Rackham hosted its fourth annual State of the Graduate School event on Thursday, September 15, 2022, in the Rackham Building. For the past four years, Rackham and its graduate programs—in the midst of a pandemic and many other challenges—have pursued a future vision of graduate education that is student centered, faculty led, and Rackham supported.
This event served as a campus update on those efforts. Dean Mike Solomon began with this brief address reviewing Rackham’s initiatives and plans for the coming year. Breakout sessions then sought feedback on these initiatives, along with ideas for new directions to investigate.
Good afternoon. I am Mike Solomon, the Rackham dean. I welcome you to today’s event. It’s so wonderful to see you all here today. Although we must continue to be vigilant about COVID, I am already enjoying this opportunity to convene together as a group to pursue our shared interest in graduate education. There’s been a few events like this one in the past few weeks, and I have enjoyed all of them. One I’m thinking of was Rackham’s Fall Welcome for new graduate students in late August. We filled the first floor of Hill auditorium for that event. In addition to hearing advice from Rackham student leaders about launching their graduate journey, we also arranged for the marching band to show up and play. The new Rackham students do need some practice singing the fight song and saying “Go, Blue!” which I think probably bodes well for their future as researchers and scholars.
Rackham Fall Welcome is an annual tradition. This event today – in which we focus together on the future of graduate education – is also becoming an annual tradition. This is the fourth such event, and we have sustained it across the pandemic. Three years ago – in 2019, event before the pandemic – I introduced at this event a collaboratively formulated vision for graduate education at the University of Michigan. I described the vision as student centered, faculty led, and Rackham supported. Its central focus was to reimagine the academic experience of Rackham students. It described a future in which the graduate faculty incorporate the past experiences, current priorities, and future educational and career goals of individual Rackham students into how they develop curriculum, engage in scholarship, and approach mentoring in the graduate school.
With the participation of graduate faculty, staff, and Rackham students, we launched several initiatives to address some of the major ongoing pressures facing graduate education. These pressures include – among others – the public distrust of higher education, the needs for more flexible training to realize the expanded range of career opportunities available to Rackham graduates, and the toll of academic stress on student well-being.
I am grateful to the many faculty, staff, and students who have joined with us to engage in these initiatives, especially amid the pandemic and other challenges of the past two years. Whether you have been at one of our previous State of the Graduate School events, are new to this event, or are even new to the university, thank you for attending today.
Our goal for today is to learn about the status of graduate education on campus, to create an opportunity for each of you to provide feedback about the graduate school’s plans and directions, and for us to collectively generate new ideas for graduate education. We’ll be accomplishing this primarily through dialogue in small group discussions hosted by my associate dean colleagues. So we can get to the main event, I will try to be brief, although the words “dean” and “brief” are words that aren’t often paired together.
I would first like to highlight four of our focus initiatives for the year ahead, which the associate deans will describe in more detail as part of the breakout sessions I mentioned. Each of these initiatives is ongoing, and I am spotlighting them today because they are works in progress. They will benefit from your knowing about them, and, indeed, from your joining us in realizing them.
Graduate Student Mental Health and Well-Being
The first to launch was our initiative to support the mental health and well-being of Rackham students.
In June 2019, through a grassroots initiative spearheaded by Prof. Meghan Duffy from the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, Rackham created a Graduate Student Mental Health Task Force. The unmet need to support graduate student mental health and well-being is amply documented by the experiences of both students and faculty—and by research. For example, our own Michigan Doctoral Experience Survey indicates that several measures of student well-being progressively decline in each year of the Ph.D. program. This calls for attention and new ideas.
