No electronic copy is available through ProQuest, the electronic/microfilm database for academic theses and dissertations. You can’t get it through your university library. There is no bound volume in the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library to be accessed through inter-library loan. It is “embargoed” until September 2015.
You won’t be able to read it until the Commissioner’s current two-year contract has expired and, by that time, she may have already left Rhode Island. These facts were not clear when I started asking questions last June, so I wrote this brief account of the confusion that I encountered.
“An Ocean State Voyage: A Leadership Case Study of Creating an Evaluation System with, and for, Teachers.” I first heard the intriguing title of Deborah Gist’s Ed.D. dissertation around the same time that I read the results of the NEARI/ poll indicating that she was disliked or distrusted by most Rhode Island teachers: 85% of those polled said that her contract as Rhode Island’s Commissioner of a Education should not be renewed. 88% said that morale in R.I. schools was unacceptably low. 22% thought that Gist’s Race to the Top program was “somewhat ineffective” and 60% said it was a waste of money. The “with and for teachers” in her dissertation title, on the contrary, suggested a cooperative and positive relationship between the Education Commissioner and R.I. teachers. The contrast made me curious. I wanted to read the dissertation.
A doctoral dissertation is an original contribution to a body of knowledge or a new answer to a pending question. It is meant to be shared with other scholars and one measure of its success is the amount of attention it generates from “the field” whatever that might be–history, philosophy, mathematics, or education. Admittedly, many dissertations create nary a ripple of intellectual response and the only persons sure to read them are their authors’ academic advisors. Nevertheless, shared scholarship is still an academic ideal and publication is still a requirement for doctoral degrees, though degree-granting institutions may have different rules for how this requirement is fulfilled.
Commissioner Gist’s Ed.D. was awarded by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (GSE). If I understand their protocols correctly the publication requirements are fulfilled by 1.) submission to ProQuest–the standard electronic and microfilm database for theses and dissertations and 2.) making available a bound copy in the Penn Van Pelt Library for access by local readers and the wider public via inter-library-loan (www.gse.upenn.edu/pdf/students/EdD_dissertation_manual.pdf the Gist dissertation is not available through inter-library loan, have the rules changed or is this a special dispensation?).
To my surprise, “An Ocean State Voyage,” which was defended in April 2012, with the Ed.D. awarded in August 2012, was not yet available from either source in June 2013. A Penn librarian wrote at that time: “This Dissertation is not currently available in any format. It is not currently held by the Library and is not in Dissertation Abstracts.” I learned then of embargoed dissertations, when, under certain conditions, release to the public is delayed at the request of the author. But no, there was no Gist embargo in effect at that time because there was no Gist dissertation to be found. The degree had certainly been awarded to Deborah Gist, so where was her dissertation? I was put in touch with the Registrar of Penn’s Graduate School of Education, the person responsible for receiving dissertations from their authors and releasing them to the public via ProQuest, in accordance with the author’s specifications and academic permissions. Here was an answer of sorts.
The GSE Registrar explained that the dissertation she had sent to ProQuest had been lost and was never received by them. The one and only remaining copy was sitting on her desk at that very moment, she said, awaiting resubmission to. And why had it been sitting there for so many months? Resubmission was delayed, she said, because Deborah Gist had a new e-mail address and could not be contacted. (This is hard to believe. Surely it was common knowledge at Penn that Gist was Rhode Island’s Commissioner of Education–it says so in the dissertation abstract–and that any message to the Rhode Island Department of Education was bound to reach her!). The dissertation was resubmitted to ProQuest on June 20, about a week after I started my search. Would it still be gathering dust on the Registrar’s desk had I not inquired? Is there a library copy gathering dust on someone else’s desk right now?
For all practical purposes Penn’s long delay in resubmitting the Gist dissertation to ProQuest was an unofficial embargo that lengthened the period of unavailability by as much as a year. The GSE Registrar was quick to assume responsibility for the delay, assuring me that it was not Deborah Gist’s fault (though all things considered, it worked out pretty well for her). That same Registrar probably knew, while I was waiting for the second submission to be processed so that I could request the dissertation, that what was in store for me was only an official notification that it was unavailable. Sure enough, now that the dissertation is in the ProQuest database, we know that it is definitely and officially under embargo. Commissioner Gist is in no hurry to share her ideas. “An Ocean State Voyage” will not be available to the public until September 2015, more than three years after the doctorate was awarded.
Why does the Commissioner want to shield her work from public scrutiny? Why would anyone? As embargoed dissertations are increasingly common across the country, a primary impetus comes from doctoral candidates hoping to publish their research in book form in order to compete for teaching jobs in colleges and universities. Electronic access to dissertations jeopardizes future publications, they claim, and some disciplines, faculties, and scholarly groups are inclined to agree and advocate for long or renewable embargo periods. Others in academe challenge this position on factual grounds or on behalf of the traditional scholarly values of openness and interchange. This is a controversial issue and every aspect of academic embargo is subject to debate. How long? Renewable or not? What reasons? Who decides? The answers are different for various degree-granting institutions and, sometimes, for different sectors of the same institution.
We know from that interesting title that Gist has completed a case study of her role in devising an evaluation system for Rhode Island teachers. From the dissertation abstract, which is now available from ProQuest (free through university libraries), we know a little more: that she studies “adaptive” change, required by new situational factors and often accompanied by feelings of loss or disorientation on the part of the changees, that she has developed a model of “Elementary Leadership,” and that she intends to use this model in “future leadership of large-scale change.” Her future leadership may be in another state or in the national Department of Education. She may become a more active Change Chief and work with Jeb Bush or the Broad Academy or the Gates Foundation. She may consult or head a charter school group or invent an entirely new educational organization.
So why doesn’t she want her dissertation read now? Wouldn’t its new input be of value in current discussions of testing, accountability, and teacher evaluation? Wouldn’t it add to her stature as a prominent education reformer? Does she plan to revise it and publish a book? What privacy issues could be involved? As a high-ranking state employee writing about her own job and her own staff, doesn’t she owe some account of her leadership model to the people of Rhode Island? Who would be more interested in her Ocean State Voyage than Rhode Islanders? Who would be better equipped to compare the dissertation’s view of her leadership with its practical results than Rhode Island teachers, parents, and students?