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Graduate Education

LSA and Rackham have agreed to collaborate on initiatives that will have a positive impact on our graduate students with regard to several dimensions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We feel these are representative of best practices happening now on our campus, and many of the initiatives build or expand on pilot programs that are relatively new, while others are a commitment to a new direction. We seek to grow this collaboration with Rackham over the next two to three years, particularly in ways that involve graduate students and departmental faculty.

Preview Weekends

In recruiting students to U-M, we find that when students come to Ann Arbor to experience the vitality of the campus, meet faculty and potential graduate student peers, attend courses, and visit research labs, it helps prospective applicants envision themselves at U-M for graduate school. Several LSA departments have hosted visits for the past few years as a way to expand their applicant pool. These “preview” events include a recent collaboration between LSA and Rackham for two of our graduate programs: astronomy and earth and environmental sciences. Over the past two years, the astronomy/earth preview event hosted 48 student visitors in total, resulting in 21 applications: four from the October 2014 event who applied for fall 2015 admission, plus five more who applied for fall 2016. From the event in October 2015, 12 applied for fall 2016. For cohorts beginning in fall 2015, four students were admitted and three matriculated. The upward trend for applications is encouraging. The success of this event has led LSA and Rackham to discuss expanding this program to include departments in each of LSA’s three divisions so that we can use economies of scale to host more students. A keynote presentation and a “how to” workshop on applying to graduate school would be the plenary sessions, with each department taking their individual prospective students back to the department to meet with faculty and graduate students, visit labs, and learn about research being conducted by faculty and graduate students. In fall 2016, LSA also supported Chemistry’s M-CORE campus visit, an event similar to Preview weekends. The department continues to be enthusiastic about the outcomes and serves as a model for other departments interested in bringing students to campus prior to application.

In the humanities, a different approach may be needed, such as a visit that focuses on a topical area spanning multiple departments (all who are interested in prison writing, for example) rather than specific disciplines. This approach might allow students to determine where their interests are best situated once they apply and can highlight our interdisciplinary prowess.

One of the very real challenges students of color face when they come to Ann Arbor is that they do not encounter enough students who share their backgrounds or who have had the same life experiences. Introducing prospective students (of any race or ethnicity) to diverse students on our campus may have a greater impact when there are 50 students at an event versus only a handful at one smaller departmental event. Scaling up the preview weekends will help alleviate the problem of small numbers. The visiting students must be competitive for the graduate program, and therefore the department’s direct involvement in selecting the students is critical. The entire department should be aware of the event, including the admissions committee members who will see applications as a result of the visit.

In discussing the rationale for the second annual astronomy and earth preview visit, one of the department chairs conveyed that the focus on recruiting for the preview visit caused them to raise the bar for the department’s entire recruitment strategy. Our faculty, students, staff, and campus facilities clearly convey the strength of our programs to visitors. Hosting an organized, welcoming campus visit will create a positive buzz for additional prospective applicants in the future.

Engagement with Minority Serving Institutions

In fall 2015, there was a two-day meeting on our campus with leaders from Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) hosted by the vice provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion and by the Rackham Graduate School. As a result, there is momentum to learn more about existing partnerships on campus. LSA and Rackham would like to build upon the idea of collaboration between faculty and students, specifically with minority serving institutions.

This will involve sharing contacts more systematically, leveraging existing relationships, and creating better ways for programs to make connections. Rackham is interested in creating a list of departments that have effectively established collaborative relationships in order to share best practices. The data collected as part of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion strategic planning process will allow us not to reinvent the wheel, but instead make an assessment of what has already been done, learn from what is working, and create new partnerships where it makes sense. Not all relationships are bilateral; we recognize that both U-M faculty and graduate students have a lot to learn from MSIs as well, and our hope is for deep learning opportunities for our students as well as sharing our knowledge with partner schools.

