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Home » Discover Rackham » 2020 State of the Graduate School Address

Good afternoon. Thank you for participating in our second annual State of the Graduate School Event. We have over 300 hundred members of the Rackham community registered for today’s webinar. After some brief remarks by me, my colleague Rita Chin—professor of history and Rackham associate dean—will moderate a panel of faculty and students who will engage with us about some of the key challenges we are addressing today.

I want to personally thank everyone here today for making a personal choice to engage about these important issues. I want to especially thank our panelists for their choice. Since we set the date for this in the summer, I’ve been looking forward to this event as a way to update the Rackham community about the strategic vision we launched last fall.

On a quick technical note, if I lose my internet connection during my remarks, we will go straight into the panel, with the hope that I could get back online to finish at the end. If we encounter a total technical disruption, we will record my remarks and as much of the event that we can and make the video with captioning available.

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the ongoing GEO labor action and reiterate something I shared in my message to students on Friday, which is available on the Rackham website. I respect the vigorous advocacy of Rackham students, as well as their agency to make a personal decision as to how to pursue activism. I value the multiple and vital roles they play at the university as students, researchers, instructors, and scholars. For those who are unavailable to participate today, we will post the video of this event with transcript. As dean of the graduate school, I am focused at this moment on continuing to advance Rackham’s mission to support graduate education at the university and the success of Rackham students. Our purpose here today is to speak to not only the historic pressures of the last six months, but also the significant and broad changes that were in motion before and that will continue to affect graduate education well into the future.

The extraordinary, interconnected challenges of the last six months have taken a significant toll on our community.

On top of disrupting every aspect of our academic and professional lives, the pandemic has placed intense personal demands on each of us. Members of our community have faced the devastating, disparate impacts of the virus on our friends, our families, and the places we call home. We mourn for the loss of life we have experienced. We are navigating school closures and other restrictions affecting those we care for, including children and parents. Distancing measures have meant that our usual ways of creating community have become unavailable just when we need them the most.

In May, we watched in horror and anger as George Floyd was suffocated by an officer whose charge was to protect and to serve. The appalling killings of Black people at the hands of police have again laid bare—and brought a historic moment of reckoning with—the discrimination, violence, and unjust policies and practices of centuries of institutional racism. The effects of racism are active in our communities every day, and they are also present in our own institution, with its legacy of privileging white individuals.

Moreover, abrupt and cruel changes to federal policies have had a disproportionate and unfair effect on our students, particularly our international and undocumented students. Those coming here to pursue educational opportunities face the uncertainty that their goals will be curtailed by immigration policies that are blunt and overbroad, and that give rise to xenophobia.

I admire the way Rackham students responded to these challenges at the end of the last academic year, and over the spring and summer. Over the last six months, my Rackham colleagues and I have participated in more than 10 town halls and listening sessions to hear your input, and we have worked in partnership with organizations across campus to pursue new initiatives and policies to address your concerns. This work has taken many forms, including an adjusted grading policy; extended deadlines for candidacy, dissertation, and graduation requirements; and supplemental block grants to provide summer employment opportunities. Rackham also expanded the eligibility criteria for granting emergency funds to respond to student needs during the pandemic. We have provided more than $800,000 in response to COVID-related emergency fund requests, helping more than 440 students during this time of need. More than 80 percent of requests have been approved. Similar policies are in place for the 2020–21 academic year, and you can find them on our continually updated COVID-19 resource page.

Last September, a couple hundred of us gathered in the Rackham Amphitheatre for the launch of the graduate school’s strategic vision. While so much has changed since then, the graduate school has leaned very heavily during the pandemic on the vision that we launched that day. Our decisions and efforts have been guided by an idea of graduate education that is student centered, faculty led, and Rackham supported.

As part of that work, we identified four major goals: to reimagine the academic experience, to strengthen diversity, to enhance partnerships and community, and to strengthen the culture and climate of the Rackham organization. These goals respond to the central opportunity for graduate education, which is that there has never been a greater need for the expertise and training in research, scholarship, and discovery that Rackham programs provide.

These goals also respond to the issues that continue to confront us as a graduate school:

  • Pressure on the antiquated apprenticeship model of graduate education that we have used and reproduced for more than 100 years.
  • The need for academic programs to prepare Rackham students for the broad range of careers in which they can participate, given that more than half of Rackham doctoral students already pursue careers outside the tenure track.
  • Concerns for the mental health and wellness of members of the graduate community, which are increasingly well documented.
  • And the rare but unacceptable abuses and misuses of the faculty/student mentoring relationship that is fundamental to the work that we do.

