Twyla J. Cummings has a big job ahead of her.
As associate provost and dean of graduate education at Rochester Institute of Technology, she’s tasked with changing the mindset of colleges at RIT so they can produce a lot more doctorate degrees.
In the next decade, Cummings aims to triple the number of doctoral students graduating from RIT. And within five years, RIT is aiming to roughly double its number of doctoral programs.
“In 10 years, we’d like to be conferring 100 (doctorates). That will put us on a par with several of our peers, locally and regionally,” Cummings said recently. “It’s a big move for us. We haven’t been growing our doctoral programs at a very fast pace. After 30 years we have eight programs.”
This isn’t just a numbers game, but a question of identity.
“We’re very focused on graduate education and research,” Cummings said. “If we’re going to grow in that space, we need more graduate students, and we need to provide more options for students who aren’t here to come here.”
Since the university established its first graduate degree program – in fine arts – in 1960 and its first doctoral program in 1991, it has created 78 master’s degree tracks, 17 graduate certificates and just eight doctoral programs. The last new doctorate program was created in 2014, she noted.
“We took a look at our peer institutions and we found that we really are lagging behind relative to doctoral degrees – the ones we offer and the number we confer each year,” Cummings said.
In order to reach the goal of adding six to 12 new doctoral programs by 2030, Cummings said, “we can’t do it the way we’ve always done it. We have to change our mindset. We have to have additional resources.” And the college can take years to put together a doctoral program proposal for state approval.
So she’s hired a combination project manager and senior technical writer to work with faculty departments to get them organized and on track in creating new doctoral programs for approval by the state.
“We’re putting together a strategy where we do it in one year per program to get it to New York State, and sometimes we’ll do this concurrently,” Cummings said.
Previously the process took three or four years to create a program, partly because it always came last among faculty juggling various commitments, she said.
“The main thing is there’s been no one that’s tasked to do that. It’s a faculty role, and faculty have to teach, they have research, they have service, they supervise students and then on top of that, you’re going to ask them to shepherd and manage the whole process behind a Ph.D. proposal?”
She spent the last year getting buy-in on this accelerated schedule. That amounted to “getting the RIT community excited about this and not looking at this as work, as drudgery. This is a good thing. This is good for RIT,” she said.
Cummings said deans of the various RIT colleges have committed to increasing doctoral programs and graduates, and she has committed to getting funding for the increased number of students they’re seeking.
“They’ve made that commitment, which we didn’t really have before. It wasn’t time sensitive in the way it is now,” she said.
Colleagues who’ve worked with Cummings say she’s the person who can get this all to work – coordinating a single goal across different disciplinary departments, even without having a direct connection to their purse strings. She has only a handful of direct reports, yet is trying to coordinate graduate policies, new programs, curricula and fundraising across an institution with more than 4,000 employees and 19,000 students.
“She seems very good at building bridges between departments and people,” said Anthony Piazza, a Rochester attorney who she recruited to be on her advisory council. “It’s a big challenge for her. But I got the sense that she looked at it as an opportunity.”
Piazza said to Cummings after working with her at a day-long committee, “You could run a small city.”
Lorraine Justice, a professor in RIT’s College of Art and Design, used to be graduate dean for that college, and Cummings was her assistant dean initially.
“She was very honest but diplomatic and those are two qualities that are very hard to find sometimes, especially when things get complex or …difficult. Twyla would be very calm. She would think things through. She would ask people’s opinions and help to resolve just about any issue that came up. She was just fabulous – still is,” Justice said.
Cummings, who worked in industry for nearly 20 years before coming to RIT, said higher education is one of the toughest jobs around.
“I work more evenings or weekends than I ever did in corporate America. During the day you’re teaching and don’t have time to grade papers and put together assignments, and answer email,” she said. “In addition to teaching, all faculty have commitments to do research” and end up doing that in the summer. “We’re all on too many committees at the university and in our field on industry associations, outside of RIT to support our discipline.”
