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Home » Discover Rackham » Remarks by Dean Mike Solomon at National Symposium on Graduate Education

I am Mike Solomon, dean of Rackham Graduate School. I would like to welcome those of you from across U-M and from around the country to this symposium and to thank you for taking time from your regular routine to come together as a group to learn, discuss, and develop solutions for the pressures currently faced by graduate education both nationally and here at the University of Michigan. By coming together today, I believe that we can identify the challenges and opportunities that we face. We can generate creative ideas about plans and initiatives that we as graduate faculty, graduate programs, and the graduate school can carry forward.

Before we begin, I would like to point out a couple of important items: In the Rackham Building, men’s restrooms are located on the east side of the building, and women’s restrooms are located on the west side. In addition, there are gender-neutral and accessible facilities located on the third floor. Also, all of our speakers and panelists have microphones, and we will have lots of audience discussion today. I ask that everyone use the microphones we will offer you, so that all can be heard.

Today, I would like to engage you as members of the University of Michigan graduate faculty. As graduate faculty, you have the ability to shape graduate education, particularly with respect to the future direction of curricula and training in your programs. To the degree that graduate education should respond to current pressures and future opportunities, it is you as the faculty of the graduate school who are positioned and empowered to make that change.

Today’s event is titled “Advancing New Directions in Graduate Education,” and I am excited to see where the day’s discussion leads us. Some of you may have heard me speak previously about why I feel there is a need to explore new directions and about the current challenges that we face.

  • About how in doctoral education, there are increasing pressures on the apprenticeship model that has been at the core of Ph.D. research, training, education, and scholarship for more than a century.
  • How at Rackham about 60 percent of our doctoral graduates pursue careers that differ significantly from the kind of tenure track positions that their mentors hold.
  • How there is increasing public skepticism about the value of higher education generally, and graduate education specifically.
  • How the pace of change in research-based master’s education has accelerated.
  • How our efforts to welcome a diverse population of students into our graduate programs necessarily requires us to pursue the individualization of our training models, and to create inclusive programs in which all students feel a sense of belonging and experience the opportunity to fulfill their potential.
  • How we need to better understand and respond to the challenges of graduate student mental health and wellness.
  • And how we must act against instances of misuse and abuse of the graduate student-faculty mentoring relationship.

I anticipate that our morning panelists will explore some of these challenges, and there is no doubt that they are difficult ones. At the same time, I’d like to open this symposium with a sense of optimism.

So many of the issues that our society will face in the next half-century are grounded in the need for inquiry, evidence, research, scholarship, and engagement across difference and with wider public communities. The graduate students who we train have skills, experience, and knowledge that are essential to addressing these issues. In fact, I would argue that it’s simply a missed opportunity if those trained with advanced skills in research and scholarship use them only in the academy.

Because of the intensity of the pressures it faces, I expect that doctoral education and training will figure prominently in today’s discussion. However, it’s not our exclusive focus, and especially in the afternoon sessions, I welcome your consideration and discussion of opportunities for master’s training. At the same time, please know that Rackham is also organizing a separate, focused discussion about research-based master’s education. More news about that will come to you soon, as part of our long-term work here at Rackham.

I want to acknowledge that there is significant concern about faculty capacity and equity in undertaking the kind of work in which we are engaging. The university community should indeed be asking questions about who is doing the work of changing graduate education. These are questions about who steps up to engage in this labor, as well as how we reward this work, especially with respect to tenure and promotion. Rackham has been pursuing new ways to directly support faculty and their new ideas. Examples of these models include the faculty leads of our Michigan Humanities Emerging Research Scholars Program, and faculty on our Mentoring Others Results in Excellence committee. These teams of faculty have stepped forward to take up the work of recruiting and mentoring, respectively, and Rackham compensates them accordingly. Rackham will continue to provide assistance and partnership to develop ideas and move them forward, through our staff expertise, our research-based data and understanding, our cross campus connectivity, and our funding.

I also want to acknowledge that our work today here interacts with funding models at the university, particularly for doctoral education. The University of Michigan – campus wide – values full funding of doctoral education, because we know from research that this is the primary factor that drives student degree completion. It creates the space for students to pursue high quality scholarship, secure in the knowledge that their offer of admission spells out the funding support available to them as they make good academic progress. At the same time, this funding itself is largely generated by the university and its graduate faculty. This funding is GSRA support from the research grants that you write and GSI support from the undergraduate and master’s curricula that you offer. I have heard from you that this funding can create misalignment between faculty interests and of student-centered graduate education. While we at the graduate school cannot resolve this issue alone, Rackham is trying to explore other funding models by deeply engaging alumni and friends who might express their philanthropic interests in support of graduate students and their research.

