On March 30, 2020, the Computer Science and Engineering Division hosted a Town Hall to hear student concerns related to diversity, inclusion and under-representation. (Notes on other Town Halls are available.)
All were welcome. The Town Hall focused on issues related to Graduate Students. A subsequent Town Hall to focus on undergraduate issues is forthcoming.
The primary goal of the Town Hall was to inform students and community members. A secondary goal of the Town Hall was to hear and respond to community questions and concerns.
The Town Hall was conducted via online teleconferencing. Participants could ask questions directly or pose and vote on questions anonymously (via a special app). The speakers were Peter M. Chen (Interim Chair of CSE), Emily Mower Provost, Wes Weimer, and Michael P. Wellman (Associate Dean for Academic Affairs). Other faculty and student group representatives were present, including Chad Jenkins, Amir Kamil, the Computer Science & Engineering Graduate Students at UM (CSEG), and The Ensemble of CSE Ladies+ (ECSEL+), among others. The Town Hall lasted for two hours. Peak attendance was 60 participants.
This report chronicles my personal recollection of the events (augmented by two 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.
The Town Hall covered four main topics:
Dean Wellman began by noting that he wished we had had this type of discussion earlier. He acknowledged that it is frustrating to everyone involved to exist in a state of incomplete information pending a firm resolution. He clarified the tension between transparency, privacy and confidentiality, which are all important for sensitive matters. He argued for a balance: sometimes a lack of information is not the same as a lack of transparency.
On the subject of general complaint procedures, he noted that OIE is the main organization for dealing with complains about sexual harassment or discrimination against protected classes. When OIE receives a complaint they make a decision about whether or not to open an investigation. OIE also makes a decision about whether interim measures are necessary to protect students or community members in the future. They look at the complaint and make a determination about what might be a reasonable measure to ensure safety at large as well as for particular people. Dean Wellman emphasized that the protection of students is the most important job for CSE, the College of Engineering, and OIE.
Dean Wellman also highlighted some details of a specific case that has been the subject of many rumors. Based on discussions with that individual, Dean Wellman was able to talk about some of the interim measures that have been taken (following discussions at CSE and UMSI faculty meetings, etc.). He noted that if there is a lack of information about what has been done, people might conclude that nothing is being done.
He noted that when complaints were raised about this faculty member, based on the complaint and during the investigation, OIE determined that this faculty member should be:
Dean Wellman also noted some commonalities held by both the accused and the complainant during such an investigation. To achieve desired outcomes, everyone benefits from following a process. While the current OIE process may admit room for improvement, he noted that going around it is counter-productive. Students who have information about misconduct should go to OIE, go to the College, or go to the C.A.R.E Center which has specific resources to help with that process (and other challenging circumstances). Actions can only be taken in response to reported information: if all of the information is not brought forward, there may not be enough evidence to come to the correct conclusion. Dean Wellman stressed on-the-record reporting as the best way to achieve results.
Presentation slides from Wes Weimer's talk are available. Peter Chen's talk focused on values and philosophy rather than particular statistics or facts about processes. I believe the summary at the top distills many of its main points.
After the faculty presentations, the majority of the Town Hall involved hearing and responding to community questions.
Students asked why a faculty member under investigation was barred from North Quad but not from the CSE building.
Michael Wellman noted that the restriction from North Quad was pursuant to a specific accommodation. It was not imposed by SI or based on opinions of SI faculty.
Dean Wellman also mentioned that students may sometimes feel peer-pressured into taking a side or making specific choices about their graduate careers. He favored shared values that let students make decisions based on their own judgment and interests and be supported in them.
Students asked what Peter Chen sees as the role of the chair in addressing climate problems in the department.
Peter Chen noted that "climate" covers many issues (e.g., lab cultures, student-to-student interactions, outreach, citizenship, etc.). He noted that the chair is only one person and that few things can be done unilaterally. However, he presented it as a key priority touching all other aspects of our mission (e.g., we cannot recruit people if this is not where people would want to be).
First, he believes that the chair sets an example. Second, he believes that the chair sets priorities. For example, he believes we should consider collegiality and climate in hiring and promotion decisions. Third, he believes the chair can help resolve conflicts. In particular, when there is a power imbalance (e.g., between a faculty member and a student) the chair can be an advocate for the person with less power. Fourth, he believes the chair should respond promptly and have good follow-up.
