InclusiveVT initiatives: Graduate School updates

InclusiveVT was developed in July 2014 as a framework for Virginia Tech to become a more inclusive and diverse university.  An overview of the effort, recent report and events can be found on the website, the inclusion and diversity blog and through social media (twitter, Facebook, Instagram and more).

As part of the effort, senior leadership was asked to develop three initiatives for implementation starting during the 2014-2015 academic year. As one of those administrative units, the Graduate School had previously developed many programs and opportunities focused on diversity and inclusion including an office of Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives (ORDI) and wanted to develop initiatives that would promote pervasive change and actively engage constituency groups across the university in transformative change.

In this post, I will report specifically on the progress made on the Graduate School’s three InclusiveVT initiatives:  holistic admissions, inclusive Graduate Life Center (GLC) and affirming environment for graduate education.

Holistic admissions in graduate education

In preparation for action, Graduate School staff investigated the use of holistic admissions at selected universities in the U.S. to identify promising practices. The next step was to survey departments and programs to determine the admission practices already in use at VT.  After reviewing the results of the surveys and wanting to identify admission criteria beyond the typical GPA, GRE scores (or other standardized test scores) and reputation of the university, we decided to make changes to the Graduate School application and the letters of recommendation process. Based specifically on information provided by our departments and programs we modified the application so that applicants could provide additional educational experience for consideration in admissions: community involvement and/or service; leadership; overcoming social, economic and/or physical barriers; personal and/or professional ethics; recognition of achievements over time; and research and scholarship.

In alignment with the personal attributes critical to academic success studied intensively by Educational Testing Services in its development of the Personal Potential Index (PPI), we modified the letter of recommendation form to include specific questions about the following: communication skills, ethics and integrity, initiative, innovation and creativity, planning and organization, and teamwork. Letter writers are asked to evaluate the applicant on these attributes and then provide a brief statement about the most compelling reason to admit the candidate. Full letters of recommendation are still to be submitted.

The changes in the application and the letter of recommendation form were designed and built in such a fashion that departments/programs can “sort” by the additional educational experiences and personal attributes as well as GPA and other measures departments wish.  Admissions committee are encouraged to use these experiences and attributes systematically in determining qualified candidates and not just “sort” by high GPA and high GREs. Specifically, department are asked to “sort” initially and then revisit the applicant pool to “sort” at least two more times to expand the pool by the addition of those who were rated high on the pertinent additional educational experiences and personal attributes of value for academic success. We have collected data on the demographics of the pool of qualified applicants (admissible or admitted) in the last three years and will compare these with the data to be collected starting for Fall ’16. It is anticipated that these changes will allows for an increase in the size and diversity of the pool of qualified applicants. Beginning in mid Fall’15, we have conducted workshops and information sessions about holistic admissions and I am personally holding college-level meetings to discuss holistic admissions and affirming environment for graduate education.

Inclusive GLC and Affirming Environment for graduate education

These two initiatives are both focused on creating an affirming and welcoming “space and place” for graduate education; the first initiative is focused on the Graduate Life Center (including the Graduate School) and its people, program, place, policies and more and the second is focused more broadly on the broader university departments and programs. Specific activities have included the establishment of a GLC advisory committee to define inclusivity in terms of the physical space, attributes and policies of the Graduate Life Center. Also in the mix is an examination of the GLC promotional materials, evaluation mechanisms, and future programs. Educational programs and workshops have been initiated for GLC and Graduate School employees for understanding unconscious bias and micro-aggressions along with a commitment to the Principles of Community and inclusivity in hiring of new employees and in the annual review process of current employees.

Many efforts are directed toward creating more affirming and welcoming environments for graduate education. Among these are an revised entry survey and an exit survey developed to understand why individuals chose to enroll (or not) at Virginia Tech and to gather information about their experiences at VT upon completion of their degree. These have been helpful in enhancing the graduate experience at VT. We have also conducted “mid” surveys and more recently “climate surveys” to evaluate the climate for graduate education and wherever possible to determine why individuals chose to leave VT. With the goal of retention and provision of pertinent services and programs for our students it is important to understand more about their characteristics, varying attributes and multiple identities. Thus, we developed a post-admissions, pre-enrollment survey so that they can provide additional information about their needs and desires so that we can provide meaningful support services and programs.

