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Home » Discover Rackham » Dean’s Remarks at the Rackham Graduate Faculty Fall Welcome

Good afternoon. I’m delighted to welcome you to the Rackham Graduate Faculty Fall Welcome. Thank you for joining us. Although our main event today is conversation and fellowship, I’d like to take a few moments to briefly reflect on the status of graduate education here at the University of Michigan, as well as around the nation.

My first comment about the status of graduate education is really a comment about you, and your joining us today. The Rackham Graduate Faculty are over 3,000 strong; faculty do the very individual work of mentoring and educating graduate students, both master’s and doctoral.

Included among the 3,000 faculty are those like you, who devote the time, interest, and energy not only to their individual responsibilities, but also to thinking about graduate education as a shared and changeable enterprise. I believe that graduate education is a system of relationships and practices that can be identified, analyzed, and improved; by virtue of the service you give to Rackham, you likely share that belief. One of my goals for today is for you all to meet each other, and to recognize and thank you for the work that you do to make graduate education better at the University of Michigan.

My second comment is that I am optimistic about this moment on campus. Any thoughts about graduate education would certainly be incomplete without an acknowledgment that we have just emerged from a tough six months, involving a GEO strike and contentious bargaining. Our ability to enter the fall term with an agreement lifts a cloud that had been hanging over the new academic year. I know that there is healing and repair we need to attend to, and it’s important not to forget that. But a smooth entry to the fall term—besides a few IT issues—allows us to again focus on some of the big picture topics that we’ve been moving forward the last few years. It’s those big picture developments that make me optimistic and excited.

One such topic is a project I’ve had the great pleasure of working with the Rackham Executive Board on over the last three years. It is a statement of the values, privileges, and responsibilities of the Rackham Graduate Faculty. We will have the formal rollout to the campus of this in about one month on October 19th, but I’d like to give you a preview today.

This topic has a long history at Rackham, with roots in the pioneering work of MORE, Rackham’s faculty committee on mentoring. I see several current and former members of the MORE committee here, and likely nearly all of you know that through steady, persistent work, the MORE committee has elevated the discussion and practice of graduate student mentoring at the University of Michigan. I think this elevation is the most important development in culture and climate at Rackham in a generation. The elevation of mentoring has many benefits. When faculty today agree to bring a graduate student into their lab or agree to serve on a dissertation committee, they do that in an environment that has some features that would have been perceived as unusual when I was a graduate student a generation ago. The current environment increasingly supports the ideas that:

1) The faculty-grad student relationship is as much about the research as it is about the education and development of the graduate student scholar.

2) The relationship can depend on the personal characteristics of the individual student and faculty. That is, each of their identities, aspirations, and goals might potentially impact the what as well as the how of the scholarly project the pair pursues.

3) And finally, good mentoring is a capacity to which we ought to aspire as faculty. Much like the capacity for teaching and for research, capacity for mentoring is something that we can learn about, talk about, improve upon, and generally value in our community.

The third point is critical. It’s an implicit statement of what we value. The project I’m describing began by asking a simple question: Why not make such values of the graduate faculty explicit? To engage in graduate education at the university is both a privilege and a responsibility. It seems worthwhile to establish our values, especially so we can describe them to new members of our community. Values are a positive statement of our desired culture and climate. The statement of the values, privileges, and responsibilities of the Rackham Graduate Faculty represents the professional standards to which we should aspire and was formally adopted by the Rackham Executive Board at the end of the last academic year.

In a nutshell, the statement highlights:

1) academic freedom and the free pursuit of learning and research

2) adherence to high standards of scholarship and ethics

3) inclusive, equitable, and consistent treatment of students

4) support for academic progress and student well-being

5) promotion of an environment free of discrimination and exploitation

6) and cooperative and productive interactions within the Rackham community

This is a positive statement, but because it is a responsibility and privilege to be a member of the graduate faculty, the Executive Board also created an accompanying process to address allegations that a graduate faculty member has seriously failed to uphold these standards. Sanctions that may result include suspension of Rackham Graduate Faculty status.

Please watch for the full Rackham community announcement in October. Many of you—through your various roles—have had a hand in this important work, and I thank you for all your input.

The second topic I would like to address is the assault on the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion that I see happening across the nation. It includes legislation and policy in other states that attempts to constrain what can be taught in the classroom, as well as what institutions can offer to educate and train faculty, staff, and students outside the classroom. In a parallel development, there is also the recent decision by the Supreme Court. This decision rules out previously allowable admission practices to promote diversity as a compelling interest of higher education institutions.

I think you know that Rackham has a history and tradition of valuing the diversity of our students as an essential dimension of excellence in graduate education. In addition to our recruitment efforts, we are just as committed to sustaining an environment in which members of our community feel valued and welcomed so that they can pursue their goals once they arrive.