To that end, faculty, staff, mental health professionals, and students worked collaboratively on the task force to develop plans for Rackham to pursue. This work has now transitioned to that of a standing committee, with expertise and experience available to advise Rackham in an ongoing way. Let me highlight three outcomes of these groups. First, during the pandemic, the task force issued a working resource with practical tips for faculty seeking to support students experiencing mental-health and well-being challenges during their graduate training. Second, and with the support of the committee and Rackham staff, individual departments are developing resources to advocate for mental health and well-being among the faculty, staff, and students in their programs. We are grateful to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Civil and Environmental Engineering for participating in this pilot and look forward to welcoming more programs. The third step the committee took was to recognize the centrality of faculty to the support of students in doctoral and master’s studies. In acknowledgment of that centrality, the task force recommended that Rackham establish expectations for mentoring plans among doctoral students.
Mentoring Plans in Doctoral Education
That recommendation relates directly to our second major initiative, which involves the creation of mentoring plans between graduate faculty and their graduate mentees. Many of you may know of Rackham’s faculty mentoring committee, the MORE committee, which was established over a decade ago. The MORE committee – composed of faculty colleagues and supported by Rackham – reads the literature about best practices in mentoring and integrates that with their own experience as mentors. The outcomes have been resources and workshops that help faculty and students have the initial two-way conversation about working together that can result in a mentoring plan that gets the mentoring relationship off to a good start. Last year, I announced that Rackham will expect that all Ph.D. programs develop a requirement that faculty and doctoral students in their programs create mentoring plans. We are introducing this expectation through Rackham Program Review, which every program undergoes on a five-year cycle. We have just begun the second year of this five-year effort.
The Rackham Doctoral Intern Fellowship Program
The third initiative is the Rackham Doctoral Intern Fellowship Program. Rackham has rigorously tracked doctoral career outcomes of our graduates for more than 10 years and made these publicly available at the program level on the Rackham website. We know that our doctoral graduates are finding employment in a range of different sectors. Indeed, more than 50% of them find careers in industry, government, and non-profit organizations outside the academy. Given these career outcomes, I believe that our students must have the opportunity to apply their scholarly expertise in non-academic settings as part of their graduate training. We have thus launched the Rackham Doctoral Intern Fellowship Program to support students in valuable internship experiences. Through internships – funded through the generosity of our alumni and donor community – doctoral students can explore how to use their academic and research skills in a range of sectors. Last year, we supported about 40 internships; we are on track to annually fund 100 in the next few years. At the same time, Rackham believes that its graduate programs have a responsibility to acknowledge the broad range of career outcomes available to their doctoral students and to tailor their curriculum, training, and degree progression accordingly. We are actively engaged in helping facilitate this change within doctoral education.
Holistic Admissions in Graduate Education
Finally, we have launched a new effort to support holistic evaluation of applications in admissions decisions. I think we are all united in our shared interest to offer access to doctoral education to the fullest range of creative, skilled, and motivated individuals. These are the people who make our doctoral programs the best that they can be. To accomplish this, we need to eliminate barriers that prevent candidates from applying to our programs. We also need to make holistic admissions decisions. By articulating the goals of the degree program, we can determine the specific qualifications, skills, and potential that we seek in the students we admit. We can evaluate these different dimensions holistically to assemble a portfolio of admissions offers that collectively achieves the degree program’s goals. This is challenging work. Success will free us from some of the old habits that have historically limited us in identifying talent and potential. These habits include, for example, overweighting admissions decisions by the reputations of letter writers, of institutions, and countries of origin. This project is linked to last year’s decision to end the use of the GRE general test in doctoral admissions, but it in fact has the potential for impact that is even broader than that decision. It is supported by our Holistic Admissions Consultation program, through which Rackham consults directly with programs about their goals for the degree and how best to use admissions practices to achieve them.
Each of these initiatives is fully launched and has made significant progress. But none of them is fully configured. All are long-term efforts of the graduate school. We welcome your feedback in the breakouts as well as your own perspectives on what we should take up in the future.
Launching This Year
To close these remarks, I would like to describe two other important themes that you will be hearing more about in the coming academic year.
The first is our launch of an effort to write, discuss, and ratify a statement of values, privileges, and responsibilities of the Rackham graduate faculty. These are the faculty who do the work of graduate education at Rackham. They teach graduate courses, mentor graduate students, and serve on dissertation committees. They include the tenured and tenure track faculty, as well as research faculty, clinical faculty, and lecturers in Rackham programs who serve on dissertation committees.
