CSE Diversity & Climate Town Hall — February 17, 2021

On February 17, 2021, the Computer Science and Engineering Division hosted a Town Hall to hear concerns and feedback from the community. (Notes on other Town Halls are available.)

All were welcome. The Town Hall focused on issues related to Graduate Students.

The primary goal of the Town Hall was to hear and respond to community questions and concerns. A secondary goal was to inform students and community members.

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 panelists were: Michigan Engineering C.A.R.E. Center Director Angie Farrehi, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Joanna Millunchick, Professor Emily Mower Provost, Professor Wes Weimer, and CSE Division Chair Michael Wellman. In addition to the panelists, others present, including Char Jenkins, Amir Kamil, and Atul Prakash, among others, also contributed. The Computer Science & Engineering Graduate Students at UM (CSGE) organization volunteered moderation support. The Town Hall lasted for 60 minutes. Peak attendance was 100 participants, including roughly 80 students and 20 faculty and staff.

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.


The Town Hall consisted of an introductory presentation followed by panel responses to participant questions. Presentation slides are available.

  1. Wes Weimer presented information on climate- and DEI-related activities since the last graduate-focused Town Hall eleven months prior.
  2. CSE Division Chair Michael Wellman spoke. He emphasized an open door policy to graduate student groups and respectful, straightforward communication among adults.
  3. Professor Wellman read a statement regarding a case of accused misconduct by a faculty member, and results of the university investigation into those allegations. He elaborated that the investigation included reaching out to all parties and reviewing documentation and evidence, resulting in no finding of sexual misconduct, harassment, or other violations of university policy. Speaking personally, he acknowledged the hurt and harm associated with this situation, regardless of the findings. He highlighted the disruption and uncertainty to students and research groups, noting that all graduate students of that faculty member had been provided with funding and advising options. He noted that the College is conducting a study of the situation and how to better address student concerns as they arrive. CSE is willing to facilitate discussions with that faculty member, he noted. Finally, while some took actions during this investigation that were counterproductive, he discussed how students may have felt afraid to disagree or pressured regarding their connections, calling for respect for the process and the individuals involved in such cases. The full text of Professor Wellman's statment is available.
  4. The panel addressed questions. Topics included wellness and wellbeing, research group culture, allegations of misconduct, and trust. (Details below.)

Presentation Slides

Presentation slides from the Town Hall introduction are available.


After the faculty presentations, the majority of the Town Hall involved hearing and responding to community questions. With a few exceptions, the student moderator posed questions in order of popularity (e.g., by anonymous votes). The question phrasing are generally quite similar to those voted on, but some have been reworded or combined for clarity or anonymity.

Wellbeing and Mental Health

I am feeling sad, isolated and unheard. It is hard to focus on work and be productive. Most people I know feel the same way. What will CSE do to improve things?

Wes Weimer reiterated CSE and Engineering support of student wellness and briefly mentioned efforts to survey students and give advice to faculty based on those findings. Michael Wellman offered solidarity and stressed the importance of understanding your own situation and getting the help you need.

Angie Farrehi gave a substantial response, highlighting resources available in general but with a focus on how students might be feeling in response to recent issues associated with sexual misconduct. She discussed SAPAC, noting that many students have indicated that they want to contribute to improving the community. SAPAC has new circles focused on restorative justice; these are small (e.g., at most ten people) and are facilitated by a SAPAC staff member with no reporting obligations. No faculty will be present in the student circles. The explicit plan is to take results from the circles back to the faculty and others to take action. She discussed CAPS as a good place to start for one-on-one support, highlighting it as a safe, confidential space to talk. She discussed the Engineering CARE Center, noting that it provides broader resources, including communication with faculty (without details) for students who may need additional support in the classroom (e.g., additional time for an assignment). She also noted that for urgent issues, there are CAPS counselors on duty 24 hours per day and Psychiatric Emergency Services (PES) are available.

Laboratory and Research Group Culture

Faculty members whose labs have a high percentage of student dropouts (due to fostering a toxic lab environment over several years) face zero consequences. Why isn't this taken more seriously?

Michael Wellman clarified that there are, in fact, very real consequences for mistreating graduate students. In particular, he highlighted that for every promotion or tenure case, the CoE and CSE Executive Committees carefully consider how faculty treat graduate students and that there have been multiple instances where promotion was denied because of this. In addition, he noted that other consequences are possible, describing that some faculty members cannot recruit new graduate students because of known issues.

Wellman also noted that the focus, in the past, was on finding the student a new home or advisor quickly. Going forward, he argued that we need to better about addressing the problem of underlying behavior. He outlined the need for more and clearer reporting pathways, as well as help from the students.

