In a pitch to the University’s Board of Regents on Thursday afternoon, Rackham Dean Janet Weiss gave an overview of ongoing efforts to institute a highly contentious continuous enrollment policy for the University’s Ph.D. students.
The proposed continuous enrollment policy — initially rolled out through preliminary discussions nearly two years ago — would require all Ph.D. students to enroll and pay tuition each semester from matriculation to graduation, unless on an approved leave of absence. The policy is expected to take effect next fall for all Ph.D. students, pending approval of a tuition reduction by the Board of Regents, which would be part of a revamped tuition pay structure for Ph.D. students.
One concern with the proposal expressed previously by students, faculty and individual regents is that the policy would limit the time graduate students could spend on personal leaves of absence to one semester. In an interview Thursday morning, Weiss told the Daily of revised plans to more broadly approve leaves of absence in more situations than originally proposed, though some reasons would continue to not be approved.
The changes quelled concerns previously brought forth by some regents. Regent Julia Darlow (D–Ann Arbor) questioned the policy when it was presented to the regents at their April meeting. At the time, Darlow voiced concerns about whether a student could take multiple maternity leaves before completing their degree.
At the April meeting, Regent Larry Deitch (D–Bingham Farms) told Weiss and Provost Teresa Sullivan he thought the proposal may be unfair and would not affect all students proportionately.
“I remain concerned about those graduate students who have to go off campus to further their research because of the nature of their work,” Deitch said in April.
Deitch also said, “This may be particularly disadvantageous to women.”
However, after Weiss’s presentation to the regents on Thursday, Darlow said she no longer carried the same concerns she expressed in April because she felt appropriate accommodations had been made.
Deitch could not be reached for comment after leaving shortly after Thursday’s meeting ended.
Though Darlow was reassured by Weiss’s presentation, Prof. Gina Poe said she still has some concerns with regards to the leave of absence policy, even with the updates.
Poe, who serves on the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, vocalized concerns when Weiss spoke to SACUA last winter and reiterated many of her concerns in an interview on Thursday afternoon.
Poe said she fears that giving a central administrative board the authority to determine when a student can take a leave of absence could result in decisions that are not in the best interest of the student.
“The problem is that these boards don’t know the students and their life situations and the reasons why the students might feel like this is the best decision for them and their community,” Poe said. “It puts them in an ivory tower in these very personal, very difficult and sometimes complicated decisions of whether someone should take leave from their studies.”
At Thursday’s regents meeting, Weiss outlined efforts underway to create a dispute resolution to handle situations in which students aren’t satisfied with a decision made by Rackham officials — including decisions whether to grant a leave of absence. Weiss said the appeals process would include a board composed of equal numbers of Ph.D. students and Rackham officials who would hear disputes and make a final ruling.
Poe added that despite the revision in the leave of absence policy, it still doesn’t provide for all students’ needs like if a student wanted to take a leave of absence to care for a dying friend. According to Poe, under the proposal the student wouldn’t be able to leave for more than one semester because they would be caring for a friend and not a family member and the situation doesn’t fall under one of the pre-approved criteria for an excused leave of absence.
Poe also raised concerns about such a large penalty for students who take more than one semester off for reasons not covered by the leave of absence guidelines.
If a student takes more than one leave of absence for a reason not covered under the new policy, they would be disenrolled from the University, forced to reapply for admission and could face a substantial financial penalty.
“The reenrollment fee is definitely something to look at,” Poe said. “What Janet Weiss told (SACUA) most recently — and it hasn’t changed as far as I can see — is that (the penalty) is half of the tuition for every semester missed, plus they would have to reapply to the program.”
But before the policy can take effect, the regents need to approve the reduction in tuition necessary to make the program possible. The tuition reduction will come before the regents at their June meeting when they approve tuition rates for the rest of the University as well.
Decreased tuition is a common practice among schools with continuous enrollment and, according to Weiss, continuous enrollment is standard policy at most of the University’s peer institutions.
Projections estimate an approximately 20-percent reduction in Ph.D. candidate tuition rates — from $5,800 per semester to $4,750 per semester. However, candidates would be required to pay tuition every semester — eliminating the University’s current practice of detached study, which allows candidates to continue in their work or take a leave of absence for any reason without financial penalty.
Weiss projected last winter the move would increase enrollment by about 13 percent — an increase of approximately 600 students enrolled at the University. She said the new tuition levels and continuous enrollment policy would cancel each other out — meaning many schools and colleges on campus would see little or no change in the amount of tuition paid for Ph.D. students.
Weiss told SACUA last year that unless such a financial wash was possible, the proposal would not move forward. In Thursday’s interview, Weiss said each school found a way to finance any net loss they may experience because of the proposal.
Sullivan echoed Weiss’s confidence in the financial stability of the program, vowing at Thursday’s regents meeting that her office would cover any shortfalls experienced by schools or colleges under the new program.
“I had my office’s budget team go carefully over the numbers that Rackham has accumulated,” Sullivan said, reiterating her confidence. “If for any reason the financial projections fall short of what is expected the provost’s office will (cover that).”
An estimated 92 percent of Ph.D. students have their tuition paid by an entity at the University, while only 4 percent have tuition paid for by an outside organization and four percent pay for their own tuition.
Rackham student Marie Puccio, who attended Thursday’s regents meeting, said she was disappointed Weiss’s presentation was scheduled at a time during the semester when so many students were unable to attend.
“I’m disappointed that, given the fall update was promised at a spring meeting where 100+ students rallied outside the meeting, four graduate students made public comments and the room was packed with graduate students, the meeting was scheduled during finals week when many grad students had either departed or were too busy to participate,” Puccio wrote in an e-mail Thursday night.
“It was clear by the timing of the meeting that graduate student participation was not a priority,” she continued. “I’m appalled, but not shocked, by this fact.”
Puccio wrote that she has also been disappointed with the amount of communication between Rackham administrators and graduate students throughout the process.
“The need for more direct communication between graduate students in policy matters is an issue that has been brushed to the side,” she wrote. “We feel that the policy has not been adequately communicated to graduate students and that graduate students have been shut out of the policy making process.”
Though approval of the proposal is still months away, Weiss told the Daily she’s happy with the progress that has been made so far on the policy and the agreement that she says exists on campus.
“I think the main thing I want to say is that we have over the course of the last six months … have spent an enormous amount of effort reaching out to our various constituencies to ensure that we understand what’s on their minds and they understand what’s on our minds,” Weiss said. “I think we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress.”