Emily Mower Provost highlighted CSE as a community. She noted that we had been rocked by the revelations in the last few months but that it has been great to see people coming together to work to change and improve things.
The question noted that students in a toxic lab environment can be isolated and may fear retaliation from reporting.
Peter Chen agreed that toxic lab climates are a real dynamic. He personally believes that one-on-one meetings should be done with open doors. We acknowledge that some forms of retaliation (e.g., writing a poor letter of recommendation) are difficult to police.
Michael Wellman noted that there is no toleration for retaliation. People accused of misconduct are told immediately that if they do anything against the complainant it may be viewed as retaliation.
Students noted that it can be difficult to know who to talk to on the faculty or staff.
Peter, Emily and Michael collectively noted Ashley Andreae (the CSE Graduate Program Coordinator), Rackham support for conflict resolution and grievances, and the CSE list of faculty who are not mandated to share information. Wes claimed that it is our responsibility to communicate more clearly.
A question noted that some students may have slipped through the cracks and not been adequately supported.
Wes Weimer approached this question by separating out the issue of whether we have been perfect in the past (for which the answer is "no") to what we plan to do going forward to improve things. He highlighted that Peter Chen has been very proactive about talking to students. In the past there may have been more of a concern about a lack of followup. In addition, we have been proactive about reaching out to people (such as incoming students). Peter Chen noted that we have gone through the list of known students affected by these issues and have been contacting them systematically (e.g., to make sure that they feel well-supported while changing advisors, etc.).
A point was raised that international students face significantly different challenges than do domestic students.
Michael Wellman agreed that there are additional concerns and vulnerabilities for international students and that it is important to protect and empower them. Wes Weimer noted that we did not report every possible breakdown in the survey analysis for reasons of brevity and privacy, but that they are definitely considered at faculty meetings and in faculty discussions, including for issues such as visa status, health care, and a culture of reporting. For example, domestic and international students and men and women students are considered separately and carefully at the graduate admissions level. Anecdotally, fewer proportionally international students seem to feel comfortable meeting to discuss concerns.
Chad Jenkins noted the paucity of underrepresented minorities attending the Town Hall (or in the CSE graduate student body and on the CSE faculty). He observed that punitive justice often seems to be disproportionately meted out against underrepresented minorities. He encouraged us to focus on broadening participation through admissions and hiring, noting that students cannot be harassed if they are never included. He highlighted the importance of both accountability for faculty misconduct but also a pathway for restorative justice and coming together. Emily and Wes echoed his points about not having a perfect solution right now for healing going forward, noting that it is definitely a key issue and that we invite advice and feedback.
A question was raised about how OIE investigations impact promotion and tenure cases.
Michael Wellman stated that if an OIE investigation is in progress, the promotion and tenure case will be paused and will not go forward.
Dean Wellman also addressed the broader question of how DEI and climate issues impact promotion and tenure decisions. He noted that such information cannot be considered if it is not reported. He clarified that if someone is up for promotion or tenure, in order for climate information to be on the record, someone must write a letter to the committee.
He emphasized that you do not need to be invited to write a letter for a promotion and tenure case. Anyone can submit a letter. Finally, he noted that certain types of misconduct (e.g., verbal abuse) are not handled by OIE but can be brought to the College or department directly.
The final question asked how the department would respond if the results of an OIE investigation are not satisfactory to students.
Peter Chen encouraged students to avoid prejudice, noting that they often have only partial information and that OIE will make the best decision it can with the information it has available. He agreed that student unhappiness is a real problem.
Michael Wellman noted that we should prepare for different outcomes and should try to get all parties to be as open as possible afterwords to better move forward.
Wes Weimer noted that we can mitigate these risks at multiple levels: we can mitigate the risk of OIE not having enough information by reporting, we can mitigate the risk of a poor OIE decision-making process by supporting OIE reforms, and we can mitigate the risk of students not having enough information by pursuing transparency.
At the conclusion of the Town Hall, interested students were encouraged to get involved. Thanks were offered to the speakers (Peter Chen, Emily Mower Provost, Michael Wellman) and the graduate student organizers (including Kamran, Loughlin, McDonald and Shearer).