Dear Rackham Students,
I write to you at the end of a trying week for our campus community. While I am heartened that the GEO strike came to an end Wednesday night, I fully acknowledge the long road ahead to address continuing challenges around the disruption of COVID-19, anti-Black violence and racial injustice, and abrupt changes in federal immigration policy, among other pressures. With this message, I would like to provide more detail on how I and my colleagues at Rackham and across campus are intently pursuing that work—and to say that we very much value your participation in it.
At the beginning of this week, we held Rackham’s State of the Graduate School via Zoom webinar. As GEO had voted the night before to continue its labor action, I described my respect for student activism and the personal choices of individuals as to how they devote their time and effort. I focused on following through with this important event that we had been planning since the summer because it launched urgent initiatives that meet immediate needs and will engage us throughout the academic year. These initiatives include actions to address critical needs around graduate student mental health, anti-racism goals and initiatives, and planning for extended time to degree due to the intense pressures of the past six months. The full video of the event—including my remarks, a panel discussion, and a period of Q&A—is available now. I’d like to highlight here just a few of the initiatives that were addressed.
Graduate Student Mental Health and Wellness
In June 2019, Rackham established a task force on graduate student mental health as an important response to the observations of our Resolution Office and the advocacy of faculty and students. The task force’s year one report makes a suite of 10 thoughtful recommendations, which I accepted. We will begin work on seven of them this year and pursue others as we move forward.
One recommendation 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. Moving forward, Rackham will work with graduate programs, our faculty led mentoring 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.
Another recommendation 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. 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.
The full year one report is available on the Rackham website, along with a resource created by the task force to provide guidance on principles, approaches, and strategies that mentors and graduate programs can use as they support students. I look forward to further discussion and feedback from the Rackham community as the task force continues in year two.
Anti-Racism Goals and Initiatives
Rackham’s largest single investment 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 longstanding 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. Additionally, our DEI Certificate Program and Leading Diversity and Equity (LEAD) webinar series are receiving strong participation from the Rackham community.
Given the unique challenges posed by the pandemic, we acknowledge that this is a critical year for admissions. As a result, Rackham will 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.
Planning for Extended Time to Degree
The events of the past year have created disruptions in research and scholarship that affect the degree progress of doctoral students in disparate ways. 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 not be 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 throughout the summer.
Rackham is therefore implementing a process in which each doctoral program 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. Rackham will update its Academic Dispute Resolution Policy to resolve cases in which faculty, student, and program do not agree on the need for extended funding.
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 students to identify and support your need. It centers the students whose academic experience is so important and ensures the future sustainability of doctoral programs. The full plan, which has been shared with graduate program chairs and directors, is available now.
Many additional topics were covered at the State of the Graduate School event, which I hope you will be able to watch. They join other actions taken by Rackham over the past year, including extended deadlines for candidacy, dissertation, and graduation requirements, and expanded criteria for the Graduate Student Emergency Fund, from which we have disbursed more than $800,000 dollars in the past year while approving over 80 percent of requests to support more than 400 graduate students during this difficult time. Similar policies are in place for the 2020–21 academic year, and you can find them on our continually updated COVID-19 resource page. They were developed in large part due to feedback we heard from Rackham graduate students and the organizations who represent you. We have scheduled and will create additional opportunities for discussion and exchange in the months ahead.
Partnering to Meet Difficult Challenges Together
As we move forward, I would like to reemphasize the importance of our values as a graduate school in guiding us in these efforts. This academic year has seen profound differences of opinion—among students, among faculty members, among staff members, and among administrators. An institution like Michigan thrives on the discovery that emerges when we engage and challenge one another, and benefits from a diversity of perspectives and experiences. To be productive amid earnest intellectual exchange, we must remain committed to maintaining a space for others to hold different viewpoints, in a spirit of collaboration and mutual responsibility. We rely on our academic community as a place in which its members feel free to express themselves, both personally and in their scholarship, and in which they are supported in their academic progress.
As I noted in my remarks on Monday, I offer you my hand in partnership. The whole Rackham community has been impacted significantly on a professional and a human level by the events of the last six months. The disruption has strained our community. 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 in that spirit, and I hope you will join us in their pursuit in this challenging time.