Throughout this year and beyond, we will be conducting workshops and information sessions and gathering data about affirming practices and information about the graduate students’ experiences.   We are working with departments/programs to assist faculty and graduate students in dialogue about understanding privilege, unconscious bias and micro-aggressions. In support of these efforts, I have authored a series of blogs on academic bullying, expectations for graduate education, understanding stress and more to share my reflections and offer resources for others to create or enhance affirming environment for graduate education.

The most recent endeavor is to change the rhetoric and reality of graduate school from surviving to thriving. Stay tuned – more to come on Thriving in Graduate School. Your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

Understanding stress in context to thrive in graduate school

Graduate school should be challenging but doesn’t need to be overly stressful. Stress can come in many forms. Many graduate students will likely say that they experience stress in graduate school and that’s just part of being a graduate student.  As a graduate dean, I hear this frequently and understand but it is time to change the paradigm from surviving to thriving.

A quick “google” search easily reveals a number of blogs, books and articles on tips for surviving even thriving in graduate school.  One example is the blog entitled Graduate Student Way and a recent post with advice from three PhD students.  It is worth a quick read to understand that one is not alone and the feelings are common among graduate students.  It also points out that warning signs of stress should not be ignored but understood and addressed.

Other examples include an article on 12 tips for surviving and surviving in grad school, a self-published book by David Nguyen which offers some basic tips for surviving graduate school and an archived site from University of Oregon called Survive Grad School that contains some valuable information.  Many Graduate Schools today offer resources and guidance for graduate student success on their websites, at orientations and workshops and through social media (e.g., UNL, UBC, GMU).

Lots of good advice and tips are available but I wish to encourage actions of a more personal nature that are often de-emphasized during graduate education. Here, I pull from the advice offered by University of California at Berkeley (UCB) regarding stress and graduate school.  Please read and consider the four primary points that are encouraged: make yourself a priority, take control of your life, avoid procrastination through time management, and look for social support.  These tend to go counter to the perceived “survival” nature required for graduate school and the toughness and persistence at all costs needed for success. Rather, I would argue that taking time for oneself is critical.  Although a graduate student can sometimes feel as if one doesn’t have control, it is important to exercise one’s agency and control over one’s life.  Further it is important to learn to say “no” and to establish some balance between graduate study and personal life. Of course, time management is crucial to academic progress and when there’s lots of work to do and deadlines, managing one’s time becomes even more important. As is a key component of the VT Graduate School’s experience, establishing a community (communities) and social networks for support are critical.  These are essential within the academic setting as well as beyond the university setting.

In my welcome remarks to incoming graduate students, I share four conditions for graduate study: academic quality, time to fiddle, a baggy idea of truth, and a sense of community.  I encourage the graduate students to reflect upon these throughout their graduate study and to realize that failure is a part of the learning process.  I also encourage them to work hard and to play as well.  To thrive in graduate school is to enjoy the challenge and to pursue opportunities as they present themselves.

One additional thought.  Keep a sense of humor because it helps to keep one grounded and attentive to the richness of the graduate experience.  Visit PhD comics.

Thriving in Graduate School

Thriving has not been the typical term used to describe the graduate education experience; rather “surviving” has been the term associated with earning a graduate degree. But now it is time to question this existing paradigm and move from surviving to thriving through the implementation of affirming, and yet still challenging, environments for advanced learning and research. High expectations and quality standards can be and should be maintained but the academic bullying (subtle or overt) and questionable professional behaviors must be eliminated.

Based upon their research of faculty conduct with graduate students, Braxton, Proper and Bayer (2011) derived a “normative structure” that includes “inviolable norms” and “admonitory norms”. The inviolable norms included disrespect for student efforts, misappropriation of student work, harassment of students, whistle-blowing suppression, and directed research malfeasance. The admonitory norms were identified as neglectful teaching, inadequate advising/mentoring, degradation of faculty colleagues, negligent thesis/dissertation advising, insufficient course structure, pedagogical narrowness, student assignment misallocation, and disregard for program.  As a result of their work, we can better understand these broad categories of faculty behavior and can provide “guidelines of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors” for graduate education.

