The University Record, February 11, 1997

Students' forum may be harbinger of change

Women graduate students expressed some of the same concerns at this forum in 1995 when then-President James Duderstadt held open meetings about the climate at the University.

By Stephenie Koehn


Some 90 women graduate students braved the inclement weather to meet with Nancy Cantor, dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies and vice provost for graduate affairs-graduate studies, at the Women Graduate Student Forum Jan. 24. Their mutual goal: to explore the myriad issues facing women in graduate school, examine expectations, obstacles, attitudes and rewards, and to begin effecting change where needed and synthesizing an optimal graduate school experience for women at the University.

After a brief introduction by Rackham Program Representative Jayne London focusing on issues concerning women in graduate school, Cantor addressed the group, stressing the need for inclusiveness, diversity and change. She told the women that her mission is "to define Rackham as a place where people from all disciplines, all interdisciplines . . . can come together repeatedly and get a sense of the possibilities out there---academic, lifestyle, career style, social responsibility." She encouraged the students to think of Rackham as a "central University resource, where people from different disciplines, colleges and programs come together to effect change." She emphasized the need to achieve the goal of the Michigan Agenda for Women---a "full and equal partnership" for women at the University. "We are very committed to diversifying the student body," Cantor said.

Following Cantor's remarks, the women broke into small groups, each discussing one of the five issues selected for study: mentoring, increasing faculty-student interactions, graduate student community-building, students with parenting responsibilities, and students in programs where women are underrepresented.

The women shared their experiences, their own and their department's "best practices," information about policies that helped or hindered them, and their ideas for change.

A student in her second year of graduate studies discussing mentoring, for example, said, "I'm not sure what is appropriate to bring to a mentoring relationship."

A third-year sciences student discussing the underrepresentation of women in some programs expressed discouragement, but had praise for the forum. "I've been frustrated, sure, by the lack of other women in my department," she said, adding that she believes the problem begins before graduate school. "Women aren't being told when they're in undergrad or high school" that mathematics and the sciences are fields that are options for women. "This dialogue is good---women sharing similar concerns. I'm looking forward to a continuation of what is happening here."

Others concluded that there must be more emphasis on recruitment of women of color.

From the frustrations and concerns, however, some initiatives for change developed. They include:


Women examining faculty-student interaction, while criticizing the relative lack of such interactions, suggested methods for increasing faculty-student contact, particularly on a less formal basis, such as coffees, potluck dinners, "TV nights," or poster sessions.


Students discussing parenting while in graduate school lamented the absence of University-sponsored daycare for students with children. Then they reported that, in the course of their discussion, they had begun networking a daycare group among themselves. "We're starting an e-mail list for those who need babysitters, too," said the group's spokeswoman. The women also noted that there is no structured maternal leave for students, nor are there any official policies in certain disciplines where reproductive health is at risk. "Our message is: `We have another life outside of grad school.' A lot of faculty have no understanding of this."


Where building graduate communities is concerned, those examining that issue said flatly, "There really isn't one." In the 30 minutes allotted to discussion, however, the group put together five suggestions for remedying the problem, including the establishment of "buddy systems," both at admission to graduate school and during work on theses.

Lisa Tedesco, presidential associate for special programs and associate dean of the School of Dentistry, encouraged the women to apply for research funding through the Presidential New Century Fund for Diversity, a $450,000 diversity initiative.

London will use summaries from each group to prepare a report for Cantor and to share with forum participants.

For more information, contact London at 647-6341, or send e-mail to