CSE Diversity & Climate Town Hall — March 17, 2021

On March 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.

Students and community members requested an additional Town Hall in the short term to follow up on issues not addressed in the previous Town Hall. In addition, there were concerns that using pure vote-counting methods to decide what to speak about might limit the voices of members of underrepresented minority groups.

The Town Hall was conducted via online teleconferencing. The organization was slightly different than previous Town Halls:

CSE faculty responding to questions included: Professor Amir Kamil, Professor Emily Mower Provost, Professor Quentin Stout, Professor Wes Weimer, and CSE Division Chair Michael Wellman. The Town Hall lasted for 60 minutes. Peak attendance was 60 participants.

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 majority of the Town Hall involved hearing and responding to community questions. The question phrasing are generally quite similar to those voted on, but some have been reworded or combined for clarity or anonymity.

LGBTQIA+ Concerns

Can CSE provide better training to teachers on LGTBQIA+ issues (e.g., misgendering, pronouns, role models) or technology / remote education concerns (e.g., Facebook revealing trans alt accounts)?Can CSE list of faculty/staff who self-identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community? We don't want anyone pressure to be 'out', but we may feel more comfortable or represented reaching out.

Michael Wellman spoke about opt-in college training, proposals to introduce more training (for faculty, staff, and students), an initial focus on systemic racism, the need to develop community norms on things like pronouns on an ongoing basis, and how people often misgender unintentionally, but it remains important to gently correct people when they do so. Wes Weimer and Amir Kamil discussed whether misgendering and similar issues could be added to the Inclusive Teaching Training provided by Computing CARES. Kamil suggested that encouragement to add pronouns or inclusive support on technology platforms like Piazza could send to departmental mailing lists.

Regarding self-identification and reporting, Weimer indicated that any faculty listed on the reporting page are willing to hear from anyone, but that CSE is adding self-identifying information to that page. There are concerns about potential harassment, so this is being done in an opt-in manner.

Remote Work and International Issues

If I have left the country, am working remotely, later learn that Fall will be in-person, and visa issues (etc.) prevent my return, what can I do? How will CSE handle issues that arise?

Michael Wellman reported the recent university announcement that the Fall would be primarily in person and noted that the topic would be discussed at the next faculty meeting. He expressed a personal view to encourage faculty to allow remote participation, noting that the issue would likely be up to individual faculty discretion. He acknowledged that it is CSE's responsibility to be transparent about which courses require in-person presence vs. which support remote work.

On the subject of potential issues or leeway, Wellman stated that there is not yet a formal policy, but we plan to be transparent about whatever is decided. He noted that much of this policy is at the University or College level, rather than local to CSE. He noted that we do not know the Fall policies for certain, but that the university is likely to encourage everyone to be present.

URM Town Hall

CSE faculty have not gained the trust and confidence of URM (undergraduate) students. Can we consider a separate town hall to address Black and Brown issues across CSE?

Wes Weimer indicated that he is already working with Chad Jenkins and students and student groups (such as ColorStack) on the planning of a Town Hall focused on such issues. Wellman indicated that he would be present.

Graduate Student Tuition

Can you elaborate on when a professor pays a (master's) student's tuition (e.g., hourly work vs. GSRA)?

Michael Wellman indicated that there are no strict rules or established norms. Master's students can be paid in either way, but GSRA is preferable for the student. Students should have a conversation when starting to work with faculty about this, as well as other expectations. Wellman noted that this can include putting things in writing (e.g., "if things go well in this manner, you will be hired as a GSRA"). Whichever mode is mutually agreeable is allowed in the program.

Wes Weimer noted that if you are a student in such a situation and are uncertain about how to phrase this, feel free to talk to me or another professor for advice about how to do so.

Quentin Stout noted that this is a very common question from Master's students and reinforced the points above. He noted that CSE as a whole does not have control over what professors in other departments do, but that the more common expectation is hourly work. He encouraged students to be upfront in working out arrangements.

Faculty and Lab Culture

When some tenured and untenured faculty are found to have toxic labs, evidenced by having students suffer and leave year after year, they are still allowed to continue recruiting new students. Why is this? Is CSE aware of this issue? In what ways can misconduct be handled?

Michael Wellman noted an implicit assumption that faculty have been found to have labs so toxic that people are leaving year after year. He elaborated that CSE has not previously done a good job of identifying whether this has happened, but that we can do a better job going forward. He stated clearly that recruiting students is a privilege, and that CSE does have processes in place for removing privileges. He directly noted that there are cases where people have been told not to recruit, and that serving on dissertation committees is another lever. In follow-ups, he noted that tenure status is not taken into account here, and that, if we identify a strong pattern of toxic advising, the privilege of hiring GSRAs could be used as an additional lever here.

