Malika Jeffries-EL: Expanding Graduate Education’s Career Opportunities, and Its Diversity
New GRS associate dean for graduate education reflects on its future amid the COVID-19 pandemic and America’s racial reckoning
As a chemist, Malika Jeffries-EL relies on her intuition for innovation, designing organic electronic materials for solar cells and displays. It’s a skill she’ll need in her new role, as associate dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. She must imagine graduate education’s future amid not just always-expanding knowledge, but the country’s reckoning with racism and COVID-19.
Experience has prepared her. Since coming to BU in 2016, the College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of chemistry has served in posts as her department’s graduate studies director and on the Graduate Recruitment and Admissions Committee, the University’s Recruitment Committee, and the CAS Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
If one word could sum up her vision of BU’s graduate education, it might be “expand.” She wants to open up the career opportunities for students as well as open their ranks to more diverse representation. “GRS has many excellent programs,” she says. “We have always looked to leverage our strengths, but also be critical and reorganize or terminate programs if and when needed. We are not terminating any programs, but to strengthen our existing programs, we may make some modifications.”
Jeffries-EL, a fellow of the American Chemical Society, outlined this vision with BU Today.
With Malika Jeffries-EL
BU Today: What changes—in specific programs or classes and in general focus—do you foresee in BU’s graduate education? Are there areas that will be stressed more or added to, and areas that might get less emphasis, for example?
Jeffries-EL: I am interested in enhancing the experience for all of our students by providing them with the educational and professional development opportunities needed for a variety of careers. We are used to preparing PhD students for careers in academia and industry for those in the sciences. However, we need to provide our students with core competencies to explore the myriad of opportunities that exist. Emily Barman [Jeffries-EL’s predecessor as GRS associate dean] started an internship program for students in the humanities and social sciences to expose students in those areas to other careers outside of academia. I plan to continue this and also develop opportunities to train students interested in entrepreneurship and explore internships for students in the sciences.
I am particularly interested in evaluating what the core competencies are that we are providing our students with. How can we leverage existing coursework to strengthen the experiences of our graduate students? For example, can we leverage the Writing Program to improve training in the sciences? Can we leverage other resources to train our students to be better teachers? Can we work with Questrom School of Business to help our students become more entrepreneurial? How can we use the city as a training ground to improve graduate education? This is a more long-term process I will be looking into.
We need to improve the campus culture such that all students feel welcome and can do well.
Two current events are affecting universities: COVID-19’s remote teaching and learning and the antiracism movement. Will either or both shape any changes you’d like to see?
COVID-19 is the backdrop to anything we will do in the coming year. Short-term, I have been working with our programs to get ready for the fall. The budget implications of the shutdown will also impact what can be done in the current year in terms of new activities. However, I am still making plans for the future. While we are adapting many of our programs to online format out of necessity, the ability to provide high-level graduate education in the format may create new opportunities for program development and distance learning.
I have always been an advocate for diversity and inclusion and I am excited for the opportunity to increase the diversity of the programs in GRS. Broadly speaking, to improve diversity, we need to increase recruitment, and also reduce the barriers to admitting students from underrepresented groups. We need to consider a holistic review that goes beyond standardized testing, as well as making the process of getting a fee waiver easier. We need to consider how we can reduce financial barriers as well.
Lastly, we need to improve the campus culture such that all students feel welcome and can do well. I think that representation matters. When students do not see themselves reflected in the major activities on campus, they don’t feel included. We need to diversify the seminar series in many departments and at the University level. I also think that student organizations are at the heart of campus culture, and we need to support them in their various missions.
You mention reducing financial barriers, such as fees, to diversify the graduate student body. Given the University’s budget crunch from COVID, is that something that will have to be deferred until finances recover?
Not necessarily. We have funds budgeted for fee waivers. Even with the budget issues, we still have some available. What we need to fix is process; the current one has a timeline that runs through the winter break. I want to shift it so that students who need fee waivers do not have to stress out with the processes.
What role do you foresee technology playing in graduate education going forward—a greater, lesser, or the same part as it does now?
This situation has forced us to quickly adapt to a remote learning environment. Now that we have experienced it, it does seems that the Learn from Anywhere model [allowing students to choose either remote or on-campus learning, or a mix] may be an asset for many of our graduate programs. For example, I can envision this being a mechanism for professional students to take courses who may not be able to be on campus daily. Or to provide greater flexibility to students with families.