Associate Dean Mary-Ann Mycek suggested that CSE could institute exit interviews to find out why students leave. She has seen this be useful in other contexts, providing a potential model. She acknowledged that the reluctance to share information can be hard to overcome, but emphasized the importance of communication and transparency.

Emily Mower Provost encouraged students to reach out to us if they know anyone encountering these issues: CSE may not understand these issues well enough. She noted that she does talk to students who are leaving to understand why and agreed that formal exit interviews would be useful. She described the importance of rebuilding trust, continuing the conversation, and finding a shared path together for our community.

Wes Weimer noted that many students have come to him about advisor problems and he has focused on finding them new homes, acknowledging that he has not done a good job of following up on underlying issues, and apologizing for that failure.

Allegations of Faculty Misconduct

The Chair said that a faculty member was found by OIE to have not committed any violations. Is it that he was found to have not committed a violation, or that there was no finding either way?Given that the statement mentioned removing alcohol and instituting boundaries, it seems there were other events even if no policy violation was found. Does that faculty member accept responsibility for those actions?

Chair Wellman clarified that he had written the statement but that the content was based on an agreement worked out with the faculty member. It was an iterative process. For any public statement to be made, the professor had to release CSE from our confidentiality obligations. As a result, Michael Wellman could not say more about the specific case. However, he did clarify the OIE process, noting that the standard of proof and judgment is a preponderance of evidence to determine if one or more of the University Policies (Standard Practice Guide, SPG) had been violated.

He acknowledged the follow-on questions but noted that he could not answer them in this forum. He emphasized that many such questions need to be answered by that professor.

Community Feedback on Faculty

Please create a public list of when faculty members are up for tenure/promotion, and how students can submit (optionally anonymous) letters detailing concerns.

Michael Wellman noted that CSE has not, in the past, publicized who is up for promotion or tenure, but that we are not prevented from doing so. The process starts in April and feedback is collected over the summer. We do solicit student letters as part of the process and cannot take into account anonymous feedback in this process. We may not end up making the list public but can provide the names to those who ask. Wes Weimer asked if it might be possible to convey a list to a student group (e.g., a CSEG meeting) as a compromise, and Michael Wellman agreed that that might be possible. Atul Prakash asked for clarification that even a signed letter would still be protected and all steps would be taken to avoid retaliation, and Michael Wellman agreed, noting that all such letters are confidential and are not revealed (e.g., unless through subpoena).

Amir Kamil noted that the discussions around the wording of the recent Open Letter considering publicizing that list as one of the recommendations, but ultimately chose not to in response to significant concerns about implicit bias against minority faculty. He argued that we do not feel like we understand the negative consequences well enough to recommend this action.

Chad Jenkins underlined the dangers of bias in such a process. He noted that unpopular does not necessarily mean improper, and that an implementation would need to be very careful in the evaluation process to distinguish between the two.

Rebuilding Trust

The Open Letter did not include concrete dates or deadlines. What has been done about the actions proposed there? Why might some not have signed the letter?

Wes Weimer indicated that there has been rapid motion even though the letter did not include deadlines. Dean Alec Gallimore came to the CSE faculty meeting the same week the letter was published to directly discuss the next step, including the rapid formation of the CSE Climate Assessment Committee (CLASS) a committee to carry out an external, independent assessment and make recommendations. He noted that there has not yet been similar movement on the training proposal in the letter.

Michael Wellman observed that it was remarkable how quickly the responses came together given the complexity of the situation. He noted the letter started before the allegations against Professor Chen were know, but was accelerated in response. He attested that it was quite positive that the faculty and community were able to come together on the letter despite disparate opinions on how to improve things.

Emily Mower Provost emphasized that there are many reasons why someone might not have signed the letter. For example, there may have been different individual reactions to the allegations based on relationships to the accused, individual past experiences, and even the short time frame.

Angie Farrehi noted that the restorative circles focus on collaborative healing for everyone in the community. She emphasized that it may take some time to get through this, and that we may not be able to get everything we want: for example, it may not be possible to avoid difficult conversations.

Next Steps

Thanks were offered to the students present, the speakers, and the undergraduate student organizers. There was significant interest, even immediately after the time slot, in a subsequent graduate-focused Town Hall. Some expressed interest in more discussions focusing on faculty sexual misconduct, others favored discussions of mental health and wellbeing, and others expressed a desire to ensure that we hear from marginalized or underrepresented groups (e.g., not always using a popular vote to select questions). CSE is working with graduate student groups to have a follow on graduate-focused Town Hall in March.