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New UK Dean Eager to Meet Challenges of Graduate Education

by Jeff Worley

Photo of Mike NietzelMike Nietzel says, "We have to make sure the graduate students we educate here are a diverse group. We've made progress but still haven't done as much as we need to."

When asked what he thinks of his new job as dean of The Graduate School, Mike Nietzel says that in a sense there's nothing new about it. He's doing what he's done for years at UK: helping to educate and train graduate students.

"What appealed to me most as a professor of psychology was working with graduate students, mentoring them," says Nietzel, who had been psychology department chairman since 1991. "And now as dean of The Graduate School, I have a chance to work with grad students on a broader scale."

Nietzel replaced Dan Reedy, who has returned to teaching in the Department of Spanish and Italian. A search committee unanimously recommended Nietzel for the position after considering 72 candidates and conducting interviews with four finalists.

The Iowa native earned his bachelor's degree in psychology from Wheaton College (in Wheaton, Illinois) and his master's and doctoral degrees in psychology from the University of Illinois. Nietzel has written several books and published 75 scholarly articles in the areas of clinical psychology, forensic psychology and jury decision-making.

Although he says it's too early to totally assess how he feels about his new position, Nietzel admits to the shattering of one preconceived notion of the job. "I thought I'd have more time to reflect on decisions and issues than I do," he says. "A lot of decisions have to made quickly. Things come up you just can't plan ahead for."

Nietzel believes his biggest challenge as Graduate School dean is to keep faculty, administration and students focused on the goal of assuring that UK achieves the highest standards in graduate education and research, then finding resources which allow the university to meet this goal.

Another related challenge is the question of diversity. "We have to make sure the graduate students we educate here are a diverse group. We've made progress but still haven't done as much as we need to," Nietzel says. "We need more fellowship support for programs like the Lyman T. Johnson Fellowship, support that will make us competitive with the echelon of universities we want to be moving into." He adds that this imperative calls for fellowship funds for graduate students to be doubled or tripled.

Nietzel says that it's important to emphasize that the next few years at UK are critical as far as responding to the challenge of becoming a stronger University in the areas of research and graduate studies. His ongoing participation on the Research and Graduate Education Task Force, which President Charles T. Wethington Jr. formed to identify programs on which to focus as UK pursues top research status, is one of the ways Nietzel is responding to this challenge.

He adds that he is involved in a series of initiatives to make UK more competitive in recruiting top graduate students.

"We've started a new program called Visiting Distinguished Faculty, whereby about 15 programs a year will be awarded travel funds and an honorarium to bring a nationally recognized leader to campus to serve as a Graduate School outside examiner for a student's dissertation. "The dissertation must be an excellent piece of work. The visiting scholar will also give a research colloquium while he or she is here." Nietzel says that this initiative will make leading scholars outside of the University more familiar with the excellent research being done here, and it will also enrich the intellectual atmosphere here.

"This approach is modeled after what Canadian and European universities have been doing for years -- the outside member of the dissertation committee comes from outside the university altogether," Nietzel explains. He adds that faculty will be responsible for identifying the very best of the 240 dissertations completed each year at UK.

The university's new graduate dean is also working to substantially increase funding for graduate students' work. "We should be providing funding for students whose dissertation work has to be on-site. We want to provide more funds for travel when a student's research necessarily takes her off campus," says Nietzel, who adds that he expects to be able to also fund some graduate students to go to national or international conferences to present their research.

"By internally re-allocating some money, we're also looking at converting a number of one-time fellowships to multi-year fellowships, which we hope to fund for 12 months at $15,000 each," he says. "This is a significant change and should help us attract a number of top-notch graduate students."

Nietzel adds that for these various initiatives to be successful, there's "obviously a need" for donations and private endowments.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for graduate education at UK, he says, is preparing graduate students for the job market. "But we're doing what we can. With programs like Preparing Future Faculty, we're trying to make students as flexible and as well-prepared as possible for a diversity of job markets. That's probably our best strategy right now." Nietzel says that educators simply don't have any real firm understanding of how soft or firm job markets are right now. "There are projections, of course, but some of these have totally reversed within the same decade. I'm skeptical of our ability to forecast these things."

In his new role as Graduate School dean, Nietzel says he's extremely fortunate to be able to seek out the counsel of former Graduate School dean Dan Reedy, who spent 13 years as head of The Graduate School. "Dan's always been as generous as he can be with his advice and opinions," Nietzel says, "but he also realizes that on some issues I'll come to different conclusions than he would." With Nietzel's track record as a teacher, researcher and administrator, Reedy says that his replacement is an excellent choice to take The Graduate School into the next millennium.