CSE Diversity & Climate Town Hall — Jan 16, 2020

On January 16, 2020, the Computer Science and Engineering Division hosted a Town Hall to hear student concerns related to diversity, inclusion and under-representation.

One primary goal was to allow student concerns, especially those that might not show up in statistical aggregate (such as the Campuswide Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Climate Assessment), to be heard by professors and administrators. Another goal was to shine attention on concerns that might otherwise be overlooked: while some issues (e.g., long office hour queues) are well-known, others may be critical to students but less visible to faculty.

The Town Hall took the form of a panel of professors and administrators answering questions and discussing issues raised by students. Participants could ask questions directly or anonymously (via notecards or a special app). The panelists were Bill Arthur, Chad Jenkins, Joanna Millunchick, Mary-Ann Mycek, Brian Noble, and Wes Weimer. A number of other professors and administrators were present, including Peter Chen, Amir Kamil, and Jeanne Murabito. Multiple student groups, including Computer Science & Engineering Graduate Students at UM (CSEG), The Ensemble of CSE Ladies+ (ECSEL+), Girls in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (GEECS), and ComputingForAll sent representatives.

Attendance was estimated at 40-45 participants.

Picture of Town Hall Attendance

This report chronicles my personal recollection of the events (augmented by three sets of notes taken by different attendees) and should not be considered the official department position. Questions, responses and discussions are paraphrased and any mentions of specific individuals, beyond the panelists, have been elided.

Discussion Topics

The Town Hall was scheduled for one hour but lasted for slightly over two hours. Each panelist gave a brief introduction; some panelists mentioned CSE-relevant diversity statistics. Student questions were quite wide-ranging. A poll near the end revealed near-universal support for additional Town Hall meetings (see the end of this document for logistical changes).

Transparency

In Wes Weimer's personal analysis, the largest overall theme of the Town Hall was transparency. Students felt like they did not know how official decisions were made (e.g., in OIE investigations, in faculty hiring, when making enrollment policies, when changing advisors, when budgeting, etc.). Students felt that best way to communicate was rarely clear (e.g., official reporting processes, information sharing between student groups and the faculty, assessing lab and workplace concerns, etc.).

Students would like input into these processes (because they perceive that critical factors are often overlooked). Students would like visibility into these processes (because they perceive transparency to be easier to trust). Students would like to see outcomes from these processes (because they perceive few changes).

There was particular student interest in noting which issues were raised so that progress could be tracked later.

With respect to terminology:

From an organizational perspective, the purpose of the Town Hall was not to resolve all raised issues immediately; resolutions (usually "None") are listed for subsequent tracking purposes. In most cases the majority of the discussion is elided and only certain high-level explanations are summarized.

GPA and Retake Requirements for EECS 203/280

Students perceive that the 2.5 GPA requirement and two-take limit disproportionately affect URM and lower-SES students. It does not make sense to force students to retake a class without additional resources and with the same assignments.

  • Resolution: None.
    • (An explanation was given about rising enrollment and available resources.)
    • (An explanation was given about which factors predict success in CSE classes.)
  • ELC is Unequipped for CSE Demand

    Students perceive that the Engineering Learning Center is not equipped to handle the demand from CSE. The space is small and high-traffic. The student tutors do not receive information about the assignments. The tutors would like answer keys or to be invited to course staff meetings. Participants also wondered if the appropriate solution was to provide the ELC with more resources or to find non-ELC ways of ways of helping students.

  • Resolution: None.
  • Office Hours Climate

    Students perceive that it is frustrating to wait for hours just to get a few minutes of an assistant's time. Assistants sometimes tell students they are "not working hard enough" or "did not put in enough effort". Assistants may be hired because they can explain topics to faculty, not to struggling students. There are not enough assistants in EECS 203, 280, 281 or 376.

  • Resolution: Partial. Last year CSE began a program of inclusive teaching training for assistants in introductory CSE classes which may help address disparaging comments. CSE also has a program of hiring assistants based on teaching-demonstration videos which has resulted in gender-balanced and high-quality instructional staff who may be better suited to explaining the material.
  • Allegations of Faculty Harassment

    Students expressed frustration with the Office of Institutional Equity process for investigating allegations of abuse or harassment by the faculty. Students noted that they were not allowed to use institutional legal services (since the allegations were against another employee) and often could not afford their own. Students note that anonymous complaints are meaningless but that they risk their careers and mental health by going through the arduous reporting process, especially since many of the questions feel as if they are stacked against the reporter (e.g., "are you sure this was directed at you?"). Students perceive that nothing will happen as a result of the process anyway.

  • Resolution: None.
  • Culture of Overwork

    Students perceive that we need to change the culture away from its current celebration of "grinding" and overwork (cf. work-life balance). While applicable to all, this may be particularly relevant to lower-SES and URM students (cf. imposter syndrome).

  • Resolution: None.
  • "Can We Hire People That Care?"

    Students perceive that many faculty do not care about them. Students asked to be involved in the hiring process (e.g., to evaluate teaching, mentoring and climate). There was a suggestion that some student groups might meet with faculty candidates. There was a suggestion to better leverage student lunches with candidates. There was a suggestion to have DEI panels (like those used when hiring deans) for all candidates. There was also an observation that we should hire professors from places other than the Top Five schools. There was an observation that we should look more to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) when hiring.