Emily Mower Provost noted a previous suggestion that CSE should conduct exit interviews of students who leave. She noted that we do not currently have this process in place, but that it is being added, including requiring faculty to report when students decide to leave so that they can be interviewed. She agreed that we need to improve our awareness of issues like these.

Wes Weimer noted that he is aware of some toxic lab situations and student concerns. Wellman noted that we have identified some issues, are aware of complaints, and are working to address them, but that CSE has not reached the point of officially declaring a lab to be toxic. When issues are identified, the normal process is to work with the faculty member to improve things. To take action, we need to hear about issues through official reporting channels.

Regarding ways of handling misconduct, Wellman noted that writing a manual of consequences and publishing it is not possible, both because it would be incomplete and also because of legal issues. Issues of sexual misconduct are handled at the University level, while other issues, such as bullying can be handled within CSE. Bad behavior is often handled at the CSE level, leading to conversations with faculty about whether they agree with the complaint and how they plan to improve. Such improvement is monitored by CSE. If improvement is insufficient, a performance improvement plan can be put into place (e.g., at the College level). Wellman noted that these are not common, so there is not a manual. Limiting recruitment can be part of a performance improvement plan. Wellman noted that when he was Associate Dean, he fought to expand what could be part of a plan, including reductions in pay, but faculty objected at the College level. Severe sanctions must be approved at the College level or above.

Annual Evaluations

Why is there not an (at least annual) evaluation for advisors from their PhD students? How would such things be monitored?

Emily Mower Provost noted that CSE is starting to think about what such an evaluation should look like. One option is adding an anonymous feedback section to the yearly review, but this can be problematic for smaller labs. Another is to work with faculty to articulate what their mentoring plans are, so that students can understand expectations. This may help students identify advisors with aligned styles. Mentoring plans may also be helpful for recruiting and to help students understand the requirements and expectations of labs. The Intro to Graduate Research course may include information on this going forward.

In response to questions about monitoring, Wes Weimer noted that CSE hopes such a process would not start out as adversarial. However, such a mentoring plan can be used to provide support for students in advisor/advisee disagreements. Michael Wellman noted that a key aspect of successful advisor/advisee relationships is knowing and trusting each other, as well as shared expectations. Among other things, students help faculty members produce more research, while students receive knowledge, learning and potentially-fulfilling career. Enforcement mechanisms are not what make such a relationship work. He noted that we have to have them, but that things are already going poorly if they are invoked, and thus they cannot be the main mode of interaction.

Student Feedback About Professors

Will you take the lead on making the list of faculty members up for tenure public and provide instructions and retribution protection for students to submit non-anonymous letters for these members?

Wes Weimer noted that there are concerns about implicit bias toward minorities and women, among others, about this kind of feedback, indicating that this had been touched on the previous town hall. He noted that he remains a champion of this, but will want to make sure that we do it right and avoid unintended consequences.

Michael Wellman noted that protection against retribution is always in place, and retribution is not tolerated. One way to maximize protection is by documenting and going through official channels. The first thing the University tells people who are subject to complaints is that retaliation is not allowed, and that they should not try to figure out who submitted the complaint.

The College policy is to allow unsolicited feedback for tenure cases, but this currently happens rarely. Wellman expressed concern about making it a common practice. First, there is a desire to avoid making things into letter-writing campaigns involving people who do not have first-hand information. Too many such pieces of feedback may reduce trust in the process or cause feedback to be disregarded. Other parts of the University, such as LSA, do not have any student letters in promotion and tenure casebooks. Wellman noted that he is willing to answer questions about who is up for tenure.

Changing Advisors

Why is changing advisors so hard? The fear of getting caught seriously deteriorates mental wellbeing, but it's not a crime (right?)! I know this from personal experience and observed in close friends.

Emily Mower Provost noted that changing advisors should not be hard procedurally, even if it is hard emotionally. It involves telling the graduate advisor and having a form filled out by the current and new advisor. She elaborated that there are provisions in place if you are not comfortable involving your current advisor, and encouraged students to approach her. She acknowledged that it can be difficult to find a new advisor and difficult to get GSI positions in the middle of a semester. However, she noted that Rackham has emergency funding available for such situations, and encouraged students to talk to her and others for advising about changing advisors or improving your relationship with your advisor.

Wes Weimer noted that the graduate committee and the DEI committee are good places to ask for advice, and that we all want you to find a good fit. Michael Wellman noted that no one is out to punish graduate students. We want to make this place conducive to your success. He acknowledged that there are power dynamics at play, but that we are not focused on blame.

Next Steps

Thanks were offered to the students present and the speakers. Some of the procedural techniques, such as approaching members of underrepresented groups in advance, may be carried over to future Town Halls. CSE is working with undergraduate student groups to have a follow on undergraduate-focused Town Hall in the Fall of 2021.