Nevertheless, Cummings says of her second career: “It’s rewarding; I have to say it’s very fulfilling.”
Born on Long Island to a teen-age mother, Cummings spent her childhood and young adulthood in Ohio. After completing a degree in chemistry at Wright State University, she got a job as an ink scientist for Mead Corp. in Dayton, Ohio. (She earned her other degrees while working.) The company was renamed and became a division of Kodak, then was sold and recently was bought back again as ink-jet printing became a primary business line for Kodak.
When Kodak transferred her husband, Thomas, to Rochester not long after the couple married, they spent four years in a commuter marriage. Eventually, Cummings followed her spouse to Rochester, expecting to take a year to find her next job. But before that year was up, she was teaching project management at RIT as an adjunct professor. She expected to find a full-time job in industry in the day, while teaching at night.
But not too long after that, RIT offered Cummings a tenure-track, full-time job, recognizing her practical expertise in the field.
“Surprisingly, I liked it a lot. It was definitely a career change. And 22 years later I’m still here,” she said.
Though the teaching offer got her through the door, she says she still had to earn tenure the way any other academic does, and if she hadn’t, she would have been gone.
About halfway through those years at RIT, Cummings started easing into administration while still teaching.
“When I had the opportunity to — in addition to teaching responsibilities — become a graduate program director, which was an administrative role, I liked it. I was supposed to do it for 18 months, and I ended up doing it for eight years,” Cummings said. The graduate program director job led to becoming assistant dean and then associate graduate dean in the College of Art and Design before the university-level equivalent opened up.
“I always know when it’s time for me to do something different,” she said. Justice said she also encouraged Cummings to apply for the university-level job, noting her aptitude for administration.
“She’s a great decision maker,” Justice said. “She earns a lot of respect. She’s inclusive. She’s very analytical. She can calmly deliberate through anything.” That includes curriculum issues and tricky personnel squabbles, Justice said.
In Cummings’ current role, she has worked diligently to create greater engagement with RIT for graduates of its alumni programs. Many of the people who get graduate degrees at RIT are not from the area and did not attend undergraduate school here, she noted, so they don’t have as strong a tie to the university as undergrads do.
Part of her strategy was developing an advisory council, including graduate alumni, and establishing a place to share research at campus events. She also oversaw a two-year study on advising and support for graduate students at RIT.
“Graduate students don’t need the same type of advising as undergraduate students. They all need faculty advisors and they all have that. If they have a research component to their degree, they need a research advisor,” Cummings said. But some colleges are lacking logistical and administrative support for their programs, she said, so her office is working to improve that.
Cummings has been working to secure funding for more graduate students. She asked a sponsor of a graduate showcase event to sponsor a scholarship. He provided 10 times what she requested, allowing low-income students from Rochester to reach graduate school.
But she also walks the walk. Cummings and her husband donated $50,000 to create a scholarship for students of African, Asian, Latino or Native American heritage who want to obtain a graduate degree.
“Graduate education did not have (fundraising) goals and they did not have anyone assigned to them until I got in this role,” Cummings said.
She has at least one other goal that she’s already shared with RIT’s leadership: “I am putting together a proposal for the office of graduate education to become either the school or the college of graduate education.” Why? “I think that is the future. It allows us to be more supportive to the university. It aligns us more with our peer institutions. We look more like other universities.”
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Twyla J. Cummings
Position: Associate provost and dean of graduate education at Rochester Institute of Technology
Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Wright State University, Dayton, 1979; master’s degree in business and industrial counseling management, Wright State, 1987; doctorate in business management, Union Institute & University, Cincinnati
Family: husband Thomas Cummings; two grown stepchildren, Patrick Cummings and Andrea Moore; one granddaughter
Hobbies: reading, golf, interior design, travel
Quote: “We’re very focused on graduate education and research. If we’re going to grow in that space, we need more graduate students, and we need to provide more options for students who aren’t here to come here.”