  • Resolution: None.
    • (An explanation was given that it may be difficult for a single group to meet with 40 candidates. Hiring laws may require that a uniform procedure be applied to all candidates.)
    • (An explanation was given that some metrics suggest that we are including non-Top Five applicants in the hiring process, but that did not seem to align with perceptions of the makeup of the department.)
  • Capacity and Enrollment

    Students wanted to know the department's plans for dealing with rising enrollment and departmental capacity. Students suggested that virtual sections could be considered more seriously. Students mentioned the School of Information as an example of covering similar technical topics with a better student-to-faculty ratio. Students suggested a more holistic admissions process to the major. Students requested more flexibility in which courses can be taken for a CS degree (e.g., Math, Stats or SI courses).

  • Resolution: None.
    • (An explanation was given regarding constraints: class scaling limits, room and space availability, faculty agreement, desired course quality, etc.)
    • (An explanation was given involving SI's University-imposed limit of accepting only 100 student per year.)
    • (An explanation was given involving the University's funding model and how it might constrain course degree flexibility.)
  • Supporting Students When Faculty Leave

    Students expressed concern that there was no explicit process for supporting students when faculty leave (for whatever reason: wrongdoing, illness, moving to another school, etc.). They noted that this affects undergraduates in classes, PhD students spending multiple years researching with one advisor, as well undergraduate and Master's students doing research.

  • Resolution: Partial. (There was an explanation that measures are taken to find replacement instructors for undergraduate classes.)
  • Workspace Imagery

    There was an observation that other departments and classrooms have images of people, broader researcher impacts, and smiling faces. There was a call for more of a message of inclusion and photos of (representative) people in our building and classrooms.

  • Resolution: None.
  • Discomfort Asking Questions in Class

    Students reported negative experiences asking questions in class. Some professor reflexively treat questions from URM students as less-valid than those from other students. This was perceived as manifesting in brief "why don't you already know this?" disdainful looks. Students noted that you cannot control your background, you can only control the effort you put into learning. Students also reported seeing confrontational Piazza posts or student emails.

  • Resolution: None. (The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) provides the faculty with concrete advice and workshops for DEI-related issues, such as inclusive teaching and responding to difficult moments. They are not required.)
  • Exams Are Too Heavily Weighted

    Students perceive that too great a fraction of a course's final grade is placed on exam performance. Students feel that one bad day can disproportionately affect their grades and that projects are more indicative of internship and job activities.

  • Resolution: None.
  • The Honor Council Process is Frustrating

    The Honor Council (HC) process was perceived as frustrating by students (including former HC members). Students found it to take too long to reach resolution (leaving students with Incomplete grades for long periods). In addition, it was felt to disproportionately affect students from other cultures or first-generation students where expectations regarding collaboration may be different.

  • Resolution: None.
  • Value for Money

    Students reported that they felt like upper-level CS technical electives were not often useful (e.g., it may be possible to skip most of the lectures and get a decent grade by cramming). Students sometimes felt like they were not learning anything useful. At the same time, students found it hard to reconcile "we lack the resources" explanations with their tuition bills. It was unclear to students where their money was going.

  • Resolution: None.
  • Professional Ethics

    Students requested a more serious treatment of professional ethics. Students perceived this to be related to climate. Current requirements related to ethics were found to be inadequate. There was a desire to include more of a focus on "soft skills" (including societal impacts) before the senior year. There were requests to allocate additional personnel to this and to consider it from a civil rights perspective.

  • Resolution: None.
  • Additional Topics

    In addition, a number of questions and topics were raised on anonymous apps or electronic documents but were not covered during the Town Hall proper.

    There was significant interest in many of these topics (e.g., by app vote counts) but even with an extra hour there was not enough time to discuss them.

    Waiting Lists Favor High-SES Students

    Students observed that the current waiting list policy includes AP/IB credit. Higher-SES schools are more likely to offer more AP/IB classes.

    Protecting Graduate Students From Advisor Abuse

    Students perceive that there is no protection for students from abusive (especially verbally abusive) advisors.

    Unclear Reporting Process

    Students observe that the process for reporting concerns is not clear. Students note that even when complaints have been raised to the Graduate Committee, no actions were taken and situations continued. Students may find it difficult to trust a department that lacks transparency in such a process.

    Inadequate Mental Health Support

    Students observe that Counseling and Psychological Services is not useful in practice: waiting times for appointments can reach months. While the department may consider graduate student bodies to address this issue, students favor the department hiring actual counselors.

    Confusion When Changing Advisors

    Graduate students requested additional clarity on the process for changing advisors. They perceive it to be common, but to result in months of fright and anxiety. They request solid guidelines for actions and consequences. Students are particularly concerned with retaliation in which faculty give students a hard time for wanting to switch. Students note that the Graduate Committee is more helpful in finding students new advisors but less helpful in addressing root causes (e.g., professorial hostility).

    Toxic Lab Cultures

    Some students report facing a toxic or hostile lab environment due to peers. Reporting procedures for such concerns were not clear. The required training course on harassment was not perceived to be effectual (e.g., students report that others leave it running in a background window without watching it). Students requested a department plan to address such issues. Students requested a regular review or assessment of lab conditions (including working hours, workloads, expectations and lab culture) and a mechanism to hold faculty accountable for maintaining healthy working conditions.

    Women in CSE Leadership Roles

    Students would like to see more women in leadership roles directly affiliated with CSE. Students observe that multiple recent complaints have come from women students. Women students may have trouble believing that they are heard when women faculty are apparently ignored.

    Graduate Admissions

    Students would like to see more information about the PhD admissions process. Students perceive that our diversity numbers are much lower here than at some other top schools.

    Subsequent Town Hall & Logistics

    During the Town Hall, an informal poll was conducted asking participants if they perceived the panelists to be Sincere or Diplomatic. Participants voted almost unanimously for "Diplomatic".