy and expertise available in departments for job two. That’s where the Graduate School comes in. We provide professional development opportunities that complement and enhance their department’s career preparation. We provide opportunities for graduate students to make friends outside of their home department and to grow spiritually so that their faith can mature at the same time as their understanding of their discipline.

With academic strategic planning for the University underway, the phrases “Tier 1 University” and “R1 University” are being used frequently. Can you explain what these terms mean?

R1 has a specific meaning. It comes from the Carnegie classification of universities and stands for Research 1, the highest level of research. It is determined primarily by the levels of PhD production and external funding. Baylor is currently an R2 university. Because doctoral production and research funding are necessary for all research universities and because the counts are objective and measurable, we’re developing policies and programs to push us toward an R1 status and we are tracking our progress.

At some universities, when they reach R1, they say, “Hey, we’re a Tier 1 university. We’ve arrived!” That’s not Baylor’s understanding of Tier 1. We see R1 as a necessary step toward becoming Tier 1. I would say Tier 1 is an R1 university that is widely acknowledged for its scholarship and provides high quality undergraduate education as well. R1 is mostly about graduate education. Tier 1 is the whole package. Most R1 universities are not, in my mind, Tier 1 universities, but all Tier 1 universities are also R1 universities.

As a Christian university it’s incumbent upon us to be as good as we can be, and that’s what Tier 1 is. That’s what we should strive for.

You mention undergraduate education being important to becoming a Tier 1 University. How does the Graduate School impact or interact with Baylor undergraduate students?

Undergraduates often work with graduate students on research projects, and that’s extremely beneficial. However, the biggest role the Graduate School plays is ensuring the quality of instruction for undergraduates when graduate students are teaching them.

We work with departments in teaching graduate students to teach. Before our graduate students come into the classroom as instructors, they have typically shadowed a professor for a semester. Often, they have taken a semester-long seminar and multiple workshops on how to teach. All this preparation makes a difference.

In Baylor’s teaching evaluations we ask undergraduates a question along the lines of “Overall, I learned a lot in this class.” The proportion saying they’ve learned a lot in their classes taught by graduate students has continued to increase over time. Baylor graduate students are approaching the high marks given Baylor faculty, who are, in my opinion, some of the best teachers anywhere. It is a remarkable achievement.

When talking about becoming a Tier 1 University, you also suggested that it is part of our responsibility as a Christian university to be the best we can be. Can you expand on this?

We have a term in my discipline called secularization, which means, among other things, that religion becomes less and less important. There was a time when the finest scientists in the world were doing science to understand God’s creation—Descartes, Newton. Today, scientists see Christians as interfering – fighting against teaching evolution, rejecting climate change. There was a time when the greatest works of music and literature were written to express awe and worship of God, to explain theological concepts—Bach, Milton. Today, Christians are seen as rejecting and censoring modern music and art and literature. Such views of Christians may not be totally accurate, but they are prevalent.

If Baylor is successful, we can dispel the notion that a Christian worldview is antiquated and irrelevant. If Baylor musicians write and perform some of the best music in the world, if Baylor physicists discover new ways of generating power, if Baylor philosophers help us wrestle morally with ethical dilemmas, if Baylor chemists successfully fight cancer, then the modern, secular world will be forced to recognize that Christians have something to contribute. To be fully equipped to sit at the secular table and express important ideas, Christian institutions of higher education must be competitive at the highest level, and the highest level is graduate education.
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