Last Thursday, a Daily viewpoint written by Associate Rackham Dean Peggy McCracken extolled the virtues of the Rackham Graduate School’s proposed continuous enrollment policy (More guidance for graduates, 03/02/09). According to McCracken, the proposal represents a common sense way to improve faculty mentorship of graduate students and cut the 33 percent drop-out rate of Ph.D. students at the University.
Yet in a survey conducted last month by Rackham Student Government, 807 of the 1,241 graduate-student respondents who knew of the proposed policy thought it would affect them negatively. We graduate students may be notoriously paranoid about administration. But this time, we have good reason.
The truth is this: Rackham’s continuous enrollment proposal is fatally flawed. It is poorly designed without meaningful input from the students and departments that it purports to help. Administrators are using laughable arguments to support it. And we must stop it.
Continuous enrollment is simple in theory. Many Ph.D. students who have completed coursework and taken preliminary exams have a status called detached study, which means they’re not officially registered and don’t pay tuition. Many of these students conduct research at locations far from Ann Arbor. Continuous enrollment would require all graduate students to register each semester. Rackham Dean Janet Weiss claims the policy would result in no changes in financial aid — tuition for all candidates would be cut to free up funding for tuition waivers for candidates on detached study.
Weiss and McCracken have argued repeatedly that having students enrolled at all times increases Ph.D. completion rates and decreases the time to degree by creating a closer relationship between Ph.D. students and their advisers. These arguments are reasonable — except there is no empirical evidence supporting them.
On its website, Rackham links to a document entitled “Doctoral Degree Completion: Conceptual Framing” to support its proposed policy. The document, developed by the University’s Center of the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, stresses that inclusive faculty-student interactions, adequate funding and other research and healthcare support for graduate students have improved completion rates.
The logical course of action would be to directly address the underlying problems of inadequate funding packages by developing effective faculty mentoring programs — especially for culturally marginalized students — and expanding mental health services. Instead, Weiss and McCracken express the naïve belief that requiring advisors to certify their students are enrolled every term will magically tighten the advisor-student bond and increase completion rates. Yet in February, when an organization of graduate students called Continuous Enrollment Working Group (of which I am a member) sent Rackham a letter with specific questions challenging the scholarly support of Continuous Enrollment, the reply ignored our questions and instead offered empty platitudes about continued communication.
This attitude has been typical of Rackham administrators throughout the process. Far from “benefitting greatly from numerous discussions with students, faculty, program directors and chairs,” as McCracken blithely claims in her viewpoint, the development of the program has been conducted in an arrogant, top-down fashion with little involvement of the students who continuous enrollment claims to help and faculty who will have to make the program work.
The Rackham Advisory Board approved the measure with little advance notice on Dec. 10, conveniently at the end of the fall term. Weiss announced the decision on Dec. 17, which stunned many graduate students with concerns about the proposal. To this day, although she has met with representatives of CEWG, Weiss has refused to provide substantive written answers to questions from concerned students, instead referring us to the empty rhetoric of Rackham’s website.
But despite its aura of inevitability, we can still stop the continuous enrollment steamroller. On April. 16, the University Board of Regents needs to approve tuition changes that make the policy work. CEWG has already signed up a pair of speakers to oppose the policy at the meeting, but we need more. With the support of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, CEWG will be staging a protest prior to the regents’ meeting. Show up and make your voice heard. Talk to your GEO Steward for more information. In addition, talk with your faculty advisors and department chairs about this policy and encourage them to express their concerns to Rackham. Finally, contact the nine regents (http://www.regents.umich.edu/about/regents.html) and let them know your views.
Together, we can force Rackham to abandon this ill-considered policy change. Then, Ph.D. students, faculty members and Weiss can all sit down as equals and develop a policy that adequately addresses the needs of students.
Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at email@example.com.