These issues of faculty capacity and doctoral funding are clearly major and require more work to be done; I am calling them out now so that even as we naturally discuss and understand them in our disciplinary contexts, we do not allow them to dampen our enthusiasm to generate the new ideas that we might pursue here—at the University of Michigan and in the short and medium term—while we simultaneously work on these two long-term issues that are of institutional and national scope.

I also ask that you keep your students in mind as you pursue conversations today. Speaking personally for a moment, my most recent efforts to change how I work with my doctoral students have been driven by frank discussions with them about what has worked well during their time here and what hasn’t. For example, in the last two years I have changed from being a mentor who had never supported a student to pursue an internship during doctoral studies to one for whom every student has done such an internship. Why the change? My doctoral alums shared with me the ways in which these internships had benefited them. Now, both my academic and industry bound students are pursuing doctoral internships because what they learn will benefit them along whatever career trajectory they pursue.

As we pursue this work, we should ask, “How are student voices contributing to the conversation about the future of graduate education?” Indeed, in Rackham’s broader multi-year effort, student voices are at the forefront, through, for example, the town halls we hold each term, the longitudinal Michigan Doctoral Experience Study, and our engagement with Rackham Student Government. Whether you are here today as a student, staff member, faculty member, or administrator, you are very welcome. I believe that your engagement is critical to our campus plans. The goal of today’s symposium is to create a moment in which you all can learn, discuss, and exercise agency around the direction of graduate education in your programs specifically and at Rackham broadly.

Here’s how I imagine the arc of our day. In the morning, we will engage with our distinguished guests. They will offer their views on pressures and opportunities through their own organizational and disciplinary lenses. I expect we’ll have the chance to learn about what is happening elsewhere and compare this to what is happening here. We might learn of new ideas that are working elsewhere. The emphasis here is on dialogue and conversation.

In the afternoon, graduate faculty will divide into disciplinary groups for more in-depth discussion. We’ll have four disciplines: Humanities and the Arts; Social Sciences; Physical Sciences and Engineering; and Biological and Health Sciences. Staff and students will also have their own breakout session. You’ll be able to refine challenges and opportunities, and locate them specifically in your disciplines. I hope that your breakouts will lead you to new ideas and potential actions for graduate education that are student-centered and which can be faculty-led and Rackham-supported.

At the end of the day, each of the disciplinary divisions and the staff and student breakout will have the opportunity to describe where their conversations took them. I am truly excited by what those directions might look like. Here’s a little of what I’ve been wondering:

  • Will your conversations take you in the direction of new experiential opportunities, like internships that are organically incorporated into the academic curriculum of the program?
  • Will any of the disciplines be excited by the possibility of co-mentoring models for doctoral education?
  • Will any of you question the universality of the pre-candidacy, qualifying, and candidacy phases of the degree, which are deeply embedded in historical academic policy?
  • Will you reimagine the kinds of courses that first-year graduate students experience?
  • Will some disciplines propose to pursue new interdisciplinary, client-based collaborations that bring together students to work deeply on complex problems?

Rackham will work with you in the coming months to develop, support, and act on ideas that are surfaced in today’s symposium. I truly don’t know where you’ll take us today, which is why I’m so looking forward to our discussions and their outcomes.

I now would like to begin our first panel, which I’m very much looking forward to. As we begin, I would like to acknowledge that we had originally planned to have Provost Martin Philbert take part in and moderate this panel. As you are likely aware, President Schlissel has placed Dr. Philbert on administrative leave in response to allegations of sexual misconduct, and pending the results of a full and thorough investigation. That investigation is ongoing; I will therefore moderate today’s first panel.

I address that change in moderator in light of our continuing commitment to create a campus that is equitable, inclusive, and free from sexual harassment and misconduct. This ongoing work is particularly important to today’s conversations and discussions. It interacts powerfully with the mentor-mentee relationships that are at the core of my and Rackham’s understanding of how students experience graduate education and training.

I would now like to introduce our distinguished guests for our first panel discussion on challenges, priorities, and opportunities for graduate education.
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