Today I am announcing further plans and initiatives for the next year to address the interconnected challenges we face. Each is informed by the imperative that we rethink how we pursue graduate education so that it is student centered, faculty led, and Rackham supported. As part of my remarks today, I am asking that we come together to achieve these plans and provide the change that this moment demands, and the future requires, as well.

I would like to address plans in the following five areas:

1)        Graduate Student Mental Health and Wellness

2)        Anti-Racism Goals and Initiatives

3)        Graduate Student Experiences with Disability Accommodations Report

4)        Effects of Federal Policies

5)        Planning for Extended Time to Degree

Graduate Student Mental Health and Wellness

In June 2019, Rackham set up a task force on graduate student mental health. The charge was to identify major factors that influence graduate student mental health, with a goal of identifying changes that the Rackham community can make to better support student well-being. The task force included faculty, staff, students, and mental health professionals.

Rackham supported this task force as an important response to the observations of our Resolution Office and the advocacy of faculty and students. We recognized that mental health has direct and disparate consequences for the academic success of graduate students, and it therefore needs the continuous attention of Rackham, programs, staff, and faculty. Building on this foundation, we are committed to making the support and improvement of graduate student mental health a central issue of Rackham’s work in the years ahead.

The task force’s year one report makes a suite of 10 thoughtful recommendations. Given the capacity of our staff, the task force, and our community, and the fact that some of the recommendations build upon each other, we will begin work on seven of them in the next year.

Later this week, along with the video of today’s event, I will release the task force report, as well as a letter in which I accept its recommendations.

I would like to focus today on two of the committee’s recommendations.

The first relates to the critical relationship between mental health and advising and mentoring support. The report describes how clear expectations and lines of communication are key to a healthy mentoring relationship, and the role written mentoring agreements can play between faculty and students in creating such a relationship. This finding aligns with and reinforces the work of Rackham’s faculty-led mentoring committee, the MORE committee, which has been committed to this work now for more than 10 years. The MORE committee has seen increasing recognition among graduate programs of the value of these agreements; a number of Rackham programs have made formal mentoring agreements an expectation. Moving forward, Rackham will work with graduate programs, the MORE committee, and the Rackham Executive Board to create a normative expectation for the presence of written mentoring agreements in all doctoral programs and a shared understanding of the critical roles and responsibilities of graduate faculty in this work.

The second is to create a program of graduate student mental health and wellness advocates who have the knowledge and tools to assist graduate programs in supporting students during stressful times and as they navigate their academic progress. I look forward to working both with the task force and graduate programs in that task. This work, for example, can involve resource creation as well as pilot training and educational workshops, with the first cohort of advocates serving as both learners and co-creators. These advocates—working within programs—can provide local sources of expertise and experience that can connect graduate faculty to the broader array of university resources, including mental health and resolution staff professionals across campus.

There will be more to say on this important work, and I look forward to further discussion and feedback from the Rackham community, including as part of today’s panel.

I would also like to thank all the members of the task force who served continuously last year in a way that positions us to take action steps now. I am particularly grateful that in addition to recommending long-term directions, the task force also produced a resource for the Rackham Community, called “Supporting Graduate Students During Stressful Times.” It is immediately useful at this moment. This resource is available on the Rackham website, and we’ll include the link to it along with the video of this event.

Anti-Racism Goals and Initiatives

Rackham has long invested in efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in our graduate programs. Anti-Black violence and racial injustice only reaffirms the critical importance of that commitment. It has also illustrated that the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be paired with work that addresses racial equity and social justice.

The largest single investment of the Rackham Graduate School is the Rackham Merit Fellowship Program. Last year, I announced a multi-stage review of that program to position it for the future in promoting diversity and inclusion. That review is ongoing, and I expect to be able to report out about it to you later in the academic year. The Faculty Allies Program also continues its long-standing work to address inclusion and sense of belonging in graduate programs. This year, it will operate as a learning community with a two-fold aim: developing a critical understanding of how race shapes expertise, knowledge production, and institutional structures within the academy; and providing Allies with skills to more effectively support DEI values and initiatives within their programs.