An important thing for us to understand is that the impact of these national actions on our campus is limited. In the first instance—the restriction on DEI teaching and training—this is because we have a Board of Regents and state that is supportive of our DEI work. In the second instance, higher education in the State of Michigan is already constrained by Proposal 2, which bans the use of race, gender, and national origin in admissions and financial aid. Thus, the new Supreme Court ruling does not affect our legal landscape.

So, the work that we do as an institution to create access and opportunity for all individuals is unaffected by these national developments. The work we do to correct practices that have excluded individuals from our institution based on race, gender, and class are unaffected by these developments.

And that’s my chief message at this moment. Our values around DEI continue unchanged. Our interest in access, opportunity, and excellence continues unchanged. And our compelling interest to create a diverse cohort of students by application of holistic admissions practices continues unchanged.

On the other hand, scrutiny at this moment has increased. Peer institutions seem to be adopting approaches that are more risk-averse than the ones we have spent more than a decade advancing. At Rackham, we will continue to authentically—and legally—pursue our compelling interest in diversity. To advance this approach to inclusive excellence in admissions, I do seek your help. Rackham’s approach is to forefront:

1) Holistic admissions practices. I think faculty generally seek to integrate multiple criteria in admitting students. But there’s room to articulate those criteria more clearly, to tie admissions to the goals of the degree, and to use admissions to generate a cohort of students rather than a forced ranking of applicants based on a single measure.

2) Second, we will continue to use the Rackham Merit Fellowship as a foundation for advancing access and inclusion. The Michigan constitution requires us to use criteria for selection and admission that are neutral with respect to race, gender, and national origin. Even given that constraint, there is still much we can accomplish. The RMF program enriches graduate education by including those who are underrepresented with respect to their first-gen status, familial income, geographic underrepresentation, and their commitment to diversity. These are the criteria of the RMF, our largest fellowship program at Rackham, and one that we will continue to invest in and optimize because it advances our compelling interest in diversity and access. This investment and optimization come as the result of a recent self-study, external review, and consultation with graduate chairs and directors in the last academic year. This work has been accomplished by Rackham’s Partnership for Access, Community, and Engagement team—the PACE team. PACE team members are here today.

3) I would also like to continue and strengthen Rackham’s support for faculty in their departments as they do the important work of admissions. The responsibility for admissions is in the hands of program faculty and will remain in their hands. To support that responsibility, faculty can learn more about key frameworks for this work as well as what the law requires and allows of them. This is especially true given that the membership of faculty admissions committees is continually changing. Rackham has several programs, including admissions workshops and admissions consultations available to support you. This year, we will also be reminding Rackham admissions committees of their responsibilities around the privacy of information in applications, the need for holistic admissions, and best practices on the implementation of Proposal 2.

I know I’m now keeping you from conversation and refreshments, so my last topic today will be brief. It is the cost of graduate education. This is a complex topic that in this year I’d like to learn more about your views. This is not only about the recent adoption of the 12-month funding model for the Ph.D. degree, but also about how we should understand the cost and benefits of graduate education to the University of Michigan.

To frame this conversation, I think any discussion of costs must clearly address who covers those costs. In Ph.D. funding, we are rightly proud of the funding guarantees and stipends that we provide to our Ph.D. students. At the University of Michigan, Ph.D. support—that is payment to students of stipend, tuition, and benefits—is a more than $330 million dollar enterprise. Who covers those costs? Ultimately, in all cases, it’s the graduate faculty in programs who cover these costs. Faculty generate that funding through the grants that they write. Those grants create GSRA positions. They generate that funding through the undergraduate curricula that they offer in their departments. Those curricula create GSI positions. Rackham plays a role here too. Our endowment and financial aid funds are about 15% of the total. But the other 85% clearly demonstrates the centrality of faculty effort in funding graduate education. I think the centrality of faculty effort should receive more attention than it does currently. To me, it implicitly shows that there is effort and hard work expended to cover those costs and that there are perhaps some tradeoffs to be considered, too.

In addition, in any conversation about costs, let’s also keep in mind the benefits. There are benefits to students of graduate education. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that our graduates pursue fulfilling careers, increasingly in all sectors of society. They have among the lowest unemployment rates of any degree type. There are benefits to faculty as well, especially in working with junior scholars to create and disseminate new knowledge, discoveries, and publications.

There is more discussion to be had about these costs and benefits. I look forward to engaging with you further, perhaps even later today.

This afternoon I’ve highlighted three critical roles of faculty in graduate education. They were mentoring and climate, access and admissions, and graduate education’s costs and benefits. I hope my remarks have left you with a sense of how Rackham can support you in those critical activities, as well as my optimism about our direction as a university and graduate school.

Of course, there’s more that Rackham is engaged in. For example, launching this year will be a new office to support postdoctoral fellows, created in partnership with the Office of the Vice President for Research. We are performing needs assessments to support both international and master’s students. And we are moving forward with early work on an interdisciplinary teaching and problem-solving initiative. The Rackham deans and staff leading this work are all here today. Additional programs and initiatives will be rotating on the slide carousel. Please engage with me and my colleagues if you’d like to learn more.

I’d be happy to take questions. Thank you very much.