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Home » Discover Rackham » Ask the Dean

This is the first in a new series in which, each term, Rackham Dean Mike Solomon will address questions and concerns he’s hearing from the Rackham community. If you have a question for a future installment, please submit it using this form.

How are you talking to students in your lab about the recommendation for students to stay-in-place through February 7?

Mike Solomon: Yesterday, during our weekly lab meeting, I described how there’s this combination right now of being at the darkest point in the pandemic, even as we see the light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccination is coming, but it’s in a slow and deliberate manner, and it’s not going to come to many of us right away. One thing about the variant arising is that it reinforces—even though the pandemic has been so long—that it’s so important for the whole community to remain vigilant. Part of that is just testing, testing, testing. Asymptomatic testing is available to the community, and it’s a really important resource. I have encouraged my students in the lab to make use of the testing, especially with how easy it is to get it done since the university set up the new system in January.

What was Rackham’s role in planning for extended time to degree for doctoral students whose degree progress was impacted by the events of the past year?

MS: The pandemic has disrupted research, scholarship, and degree progress in many ways, and the impact has been highly varied by discipline, and by students’ personal circumstances, academic circumstances, and where they are in their degree programs. We came to understand this from both faculty and students. We held town halls with faculty in April, where this need was initially raised, and my Rackham colleagues and I participated in more than 10 town halls and listening sessions with different student groups over the summer in which that message was reinforced.

Having heard that feedback from both faculty and students, we launched a process in September in which all 105 doctoral programs submitted plans about how to support doctoral students so they can complete their degrees, with a decision that involves the program, the faculty mentor, and the student in need of additional time and funding.

That raises the question of where this funding is going to come from. The way that we’re approaching this is that programs are generating these resources by modestly scaling back on admissions of doctoral students for the next few years. That frees up terms of research assistantships, GSI-ships, and fellowships that are then available to support existing students. We estimate that the incoming doctoral class next year will be about 10 percent smaller, based on the projections that programs have provided. And Rackham is providing additional funding, as well. We’ve provided additional block grants to programs, and we’re also supplementing our support of the Rackham Merit Fellowships.

A key point is just how collaborative this process has been. It’s been a great example of how we can all work together to advance graduate education on campus and meet the needs of doctoral students. I am especially grateful to the graduate chairs, directors of graduate studies, and graduate coordinators who have led this work within their doctoral programs.

What happens when a student and department or program disagree on the need for extended time to degree? What will Rackham’s role be in those cases?

MS: Part of the feedback that Rackham provided programs was to ask them to clearly communicate what they will be doing to support extended time to degree need of doctoral students and what their procedures and guidelines will be to both students and faculty alike. I think that communication, which provides an element of transparency, should help everybody to understand what will be happening in each program.

We acknowledge that in a number of rare cases it could be that the program and the student can’t agree, or that the program makes a determination around extended time to degree that the student doesn’t agree with. Rackham, as the school that provides academic policy for doctoral programs on campus, has a longstanding policy that addresses the resolution of disputes that arise within graduate education. We have reviewed that policy with the Rackham Executive Board, and we’ve added some streamlined procedures to allow Rackham to review any cases in which there is strong disagreement between students and programs. We do this in a collaborative way by asking for input from the student and the program, and then we’ll have a group of Rackham administrators review that information and make a determination as to next steps.

Concerns over policing on campus became pronounced last summer amid demonstrations against racial injustice and the killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people at the hands of police. This issue was also an aspect of the GEO labor action in September. Why did you agree to take part in the work of the Advancing Public Safety at the University of Michigan Task Force?

It’s an honor to have the opportunity to serve on this important task force, which was launched by the provost and the president. I agreed to join because, as dean of the graduate school, I am focused on advancing graduate education and the experience of graduate students on campus. I’ve learned from discussions with graduate students that the question of public safety, about the degree to which students feel safe here, is important to student-centered graduate education and our goals as a graduate school. This is especially true when it comes to students’ mental health and wellness, and also the experiences of Black and other underrepresented students on campus. I think by working on the task force I will be able to serve the interests and reflect the concerns of graduate students I’ve talked to.

Mental health and wellness among graduate students were concerns being addressed by Rackham even before the challenges of the past year. Can you provide an update on the work of Rackham’s Mental Health Task Force following the release of its year one report?

MS: The Rackham Mental Health Task Force was created in the summer of 2019 to take up what is within the graduate community’s domain to address the mental health and wellness of graduate students. I was really delighted by the year one report that the task force provided, which included 10 recommendations that Rackham accepted. They are continuing to work for a second year, at the same time Rackham itself is seeking to advance their recommendations. One thing about the task force is that they’re quite an independent group. They’re very self-organized, and they’ve been advancing the agenda that they see as the right thing to do. Rackham’s approach has been to let them do their work in that independent way.

Among the things that Rackham is doing to try to advance the task force’s recommendations is working to make this group a standing committee of the graduate school that parallels, for example, Rackham’s mentoring committee, MORE. We’re starting to plan for that so that the standing committee will be able to carry on the work of the task force once its works is concluded.

Another piece is that the task force asked us to make mentoring and mentoring agreements more normative in the hopes of making that a prevalent practice across the academy, because the faculty relationship is so important for graduate student mental health and wellness. We’re committed to doing that through what we call Rackham Program Review, which are review conversations we have with graduate programs on a five-year cycle. We’re planning for mentoring and mentoring plans to become a part of those conversations beginning in the fall. At the task force’s recommendation, we’re also looking to ask questions about climate as it relates to mental health and wellness, also as part of Rackham Program Review. Many of you may know we survey students as part of these reviews to understand how students are experiencing graduate education within their programs. We’ll be looking to add some questions that will address this feature of their experience, which can in turn inform our conversation with graduate programs, especially around culture and climate.

All through the pandemic, this task force, and indeed Rackham’s other standing committees, like our Faculty Allies Program and the MORE Committee, have continued their work in very challenging circumstances. I think COVID and the pandemic have made this work even more important because of the isolation, stress, and anxiety students have faced. I am really grateful to the dedicated faculty, staff, and students who have committed their time and counsel to these important topics during this past challenging year.

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