Rackham has long honored the most skilled, generous, and creative graduate faculty among us through the establishment of mentoring awards in doctoral and master’s education. Since the awards’ creation in 2007, more than 170 faculty have been recognized with these awards. This is work that we nearly uniformly believe in—the graduate faculty invest deep effort in performing the work of graduate education in ways that are thoughtful, thorough, and individualized. Through the years, Rackham’s research has confirmed that the character of the multidimensional relationship that graduate faculty have with their students—as teachers, mentors, and advisers—contributes significantly to the quality of their graduate experience and success.
Why should we adopt a statement of our values and responsibilities as graduate faculty? There are several reasons. We want new faculty joining us for the first time at the University of Michigan to understand what our culture of excellence in graduate education means specifically. We want a positive statement of our values to inspire and guide our own day-to-day work in graduate education. Through the work of writing a collective statement, we will be accountable to each other. The values that we will establish will defend against the rare but heartbreaking reports of the misuse and abuse of the faculty-student mentoring relationship. These values will furthermore directly support our efforts to create climates in programs and in the graduate school that do not tolerate sexual misconduct and gender harassment in graduate education at the University of Michigan. Finally, this work is an important complement to the professional and academic standards that have already been established for Rackham students.
Therefore, this academic year, and after consultation and feedback from the Rackham community, I plan to propose to the Rackham Executive Board – the elected faculty governance of the graduate school – that they amend their bylaws to include a graduate faculty statement of values, privileges, and responsibilities. This statement will have been drafted by means of input from the faculty chairs and directors of Rackham programs. I will seek feedback from graduate faculty, staff, and Rackham students by a variety of mechanisms that I will announce in mid-October, right after fall break. Please look for further communication from me about this important effort to establish a statement of the professional standards of graduate faculty.
I would like to conclude with a brief, personal reflection on our current moment. Over the last few weeks, some of you have heard me emphasize how important building a sense of belonging and community is to Rackham and its students. I spoke about this when I welcomed Rackham Merit Fellows to campus in August. I spoke about it at Rackham’s Fall Welcome the Friday before classes started. Students find community in many ways at an institution as big and varied as ours – through their program’s incoming cohort, in their lab groups, through student organizations and affinity groups. Students make connections with senior graduate students, with postdoctoral fellows, and with faculty through shared participation in seminars, Rackham interdisciplinary workshops, and other academic events. Students rely on graduate coordinators and other university staff.
Unfortunately, many of our default ways of creating a sense of belonging and community have been severely disrupted by the pandemic and the challenges of the past two years. And although I have seen many hopeful signs since the term began, our community is not back yet. We now live in a new, hybrid world. There are significant benefits that the flexibility of virtual interactions offer us going forward, and I think we would do well to take advantage of them. COVID, of course, continues to be present, and we will need to adjust our mode of work or engagement as necessary for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we can no longer expect community and a sense of belonging to emerge on their own, especially in this hybrid environment. Community, that is, must be intentionally created. This requires all of us to recognize the deep value of in person activities to further our shared goal of engaging, learning, and connecting. It also requires us to think carefully and creatively about how we can pursue that goal in new ways that befit our new reality. Together, as graduate faculty, staff, and students, we must be purposeful in extending ourselves to build our community. This is a great challenge that we all should take up in the upcoming year.
Rackham’s event today is all about recognizing the challenges that face us. It’s about highlighting our progress toward meeting those challenges. And it’s about continuing to share ideas to help us achieve the vision we launched in this room in 2019. In a few moments I will invite you to convene for informal discussion and feedback about Rackham initiatives. Where to go, what the topics are, and who will lead these discussions is on the slide behind me. Afterwards, please join us for a reception in the Assembly Hall, where we can celebrate the start of the new academic year in each other’s company.
Thank you very much for joining us today.