A possible activity between the partner institutions is the design of a 3+2 or 4+1 program with a Minority Serving Institution. MSIs may be particularly interested in sending their students to U-M for a 4+1 master’s program, which would allow the student to spend time at U-M over the summer and part of the regular academic year before returning to their home institution to receive the bachelor’s degree, similar to Accelerated Master’s Degree Program or Sequential Undergraduate/Graduate Studies programs on our campus. Upon graduation from the bachelor’s degree program, students would return to Ann Arbor and complete a master’s degree in the fifth year. Other types of collaboration could include exchanges for teaching—including graduate students—and certainly faculty research collaborations. Campus visits similar to those done at Oberlin and Kalamazoo as part of the CRLT/Rackham Preparing Future Faculty program and the Mellon postdoctoral fellowships program could expose students from U-M to HBCUs, HSIs, and tribal colleges. Likewise, students from those institutions could visit U-M to better understand what it’s like to work at an R1 institution.

This type of relationship building takes time. Mutual interest and trust must be established after many conversations and visits, and of course be based on evidence of successful connections between students and faculty. Likewise, successful relationships can fall apart based on one bad misstep, especially if a student is perceived to be poorly mentored or unsupported. Taking steps to learn what we are currently doing and creating new ideas based on measured success can be mutually beneficial for a long and successful partnership with diverse institutions.

Diversity, Admissions, and Continued Supports

Some faculty are hesitant to address diversity because of their uncertainty regarding the legal landscape under the State of Michigan’s Proposal 2, prohibiting discrimination and preference on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, and national origin in public education, public employment, and public contracting. Faculty and staff who manage admissions for their graduate programs are afraid of running afoul of the law when it comes to recruiting and selecting students for their programs. They lack the information about what is permissible and what is not, and they need to be assured that they can be proactive recruiters while complying with the law.

To help dispel some of the myths surrounding this legal change, Rackham held a workshop for faculty serving on admissions committees as well as their graduate program staff members in fall 2015. The event drew a total of 72 participants between two sessions across all Rackham programs. LSA plans to reinforce the need for this type of training for our admissions chairs and committee members. The training involved a review of the Prop 2 legal landscape and covered holistic admissions review as well as understanding unconscious bias, similar to STRIDE workshops. There was also a discussion about the use of the GRE in graduate admissions. Potential follow-up sessions could allow for a continued conversation with the admissions chairs on topics such as recruitment events (LSA currently participates in four recruitment events for graduate students annually) and the value of summer research opportunities, such as the Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP), the Michigan Humanities Emerging Research Scholars (MICHHERS) Program, and Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs). Promoting the outcomes of various Rackham initiatives, such as the faculty diversity allies, will allow for sharing best practices in recruiting, admissions, and the retention of current students in graduate programs.

It is also important not to lose sight of the importance of continuing support for students once they are on campus. Many students who are older, first generation, or international students struggle within the climates of their departments. Connecting people across department lines to other students interested in similar topics, such as the Black Humanities Collective, provides a broader community of scholars and is especially helpful when the number of students is small.

GSI Training for Controversial Conversations

For GSIs who teach courses covering topics related to diversity, classroom dynamics can often present a challenge. Students may bring very different viewpoints and experiences regarding topics related to gender, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, disability, sexual identity, and sexual orientation, and some may be uncomfortable discussing these topics or encountering viewpoints that are very different (whether they are expressed by peers or in assigned readings). Moreover for all instructors, emergent national and world events sometimes spark classroom discourse that is unexpected. The speed at which news stories are disseminated makes it more important for instructors to be prepared to address such issues as they arise. Additionally, there may be GSIs of color or female instructors who find their authority challenged in the classroom, especially during conversations related to race, ethnicity, or gender. For these reasons, we believe that specialized training in pedagogy related to DEI may help instructors transform such conversations and classroom dynamics from challenges (or distractions) to teachable moments. When instructors are prepared to deal with these issues, they can defuse comments that make some students feel attacked or marginalized and improve the experiences for students in their classrooms.

LSA plans to provide specific training to our Graduate Student Instructors by partnering with such colleagues as CRLT and IGR. We plan to develop programming for GSIs that gives them the tools to confidently manage discussions that are open and respectful of multiple perspectives. Such currently offered seminars as CRLT’s “Climate in the Classroom” and “Leveraging Student Diversity in the Classroom” address these issues but need to be more visible to students. CRLT and IGR’s jointly offered “Diversity and Inclusive Teaching Seminar” covers a range of effective strategies, including ways to address student conflict and resistance in the classroom, and it provides time to practice implementing these skills as part of the seminar. We have heard students express interest in managing controversial topics during other LSA training offers, such as during our collaboration with the CRLT Players on sexual harassment prevention. The Players’ repertoire also includes sketches that focus on dealing with conflict and difference that we can draw on as well to provide a comprehensive slate of offerings to GSIs. We hope to make classroom discussion instructive yet respectful of multiple points of view through a range of programming currently available, evaluating gaps, and offering new training that prepares graduate students to navigate difficult classroom conversations.

