Robert E. Thach,
Dean, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences,
Professor of Biology, and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics

Transforming Graduate Education

By Lisa Cary

“I’ve been very lucky: Serving as dean provided me the opportunity to do a lot of good for a lot of people, and I’ve enjoyed it tremendously,” says Robert E. Thach, outgoing dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (GSAS).

Thach is stepping away from his administrative post at the top of his game. His work over the last 15 years endowed the deanship with an international reputation for leadership and innovation.

Far from resting on his laurels, Thach is simply moving on to other challenges: teaching in the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences and devoting more time to his research in epidemiology. In his lab, he focuses on diseases in large populations, including detecting the natural sources of infectious disease epidemics.

Thach is, above all, a problem solver. When he took the GSAS deanship—which oversees all aspects of the Ph.D. and M.A. degree programs—in 1993, the academic world suffered from an oversupply of doctoral candidates. And these candidates competed for a limited number of academic positions.

After crunching the numbers, Thach knew it was time to inject more realism into the career goals and financial needs of his graduate students. “We decided it was time to make fundamental changes in the way we supported our graduate students,” he says.

Blazing the trail

Thach implemented new measures, emphasizing quality over quantity, in 1994. That fall, he reduced the incoming class of Ph.D. candidates by about 25 percent, allowing the University to offer increased financial support to each student. “We were the first university to provide financial support to doctoral students for six years—instead of the usual three—through a combination of fellowships and teaching assistantships,” Thach says.

The changes brought about immediate and dramatic results. Reducing the class size allowed the University to be more selective in choosing its graduate students. By 1996, the average Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores of those offered admission increased by 8 to 10 percentage points. Students received more individual attention, and the attrition rate dropped by 30 percent in the first two years of the new plan.

“Bob understood the needs of the students and how they learned,” says Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth (chancellor from 1971 to 1995). “He helped us all understand how to strengthen graduate education.”

“The improvement in our time-to-degree performance was across the board,” says Thach, “from the biological and physical sciences to the humanities and social sciences.”

Because the University’s added financial support freed students from the need to earn money, they could complete their programs more quickly. “The improvement in our time-to-degree performance was across the board,” says Thach, “from the biological and physical sciences to the humanities and social sciences.”

News about the dramatic gains spread quickly through academic circles. The program became a model for other top graduate schools. “Clearly, Washington University has taken a leadership role in providing first-rate doctoral education,” noted the late Jules LaPidus, then-president of the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington, D.C., in a 1996 paper.

In 2000, the University was invited, along with the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor and University of Washington–Seattle, to help organize the “Responsive Ph.D. Initiative,” begun by the respected Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. The initiative sought to identify challenges and implement improvements in American doctoral education. During part of its five-year span, Thach chaired the Dean’s Advisory Group, which guided activities as the number of participants grew to include 20 graduate school deans from leading research universities.

Together, the deans identified priorities for graduate education and made commitments to develop ways to support these priorities within their own institutions. The key measures included increasing diversity, addressing globalization, seeking new ways to apply academic knowledge to social challenges, and improving professional development of doctoral students in a full range of careers.

“A national voice in graduate education, Dean Thach provided strong and effective leadership during his tenure,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “Bob enhanced the quality of the graduate student experience, and he improved greatly the Ph.D. programs.”

Empowering graduate students

Thach’s own graduate school career was successful by any standard. After graduating summa cum laude in chemistry from Princeton University in 1961, he earned his doctorate at Harvard University. Working under renowned biochemist Paul Doty, Thach served as a teaching assistant for several Nobel laureates.

He joined Washington University’s biological chemistry department faculty in 1970, and within two years, he began his first administrative duties as director of the Center for Basic Cancer Research (1972–1977). Thach then moved to the Danforth Campus to chair the biology department (1977–1981), where he continued to teach and do research until moving into administration full time as GSAS dean in 1993.

As dean, Thach worked to give graduate students a greater voice in their own education. Since 1994, he has chaired the Professional and Graduate Student Coordinating Committee (ProGrads), a University-wide committee that includes student and faculty/administrative representatives from each of the seven schools. Each year the committee recommends three to five finalists to the University Board of Trustees as candidates.

In 2003 and 2005, Thach convened the National Conference on Graduate Student Leadership on the Danforth Campus. Attendees included teams of graduate student leaders and administrators from each of the 20 institutions involved in the Responsive Ph.D. Initiative. Panel discussions revolved around issues selected by the student delegates: professional development, student life, governance, and leadership.

Thach then took the initiative to an international scale in 2005, 2006, and 2007, when the University co-hosted International Graduate Scholarship conferences in Beijing, Shanghai, and Wuhan along with the Responsive Ph.D. Group and the China Scholarship Council. More than 500 of China’s top college seniors, as well as representatives from Chinese and American universities, attended each conference.

“Because of Dean Thach’s efforts,” says Wrighton, “Washington University is a major leader in encouraging Chinese students to consider graduate education in the United States.”

While Thach has enjoyed his administrative role, he looks forward to fresh challenges in the lab and classroom. He and his wife, Sigrid, will continue their frequent travels to Europe and watching their three grown children, Catherine, Robert Jr. (Ed), and Chris, make strides in their own careers.

“Bob is an outstanding colleague, and he greatly increased the profile of the University,” says Edward S. Macias, executive vice chancellor and dean of Arts & Sciences. “We’re fortunate that he’s not leaving us altogether, but continuing with his research and instruction. I will continue to seek his advice and counsel on many issues.”

Lisa Cary is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.