The University of Minnesota (UMN) has set up a task force to investigate claims of abusive faculty behavior in response to a recent petition from the Council of Graduate Students (COGS) to address and dismantle the “pedestrian, every day harassment that has characterized much of graduate education for decades, if not centuries.”
The speaker, president, and vice president of the graduate council handed the petition, containing 290 student signatures and several personal accounts detailing abusive faculty behavior, over to UMN Executive Vice President and Provost Rachel Croson on April 14.
Croson has reportedly agreed to form a task force consisting of graduate students, staff, and administrators.
“It is actually helpful to have a petition like this. While we have been working on this in the Graduate School, addressing this issue really requires interaction from multiple offices and an institutional commitment to a solution. It helps to have students who say that this is a priority, and students will definitely be on that task force,” said UMN Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education Scott Lanyon.
Faculty abuse can take many forms, such as expecting students to perform unpaid work, requesting personal favors from students, and taking advantage of their position as advisees.
“(Advisers) are the gatekeeper,” said COGS speaker Mattea Allert. “If you are in graduate school, they can hold the ticket to your next step in graduate school or your next postdoctoral opportunity.”
“If you are in a situation that ends in a severed relationship with a faculty member, there is no guarantee that you will get another adviser and be able to finish your program,” said Richard Gonigam, an executive committee member of COGS.
The possible volatility of an advisor-student relationship can create severe problems for the student. While some institutions hand over decision-making powers to the dean’s office if things go south, UMN focuses on a “decentralized approach,” delegating the power to individual programs and colleges.
Lanyon asserted that this approach makes it difficult to effect systemic change. Still, the movement that COGS has initiated, as well as the proposed task force, are positive signs for students concerned about abusive faculty behavior, providing these students with the confidence to report misconduct.
“Raising concerns early on in a grievance would prevent things from getting really out of hand. There has to be confidence that (a student) will not face retaliation for coming forward,” Lanyon said.
“Our hope is that the University is able to acknowledge the experiences of graduate students and then that the University is able to actually get something done, and that must include input from graduate students,” Allert added.