Interconnected challenges over the past year have substantially impacted the ability of many doctoral students to make progress toward the completion of their degrees. Among the issues students have faced are a lack of access to laboratories, libraries, and fieldwork; restrictions on human subject research; travel prohibitions; interruption in research progress due to unexpected caregiving responsibilities generated by the pandemic; and impeded scholarly progress due to stress and uncertainty.
In recognition of concerns voiced by faculty and students over the COVID-19 pandemic and disruptions related to racial injustice and abrupt changes to federal policies, Rackham Graduate School worked with graduate faculty and staff in the fall term to formulate plans for doctoral programs to offer affected doctoral students additional time and funding to complete their degrees. All 105 doctoral programs submitted plans that have been reviewed by Rackham and are currently being communicated to students and faculty.
“I believe that this plan is the right response to the historic pressures of the moment. It centers the students whose academic experience is so important and ensures the future sustainability of doctoral programs.”
—Dean Mike Solomon
“Rackham is committed to degree completion by all graduate students, and our policies and practices have long supported variable time to degree,” says Rackham Dean Mike Solomon. “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. The planning for extended time to degree in these extraordinary circumstances is a natural and necessary outgrowth of these approaches.”
Programs will help balance the costs of additional time to degree by reducing admissions in coming years and by making funding available from different sources, including leveraging departmental and school fellowship funding. In addition, Rackham has committed $2.5 million in supplemental funding this year dedicated to extended time to degree plans. The graduate school has also augmented its continuing investment in the Rackham Merit Fellowship (RMF) program—geared toward promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in graduate education at U-M—through $4.5 million over the next two academic years to support its commitment to the co-funding of these students. Rackham has adapted its academic policies to support program plans by extending winter term deadlines to file dissertations and relaxing overall limits on time to degree. It has also updated its Academic Dispute Resolution Policy to resolve cases in which faculty, student, and program do not agree on the need for extended funding.
“As programs make these plans, it’s important to focus on holistic admissions to promote and ensure diversity and excellence, consistent with our values and DEI goals at Rackham,” says Ethriam Brammer, Rackham assistant dean for DEI initiatives. This fall, the school published guidance to support graduate admissions committees in responding to the possible impacts of COVID-19 on fall 2021 admissions, and held faculty workshops on holistic admissions and evidence-based practices.
Solomon says that the decision to extend funding will be a collaborative one between the faculty mentor, the doctoral student, and the graduate program. He anticipates that these policies will be in place for up to five years, as students have been affected at different points in the course of their studies. He adds that doctoral programs are pursuing admissions reductions in thoughtful, measured ways. A few programs will apply admissions moratoria in the coming year, while many others are planning modest reductions in the size of first year doctoral cohorts over the next three years. Based on the plans submitted, Rackham projects that first-year doctoral enrollments will fall by about 10 percent next year.
“I believe that this plan is the right response to the historic pressures of the moment,” Solomon says. “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 needs. It centers the students whose academic experience is so important and ensures the future sustainability of doctoral programs.”