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Considering the Critical Roles of Graduate Students



Authors as Published

The formal publication date for this essay also marks the 12th anniversary of the Institute’s founding. Much has happened in these dozen years as the Institute for Policy and Governance (IPG) has grown and matured. We have changed our reporting relationships within Virginia Tech (VT), served under two Presidents, two Vice Presidents, two Deans and three School Directors and seen our role in the School of Public and International Affairs and College of Architecture and Urban Studies evolve considerably. More, during this period, the University has set itself on a course to realize interdisciplinary possibilities in its curricula and research, and its leaders have decided, too, that the institution will need to compete still more aggressively for research dollars to survive, let alone thrive, in the midst of a continuing decline in support from the state.

All of this has changed the professorial role profoundly and placed faculty under enormous pressure to obtain external support for their research, whether from governments, foundations or private corporations. All of these entities carry their own accountabilities and risks and they all require enormous investments of faculty time and resources as well as the time and expertise of our Institute (for those we serve) and Virginia Tech’s sponsored program support staff to help to realize them. In this sense, IPG’s functional remit has never been more significant or more prominent and it looks set only to grow in importance in these terms.

I want here to focus briefly on the role graduate students today play within VT and IPG in the rapidly evolving environment that each now confronts. It is easy to argue that the modern research university, complex marvel that it is, could not exist without the faculty who constitute its beating heart. But it is equally the case that today’s research institutions could not function without the graduate students who come to them to pursue knowledge and advanced degrees in their chosen fields. If faculty constitute the metaphorical heart of the world’s leading universities, graduate students may be understood as the arteries attached to them. They complete the organism that serves as the center of the modern research university. Indeed, for many scientists and engineers, graduate students literally act as extensions of their work, helping them to carry out projects or experiments they could not otherwise complete alone in their labs. Graduate students also lead undergraduate courses and discussion sections across many disciplines and help faculty with advising and grading chores related to large classes as well. Further, graduate students assist professors with field research and sponsored project reports, and many also publish the results of those efforts in academic journals with their mentors, as an integral part of their educational experience.

By implication, this partial list of the ways graduate students are enmeshed in the University’s life suggests that these individuals also likely play vital roles in the Institute¾ and so they do. One way of illustrating how post-graduates are integrated into the warp and woof of IPG’s daily activities is to outline how those individuals have shaped and continue to chart the Community Change Collaborative (CCC) research initiative within the Institute. The CCC is an ongoing multi-dimensional interdisciplinary project aimed at exploring the dynamics of community and civic change at multiple analytic scales. The effort is comprised of the following parts:

  • An Academic Forum: A weekly substantive seminar-style discussion investigating central questions related to community change. Graduate student participants come from multiple disciplines and academic programs and share their own inquiry, research foci and conceptual frames as they address key concerns related to theorizing and examining democratic change processes. All participate voluntarily and without academic credit.
  • A Speakers Series: Engaged students select, invite and host individuals involved in community development or change work to visit campus each semester to share insights from their experience and practice. Guests offer a public address, which is recorded, and a roundtable, also open to the community, which is recorded, too. These are available on a public website and a group of CCC students and I will use them to produce a forthcoming analytical volume based on the series.[1]
  • A Podcast Series: Two or three student volunteers interview each Collaborative project speaker for the Institute’s Trustees without Borders podcast series. These are professionally produced and hosted by IPG Senior Fellow Andrew Morikawa and available to the public. Many guests have indicated this opportunity proved a high point of their visit to campus. The quality of these sessions has proven to be routinely excellent.[2]
  • An Academic Journal: A group of IPG-affiliated graduate students have successfully launched a refereed academic journal called, appropriately enough, Community Change, which will shortly publish its second issue.[3]
  • Cross-University Sharing of Ideas Concerning Community Change: The Collaborative strives actively to bring faculty members interested in community change together for forums to share their research interests and theoretical frames in order to catalyze learning and continued dialogue across disciplinary boundaries.
  • Field Research: Finally, CCC participants have participated in field work to assist Appalachian communities during this past year. I hope we will be able to continue to deepen and enlarge those opportunities in coming months as they permit students to consider the concepts, constructs and concerns on which they have reflected in the Forum and during speaker visits as these are revealed or may be applied in community contexts. We hope, too, to add one or two CCC-sponsored field visits per semester to Appalachian towns that will be aimed at equipping participants with a deeper understanding of the complex interplay of social, cultural, economic and political issues in communities in this vital region. Again, these forays will be designed intentionally to encourage participating to seek to make sense of what they experience through the theoretical and conceptual frames they have discussed in other CCC events and activities.

In addition to the many ways graduate students are involved in the Community Change Collaborative, the Institute also routinely seeks to involve interested students in sponsored projects, where they may obtain robust professional experience in preparing analyses or delivering programs for clients. In some cases, these have led to Ph.D. dissertation or master’s degree thesis topics for those individuals so involved. More, Institute faculty members are chairs and members of graduate student advisory committees across a number of disciplines, and the reach of those individuals’ intellectual interests and topics lend richness daily to the intellectual life of IPG. They also bring alternative theoretical formulations and ways of knowing that can illuminate Institute work, whether arising from agriculture, public health, landscape architecture, the arts and humanities, or international politics and development. Finally, student engagement in IPG in these various ways often results in their mentors becoming involved in Institute activities as well, an always welcome and enriching turn.

In many ways, IPG now serves as a forum in which an interdisciplinary group of interested graduate students and faculty can come together to explore common concerns linked to policy or governance and to discern ways of addressing them that traverse traditional intellectual boundaries. Ultimately, the special province and provenance of their vocations allow these professors and graduate students to be driven foremost by their curiosity and limited only by the reach of their individual and collective imaginations. Perhaps the Institute today constitutes something of a microcosm of the vibrancy and determinedly polyglot character of the larger institution of which it is a part. Ideally, both are engaged in the relentless pursuit of knowledge and are open to the magic that can transpire when human beings, willing to listen and passionately desirous of learning, engage one another with openness and good will. The results of such interaction can be, and often are, surprising and bracing. They intrigue, pique and provoke, and constantly renew those so engaged. Graduate students are vital and essential interlocutors and participants in this special forum of exchange, this unique educational possibility. Indeed, they are critical to its potentials, and to the life of the Institute and of the larger institution they have elected to attend.

Overall, I fondly hope that IPG can serve graduate students and faculty members interested in our mission and involved in our work in whatever form best suits their aims, in a fashion identical to that one-time Yale University President A. Bartlett Giamatti (1938-1989) once remarked should be true of universities generally:

Universities are not here to be mediums for the coercion of other people, they’re here to be mediums for the free exchange of ideas.[4]

Just so. And they (and we at the Institute) cannot thrive without that possibility, in which graduate students do and must play an integral role.


[1] Past speakers, Community Voices website.  Accessed June 20, 2018.

[2] Trustees without Borders, Community Voices website. Accessed June 19, 2018.

[3] Community Change Journal, website. Accessed June 19, 2018.

[4] Giamatti, A. Bartlett, Brainy Quote

Accessed June 19, 2018.

Publication Date

July 9, 2018