March 2024

Face to Face with Graduate School Dean Kenneth Wong

March 6, 2024    |  

During the Virtual Face to Face program on Feb. 29, Kenneth Wong, PhD, dean of the University of Maryland Graduate School, outlined his vision for the school’s future in a discussion with University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS. Formed from a thoughtful understanding of the challenges facing today’s graduates, Wong summed up that vision by saying, “Training prepares you for the known, but education equips you for the unknown.”

With that guiding principle in mind, Wong said he is committed to fostering critical thinking, adaptability, and resilience among students at the Graduate School, ensuring that they are well-prepared to tackle the complex challenges of the modern workforce.

Situated in the heart of UMB’s vibrant academic community, the Graduate School is a home for aspiring scholars, researchers, and professionals seeking to make a meaningful impact on the world. The school has a range of PhD, master’s, and certificate programs that collectively fill a landscape that is constantly changing in response to need.

Wong, who has been at the helm of the Graduate School for six months and is vice provost for graduate education at UMB, began his conversation with Jarrell by pointing to the University’s unique landscape, saying its professional schools in medicine, nursing, law, dentistry, pharmacy, and social work benefit the Graduate School as it prepares leaders in health research and the social sciences.

“The Graduate School has a lot of opportunities right now. We are aggressive and expansionistic and nimble, and we also have, at a core, the support of graduate students across the University in many different fields,” he explained, adding that his goal for the school is to “be a place of growth, a place of innovation, a place of new programs, and, as well, a support for students across the University and programs across the University.”

Wong went on to discuss the intersection of education with workforce development and technology in the context of graduate studies at the University.

“I think for us, particularly at UMB, the constructive I have in my mind is health followed by a blank space,” he said in answer to a question Jarrell raised about workforce opportunities within the current landscape in Maryland and beyond.

“So, what do we put after health? Do we put things like finance? Do we put things like economics? Do we put information technology? Do we put transportation facilities?” he asked. “There’s all kinds of things that relate to the business of providing health and the way that we provide a healthy society that are not direct professions. And that’s an area where the Graduate School, can, I think, contribute greatly is in developing programs around that.”

Regarding future challenges graduates will face, Wong said it is essential to adapt education to meet evolving workforce needs and emphasized the opportunity to work with other schools across UMB in “intentionally transdisciplinary communities.”

He also said that while doctoral education is targeted at creating future academics, a number of students will not work in academic positions upon leaving the Graduate School.

“We have to think more broadly than that because we know from the number of positions that are available and what students are doing, that many of them are not going into academic positions,” Wong noted, saying it would be a “disservice” to fail to prepare them for that reality.

Wong added that working with corporate partners can provide students with valuable professional experiences and real-world challenges as they prepare to enter the workforce.

“Because UMB is very compact, it makes it easy for us to potentially bring people in, and then give the students Capstone projects or research projects related to a course where they have the benefit of faculty mentorship and a problem statement or a challenge that is given to them from on the outside,” he explained. “It’s a really good model for how we train students and prepare them for some of these challenges in the workforce, by giving them actual challenges that are coming in from industry partners or organization partners.

During the interview with Jarrell, Wong also delved into artificial intelligence (AI) and its implications for education. He observed that faculty across the University are engaged in ongoing questions about the use of the technology and pointed to Monday Morning Mentor, a program from UMB’s Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, as one example of an initiative covering several AI topics.

While highlighting the importance of incorporating AI tools into graduate education, he also stressed the need to maintain scholarly integrity and ensure that academic expectations are met.

The integration of AI in education presents challenges, Wong explained, particularly in graduate education, where there is a heavy emphasis on written assessments, notably in the dissertation process. He stressed that a balance must be struck between using AI to enhance learning experiences while upholding traditional standards of academia.

“We’re really kind of challenged in graduate school because so much of how we measure learning is in the written word,” he said, going on to explain, “Helping students to understand how they can use AI to help them with the kinds of things they do but still maintain what the field expects for scholarly integrity — I think it is going to be a big challenge for us to do well as, as a graduate school, to kind of set both the right boundaries, but also the right encouragement so that people can make the best use of these tools as they do their research as they try to understand a field.”

He noted that faculty members are experimenting with AI tools to build and evaluate educational materials, with a common goal of enhancing teaching quality. Wong also recognized that because teaching often involves content creation, faculty are using AI to streamline this process and improve overall teaching effectiveness.

During the Virtual Face to Face program, Wong answered questions from the UMB audience, including one on the issue of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) within the Graduate School. He pointed to a program within the school focused on EDI leadership and said it provides a unique opportunity to create a “virtuous cycle” of feedback and improvement.

“It's pretty clear to me that the deck has not been, or the playing field has not been, even for a long time,” he said, adding that work must be done to undo that harm. “We need to reconcile with fundamental disparities that have happened and work to change that.”

Another question noted the work Wong has done during his time at UMB to attend a variety of campus events in order to get to know the University’s community. In speaking about his impressions, Wong stressed how valuable it has been for him to get to know students.

“I've tried to go to a number of the PhD defenses that come up on the Graduate School’s calendar,” he said. “It’s been really enjoyable to hear the students talk about the people that inspired them, the mentorship relationship they have with the faculty, which I think, for a PhD student, it’s just a very special thing — the role of their family, the role of their friends, the role of their faith in propelling them along and sustaining them in this career.”

He ended by saying, “I hope that we as a graduate school can continue to help students thrive, and I can get a chance to hear a lot more of those stories directly from students as we go along.”

To watch the entire Virtual Face to Face program, click the video at the top of this page.