I also thank Rackham’s Diversity Advisory Committee—called RACDAC—for their strong, sustained efforts to continue to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the graduate education community.  During this difficult period, RACDAC has been a voice of the Rackham community for identifying our anti-racism goals for DEI.

To that end, Rackham has already made important revisions to the application for admissions for fall 2021 in order to promote access and opportunity for prospective students who may have been impacted by the criminal justice system. In addition, Rackham will conduct a year-long review of holistic admissions practices to explore the potential of eliminating the use of the graduate record exam—the GRE—in admissions.

Given the unique challenges posed by the pandemic, we acknowledge that this is a critical year for admissions. As a result, Rackham will presently publish guidance to support graduate admissions committees with responding to the possible impacts of COVID-19 on fall 2021 admissions. Faculty workshops on holistic admissions and evidence-based practices for promoting excellence and diversity in admissions will also be held by Rackham in October.

Finally, one of Rackham’s core values is to promote intellectual exchange, free inquiry, and learning. We are proud of the DEI Professional Development Certificate program as well as the Leading Equity and Diversity—or LEAD—seminars that we support and host. The LEAD seminars are a monthly series that this year are addressing racial equity and social justice. These seminars have so far drawn nearly 2500 faculty, staff, and student participants, in addition to people from over 100 other institutions all over the country. Students participating in the DEI Certificate program, which this year has seen 300 new applications, annually show substantive and significant gains in their intercultural competence as measured by the Intercultural Development Inventory. Even though we are conserving financial resources, Rackham has made additional investment to advance diversity and inclusion by hiring new staff to work with Dr. Debbie Willis and her professional and academic development colleagues in this work.

Graduate Student Experiences with Disability Accommodations Report

Like our efforts to address structural racism, Rackham is committed to confront myriad other forms of structural inequity that, unfortunately, continue to be perpetuated in our society.  It has been 30 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. To advance this work Rackham supported a collaborative research project called the Graduate Students with Disabilities Needs Assessment.

We are especially grateful to the more than 1,000 graduate students who participated in the survey and focus groups, as well as the authors of this critical research. The findings from an analysis of the quantitative study are sobering; and the personal stories our students shared about their struggles to be fully seen, included, and to obtain adequate accommodations to pursue their degrees are troubling and heart-breaking.

We look forward to partnering with our faculty graduate chairs and other campus units to address the needs assessed in the report.  We will be transparent about its recommendations going forward. This research study was released to its participants this summer. I am working with Rackham colleagues to draft a letter to respond to the report’s findings and move forward with recommendations.  My report and recommendations will be released when complete, later this term.

Effects of Federal Policies

Actions by the federal government over the summer created new obstacles and uncertainties for our international students. The closure of U.S. consulates worldwide because of the COVID emergency, and the gradual process of consulates reopening, has prevented many from applying for or renewing their visas. The implementation of more stringent background checks has created an additional hurdle and impeded many from arriving in time for the fall term.

As a result, many international students have deferred their admission to the winter term. But we are committed to doing all that we can to ensure that our graduate programs remain accessible to international students. Through an extraordinary effort over the summer by many administrators in the business operations areas of the university, and with advice from the Office of the General Counsel and the International Center, we’ve made arrangements to allow many dozens of incoming international doctoral students to start their programs remotely from their home countries with fellowship support or with appointments as GSRAs or GSIs. Michigan also joined with other universities and businesses to oppose an initiative to end the Optional Practical Training program—called OPT—which allows temporary employment for international students in their field of study.

These interventions were successful, and the OPT program has been preserved for the time being. But much work remains to support our international students in these uncertain times of overbroad and cruel federal policies, and xenophobia.

Planning for Extended Time to Degree

I would like to turn for a moment to a discussion that addresses the needs of Rackham doctoral  students for their education, research, and scholarship.

The events of the past year have created disruptions in research and scholarship that affect the degree progress of doctoral students in disparate ways. Among the issues students have faced are a lack of access to laboratories, libraries, and fieldwork; restrictions on human subject research; prohibition of travel; interruption in research progress due to unexpected family and/or self-care responsibilities generated by the COVID pandemic; and impeded scholarly progress due to stress and uncertainty.

Let me say at the outset: Rackham is committed to degree completion by all graduate students. Its policies and practices have long supported variable time to degree. Moreover, since this disruption began we have encouraged students and faculty mentors to pursue alternative modes for degree and research progress, and to adopt more flexibility in the scope of dissertations.

