The University Record, January 30, 1995

Women students tell president about hurdles in graduate school

By Rebecca A. Doyle

President James J. Duderstadt compared his Michigan Agenda for Women to the Michigan Mandate last week, noting that the key to the success of the mandate is “changing not simply the composition of the institution, but changing the way the institution functioned. The key to it is changing the University in a very fundamental way.”

Duderstadt addressed a group of more than 35 women graduate students, but after a few words of background, he spent most of the hour fielding questions and asking for suggestions and direction from students about the issues facing women in graduate school.

“The vision that was put out for the Women’s Agenda was that the Univer-sity of Michigan, by the year 2,000, would become the leader among American universities in promoting the success among women of diverse backgrounds as faculty, students and staff,” Duderstadt said.

“It is very much a grass-roots effort. I want to listen as much as respond. What issues at the University are important to you? Where do you think that institutions like this need to change so that you can better pursue your own particular objectives?”

Women responded by talking about the “Old Boy” network and the lack of mentorship for women, financial aid for out-of-state graduate students, the lack of reward for faculty who are willing to spend time with women graduate students, the lack of funding for women who cannot attend graduate school full-time, and issues of sexual harassment.

Duderstadt responded to a remark about the “Old Boys” network and the way women graduate students are treated differently than men by saying that he had heard similar comments from women staff members.

“In our particular case, graduate education still has a certain feudal character to it,” he said. “You treat your own graduate students in the same way that you remember you were treated, and so it passes down from generation to generation.

“I really do believe there needs to be broader discussion between students and faculty and among the faculty themselves to set certain standards for graduate student treatment.”

Several students agreed that faculty who are not rewarded by their departments for their work with graduate students were not willing to spend time doing it. Faculty across the University should be equally rewarded for their participation with graduate students, they noted.

“It’s particularly difficult when the faculty member really doesn’t have very much experience in how to handle the relationship,” Duderstadt noted. He cited a program at Cornell University in which graduate students in interdisciplinary fields of study are assigned to a committee that supervises the students’ progress from the beginning. “It has been very successful,” he said, adding that the Cornell model had also significantly reduced the time-to-degree.

He also noted that it is becoming more common for graduate students to attend part-time.

“It’s something we ought to look at. What we’re finding is that the number of students that have the opportunity to spend 100 percent of their time in graduate education is declining,” Duderstadt said.

The ultimate responsibility for the progress of graduate students should rest with the faculty and the department chairs, he said, and advocated a system that would track that progress and report it. The ultimate responsibility rests with the department chairs, he asserted.

Several in the audience said that sometimes the department chair is the worst offender.

“Replace them,” Duderstadt said. “This is perhaps the most important responsibility a department chair has. Department chairs can be changed; tenured faculty can’t.”