Courtesy of George Weykamp

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Results from a survey sent to the Computer Science and Engineering department this past summer identified varying comfort levels among those within CSE, a competitive and isolating environment and concerns about discrimination within the department. 

The “Toward The Future” survey aimed to assess the current cultural climate of the CSE department. The survey received responses from just under 800 participants after being sent out to more 9,000 students, faculty and alumni in June. There was a higher proportion of women and Asian American students who responded to the survey as compared to the total CSE population. 

Lawyers Kerin Kaminski and Karen Giffen conducted the survey out of the law firm Giffen & Kaminski in Cleveland, Ohio, which was part of a larger committee known as the CSE Climate Assessment Committee (CLASS). Kaminski and Giffen reviewed the results of a survey at a virtual meeting open to the CSE community Tuesday evening.

CLASS was formed in February after CSE faculty members signed an open letter requesting that the CSE administration administer funds to hire a third party to assess improving community culture and climate in light of the sexual misconduct allegations against Peter Chen, a former CSE professor. 

CSE has also faced misconduct allegations against CSE professor Jason Mars, who is currently employed despite student pushback, and former CSE professor Walter Lasecki, who resigned effective Aug. 30. The allegations against Lasecki also prompted some within CSE to draft a second open letter in May to department leaders demanding greater transparency.

Giffen said the survey results showed that 45% of CSE community members were “not at all” confident that CSE would take the appropriate action if they were to report harassment to the department. Only 38% were confident, Giffen said. 

“One of the uniformly held views is regarding the prior publicized claims of sexual misconduct, 55% of the participants felt the information about those claims was not handled appropriately,” Giffen said. “Only 15% thought that the information was handled appropriately, and the overall tone of the 280 narrative responses we got regarding the higher publicized claims was upset, angry and displeased with the method or timing of the information that was provided.” 

In terms of sexual misconduct and discrimination, Giffen said that while the vast majority of students reported having never been discriminated against, there were some worrying trends. 

Of those reporting discrimination, Giffen said 25% said they believed it was due to gender identity and 50% reported that it was due to racial or ethnic identity. The overwhelming number of individuals reporting instances of discrimination said the discriminatory conduct was either by an undergraduate student or by a faculty member at CSE, Giffen said. 

“There were four categories in which there were 10% or more individuals who said they experienced discrimination, (such as) being singled out, experiencing derogatory remarks, bullying (and) unfair grading,” Giffen said. 

Kaminiski discussed results pertaining to how CSE members felt they were valued and treated in terms of group settings. According to Kaminski, there were vast differences along gender and sexual identity lines. 

“Women and other gender identities indicated feeling less valued and respected than did men,” Kaminski said. “As to being treated with respect and opinions being respected by their peers, other sexual identities rated their agreement lower than did heterosexuals.” 

According to Kaminski, there was also a great disparity between CSE community members who felt very satisfied or satisfied with community culture versus community members who felt very dissatisfied or dissatisfied. According to the results, 41% of community members rated being satisfied with the culture while 35% responded that they were dissatisfied. Kaminiski said this trend also seemed to repeat itself in subsequent survey questions.  

“There was a variance in the participants’ opinion of the overall climate that we see continued throughout all the responses, really, there was a wide gap,” Kaminski said. “We’ve got it spread out across the continuum as to whether people are generally pleased or not pleased.” 

The survey also found that the vast majority of CSE students viewed the culture as competitive and isolating, with 82% of respondents saying they strongly agreed or agreed they felt the environment was too competitive and 47% strongly agreed or agreed it felt isolating.

In addition to finding the environment competitive, Giffen said many students were dissatisfied with the attention faculty provided to students, both in and out of the classroom. 

“53% said that they were satisfied (with faculty attention); however, 36% said they were dissatisfied so, again, we have that marked difference between two different groups within CSE,” Giffen said. “Another question was asked (about) how well generally the faculty communicated with students outside the classroom. 49% agreed that that faculty communicated well outside the classroom, but 21% disagreed or strongly disagreed with that.” 

Tuija Pulkkinen, CLASS and Climate and Space Department chair, ended the meeting by saying CSE needs to make an effort to rebuild trust within the department. 

“It is heartbreaking to see how (much) impact these cases of misconduct (have)…. not only on those who have experienced misconduct, but on the much wider community,” Pulkkinen said.

Daily Staff Reporter George Weykamp can be reached at gweykamp@umich.edu.