There is now a widespread need for programs to offer doctoral students additional time and funding to complete their degree programs. Some doctoral students will be not delayed or only modestly delayed by the disruptions; others will be much more impacted—by as much as a full year.  We know of this need because it has been raised in Rackham meetings with faculty who lead graduate programs and in the many listening sessions we joined that were hosted by Rackham Student Government.

Rackham is therefore implementing a plan in which each doctoral program—possibly as coordinated by their school/college—will create and report to Rackham a policy or procedure through which students may receive an additional term or terms of stipend, tuition, and benefits if their degree progress has been disrupted in the last six months and once the funding promised in their offer letter has been exhausted.  The decision to extend funding will be a collaborative decision of the faculty mentor, the doctoral student, and the Rackham program. We anticipate that these policies will be in place for up to five years..

This plan necessarily involves faculty and programs because these stakeholders generate the vast majority of funding to support doctoral programs through the grant funding they are awarded, the teaching positions available through their curriculum, and other funds such as first year fellowships. They deploy these resources through their admissions practices, which determine the size of their doctoral cohort.  Programs have the ability to use these resources to support the needs for extended time to degree.

For example, a program may choose to reduce the size of its admitted doctoral cohort over the next three to five years. Modest, planned changes in cohort size can free funding to address the needs of our current students. As programs make these plans, it is particularly important to me that we focus on holistic admissions to promote and ensure diversity and excellence, consistent with our collective values and DEI goals for graduate education.

I believe that this plan is the right response to the historic pressures of the moment. It places faculty mentors and doctoral programs in a position to lead the academic decisions about extended time to degree. These are the individuals who are best positioned to work collaboratively with their students to identify and support their need. It centers the students whose academic experience is so important and ensures the future sustainability of doctoral programs.

Rackham will play its role in supporting these activities both academically and financially.  Academically, we are coordinating the planning that I’m describing here, as well as leveraging our full set of academic policies, including our academic resolution policy, which offers mediation mechanisms to support programs and their students. These mechanisms can offer assistance in resolving cases in which faculty, student, and program do not agree on the need for extended funding.  I believe these cases will be rare because of the deliberate, student centered, faculty-led, and Rackham-supported planning we are undertaking. Rackham will also adopt a number of measures to address formal limits on time to degree in our academic policy.

To financially support these activities, Rackham will align its program-level funding mechanisms to the needs of program plans.  For example, as the term progresses, we will announce modifications to block-grant allocations. I furthermore affirm Rackham’s strong, continuing investment in the Rackham Merit Fellowship Program.

This plan was formulated in response to faculty and student concerns originally voiced in the spring. The specific structure of the program was developed after meetings of Rackham chairs and directors held in July. Further details of the plan will be shared with Rackham programs in the week ahead, and Rackham will hold office hours for faculty with questions throughout the fall.

I have covered a lot of ground today. In the spirit of transparency, when we post the video of this event, we will also post the reports and best practices that I referred to in these remarks. We want to ensure that everyone in the Rackham community has access to the proposals, initiatives, and policies.  When the extended time to degree policy has been communicated to graduate programs and finalized, it will be posted as well.

We will also have some time for Q&A today, but I acknowledge that the size of today’s event makes discussion difficult. To that end, we will also indicate a variety of ways to pursue discussion. For students, Rackham Student Government kindly hosts “Lunch with the Deans” events, which have been scheduled in a virtual format for this fall. We will have more of these as needed, and in small enough format that dialogue and intellectual exchange can occur. We will also host comparable opportunities for faculty and staff through our regular forums, which we will set up later this fall.

I would like to conclude by extending my hand to you in partnership as best I can in this virtual environment. Graduate students, and indeed the whole Rackham community—our faculty, staff, and administrators—have been impacted significantly on a professional and a human level by the events of the last six months. The disruption has strained our community. Trust has been depleted, and must be earned, and we are struggling to find common ground. We are, however, an interconnected system, and I believe our best path forward involves working closely together. As we work through our differences, I keep in mind that we do indeed have shared goals. We can navigate this difficult period together. I offer Rackham’s ideas and plans to you today in that spirit, and I hope you will join us in their pursuit in this challenging time. Thank you very much.

View the full video of the State of the Graduate School event.