Supporting International GSIs

The 2002 Provost’s Task Force on GSI Testing and Training recommended expanded pedagogical and language support for international GSIs. ELI, in collaboration with CRLT, has taken the lead on this training for international GSIs in LSA. Partly in response to anecdotal reports that international GSIs are experiencing hostility and micro-aggressions in their classrooms similar to those reported by students from underrepresented domestic populations, in winter 2015, ELI collaborated again with CRLT to assess international GSI perspectives about the supportiveness of their work climate and the resources available to them as instructors. This assessment included a web survey, focus groups with international GSIs, and interviews with faculty and staff from five LSA departments who work with GSIs.

The final report indicates general satisfaction on the part of international GSIs and their departments with the resources provided to them by the University, the College, their departments, CRLT, and ELI, as well as opportunities to enhance and expand this support. All ELI resources were rated highly, in particular ELI 994, a pre-service required ELI-CRLT course for GSIs whose undergraduate education was not conducted exclusively in English. However, international GSIs, faculty, and staff in departments all reported a lack of awareness of the range of ELI resources, indicating a need for better outreach on the part of ELI.

In terms of climate, the vast majority of international GSIs expressed high levels of holistic satisfaction with the LSA teaching climate and generally agreed that students treat them with respect. However, when asked specifically about climate for members of their own social identity, international GSIs were less likely than residents to report that GSIs of their race/ethnicity, nationality, and immigration background were respected at U-M. Both international and domestic female GSIs were less likely than males to rate the climate as favorable to their gender, though this discrepancy was greater among resident females. Both domestic and international GSIs cited workload, lack of departmental support, and lack of teaching experience as challenges to success, yet international GSIs also included climate issues of language and cultural differences and managing student expectations as additional burdens. In focus groups, international GSIs described numerous examples of such bias, and they also reported this disparity caused them a good deal of anxiety and stress. Interestingly, among international GSIs, the average overall climate rating was higher among those who had taken ELI 994, which includes explicit instruction in teaching techniques designed to overcome cultural barriers, indicating the potential for additional training to positively affect climate. Interviews with faculty and staff revealed that departmental perspectives on climate varied widely, with the most positive estimation of climate in departments that described multiple leadership positions held by international GSIs and extensive efforts to cultivate strong peer support networks.

Despite recent progress, focus groups and departmental interview participants reported ongoing, frequent resistance from undergraduates to GSIs due to “language.” This result points to a need not only to ensure that international GSIs are receiving the language support they need, but also to educate undergraduate students about the importance of being able to function in linguistically diverse environments as well as the benefits to them of having access to the diverse backgrounds and experiences of GSIs from different cultures. Initiatives in this area could include efforts to incorporate language diversity workshops into new student orientations. Efforts could also be undertaken to build connections across the undergraduate-GSI divide.

An example of this connection is the Co-Mentoring Program sponsored by ELI and SLC, which pairs international GSIs teaching in the gateway STEM courses with SLC undergraduate peer tutors and study group leaders who are supporting those same courses. Other recommendations are to build connections between study abroad students and GSIs from those countries and encouraging undergraduate-GSI collaborative teams to apply for competitive funding to support language diversity and climate initiatives.

This report also highlights a need to conduct additional research to better understand undergraduate attitudes toward international GSIs in LSA and how these may affect the teaching climate. Finally, the report’s finding that undergraduate student bias is a source of stress and threat to the competence of international GSIs indicates a need for further research into undergraduate attitudes toward international GSIs. Such efforts to promote a climate more open to linguistic and cultural diversity have the potential to improve the teaching and scholarly experience of international GSIs and to thus enhance the quality of undergraduate education in LSA as well.