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Litster Takes on Research, Graduate Education

By Orli G. Bahcall
Staff Reporter

As the concerns of researchers and graduate students become more closely linked in an era of threatened federal funding, J. David Litster PhD '65 began his job as dean for graduate education this week. Litster continues to serve as the vice president and dean for research.

"I would guess that one of the reasons that motivated the president and provost to decide to fill the two jobs [with one person] is that there are big issues coming up that have an impact on graduate education," Litster said.

These issues "are going to be strongly coupled with research funding and are issues with which the vice president of research" is directly involved, Litster said.

"It makes sense to put them together - to have one person worrying about all of those things," Litster said.

"It is very appropriate in these times when research funding is growing tight to appoint someone whose focus is in gathering funds," Graduate School Council President Barbara J. Souter G said.

"At many schools now we see the dean of the graduate school also the dean of research," Souter said. Litster's strengths and experience in these two areas complement each other very well, she said.

"Lister is a strong advocate of graduate education on a national level," Souter said. His appointment "is likewise great for MIT's reputation on a national level. Many graduate students are concerned that MIT [retain its] good reputation - their futures depend upon this reputation."

Litster balances two positions

"This was my first week actually back at MIT and in this position," Litster said. Litster is still in the process of figuring out how things operate in the graduate office and learning about what his new job entails.

The new post of dean of graduate education replaces the previous position of dean of the graduate school.

The office of the dean of the graduate school "has a huge administrative task - all the stuff associated with research assistants, teaching assistants, and fellowships," Litster said.

The office is also responsible for counseling of graduate students and recruiting of new students.

"The thing I know least about are the recruiting issues that the office has engaged in. I haven't spent a lot of time recruiting, and especially not for minority students," Litster said.

"I am interested in learning more about how all these things work. I have sort of figured out how to do the job I do now, so now I'll try to figure out to do something else," he said.

The former Dean of the Graduate School Frank E. Perkins '55 also served half time running the graduate school.

"The scenario we had initially was whether I had enough time to do the job decently. I don't like to take on jobs and screw them up," Lister said. "I don't think that will happen in this case."

"I wouldn't have taken on this job if Ithought I couldn't handle it," but it will be difficult and further limit the amount of time spent conducting research, Litster said. Litster also regrets that he will no longer have time to supervise graduate students on his own.

But during the transition period, things "have been very hectic. I have not had the full 50 percent of my time to devote" to the graduate office, Litster said. Litster said that he will be depending upon Isaac M. Colbert, the new senior associate dean for graduate education, to help with much of the administrative work.

Litster does plan to dedicate more time to the his new post at the graduate school by clearing his schedule of other commitments. "I was serving on the re-engineering steering committee, but this will have to go," he said.

Litster sets graduate school goals

"I hope to bring the graduate and undergraduate offices closer together," Litster said. "I have been talking to Rosalind Williams," dean of undergraduate education, about possible ways to reach this goal.

"I would like to pay more attention to postdocs," Litster said. "We have been running workshops where we do skits or scenarios, little things on questions of ethics or research conduct."

"It would be interesting to try some other things in a workshop situation" for other graduate-student scenarios similar to what is done for postdoctoral students, Litster said. Discussing subjects like the authorship of scientific papers would be very beneficial to graduate students, he said.

"This is the sort of thing that the sooner you pick it up, the better. It is like sex education in that you don't necessarily talk about it as much as you would like to," Litster said.

Another change Litster would like to see concerns the faculty Committee on Graduate School Policy. "The committee has a large representation of all the departments," but contrary to its title, "a lot of what it does is not related to student policy," Litster said. The committee is dominated by discussions of student academic performance, he said.

"I think we should have two separate committees" - one committee to manage academic performance "and one smaller committee which really talks about graduate student policy," Litster said.

Litster does not plan to place priority on any single graduate department. "I am not in a position to do that. It is a bit like asking which of your children you like best," he said.

Although the administrative responsibilities of the job of dean of graduate education are "still part of the office, I hope that the re-engineering team, which is looking at this student services, is going to help make all of that easier," Litster said. It would be nice to have to do less of this administrative work "so that we can spend more time doing other things."

Jeremy Hylton contributed to the reporting of this story.