To address and counter these “norms” found in graduate education, we need a cultural shift and commitment of faculty and departments as well as the graduate school to encourage strategies that foster an affirming environment for graduate education.  Examples might include (but are not limited to):

  1. Development of quality mentoring programs and recognition for faculty who engage in mentoring (e.g., outstanding mentor award, mentor of the month)
  2. Professional development programs for faculty and graduate students (e.g., Transformative Graduate Education) in the roles and responsibilities of a 21st century faculty member including teaching/learning, advising/mentoring, directing thesis/dissertation, lab management, and more.
  3. Graduate teaching assistantship training programs (e.g., GTA workshop, Academy for GTA Excellence) and recognition for graduate teaching excellence (e.g., GTA awards)
  4. Emphasis upon inclusion and diversity especially inclusive pedagogy and affirming diverse environments. Workshops and education to understand unconscious biases and eliminating micro-aggressions (see Tool_Recognizing_Microaggressions)
  5. Building graduate community within and beyond departmental/college boundaries; Graduate Schools can play a significant role and assume responsibility here as well.
  6. Utilization of holistic admissions process and ongoing inclusive retention strategies
  7. Annual progress review with honest constructive feedback; equitable appeal process
  8. Establishment of an Office of the Graduate Student Ombudsperson
  9. Establishment of an honor code, ethics requirement, graduate student handbooks and expectations for graduate study
  10. Engage and work closely with graduate students in creating positive learning environments
  11. Communicate directly and work closely with faculty to create academic environments in which graduate students can thrive
  12. Celebrate achievements and graduate student success

Thriving not surviving.  Please join me in the conversation.

Expectations for Graduate Education: Virginia Tech Graduate School

The Virginia Tech Graduate School is committed to providing a “rich learning environment” for graduate students and a quality graduate education experience.  To do so requires clear communication about policy and procedures and especially the expectations for graduate study.  The VT Graduate School’s commitment is articulated in the “Expectations for Graduate Education at Virginia Tech.”

Originally created by graduate students and faculty in 2003, the expectations document was revised in 2011 and highlights the “vital elements of 21st-century graduate education, including ethics, civility, professional and academic development, teaching/learning, and inclusive community”.  The document describes the graduate environment promoted at VT and articulates expectations for graduate students, faculty, departments (programs, schools) and the Graduate School.  The document also includes a section on mentoring and a section on complaints and the appeals process.  A summary of the expectations are shared in a printable format as well.

The expectations are discussed in relation to major components of graduate education: progress toward degree, research and ethics, teaching and training, professional development, assistantships and financial aid, and community.  Although written in 2011, the expectations still provide relevant guidelines for graduate education today. Examples include the following:

  • Clear communication about departmental and Graduate School policy and procedures
  • Regular communication between faculty advisor and student
  • Understand and adhere to responsible conduct of research and scholarly endeavors
  • Discuss and agree upon requirements and expectation for authorship
  • Ensure that graduate programs conform to the highest academic standards and remain relevant through appropriate curriculum
  • Adherence to professional codes of conduct, student conduct and honor codes
  • Provide appropriate teacher training and professional development opportunities
  • Provide annual feedback to students and provide opportunity for students to correct academic deficiencies
  • Ensure fair and equitable treatment of students
  • Provide a safe and collegial work environment; respect work-life balance and working conditions
  • Provide pertinent resources and mentoring for degree completion
While the information seems fairly straightforward and common sense, it is valuable to have the expectations clearly identified and shared with the graduate students and faculty in order to provide the foundation for a quality graduate education experience at the beginning of one’s graduate study and to remind faculty, departments and the Graduate School of our collective responsibility for quality graduate education. The goal of graduate education should be to provide the academic context(s) and mentoring that allows graduate students to demonstrate their ability to achieve, their desire to succeed and their commitment to future professional contributions.
Unfortunately, academic bullying and questionable professional behavior are still prevalent in higher education.  And as I mentioned in the previous blog entitled Academic Bullying and graduate education, these must be eliminated from graduate education and replaced with a challenging yet affirming academic environment.

Academic bullying and graduate education

A recent study by Gentry and Whitely (2014) entitled “Bullying in Graduate School: Its Nature and Effects” concluded that although graduate students did experience ‘aggressive and exclusionary’ behaviors associated with traditional definition of bullying they tended to reject the use of “bullying” to describe their experiences. (see The Qualitative Report 2014 Volume 19, Article 71, 1-18 http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR19/gentry71.pdf).  The behaviors were experienced were as more “covert and indirect” rather than typical images of playground bullying.  These behaviors could also be described under the umbrella of micro aggressions, incivilities, and acts based upon unconscious bias.  To emphasize the importance of understanding these behaviors, how they manifest  themselves in graduate school, and the significant impact that they can have on graduate students, I have written about and will continue to use the terminology of “academic bullying“.

Academic bullying manifests itself in many different ways and can include intimidation, humiliation, belittlement, embarrassment and undermining one’s authority.  Academic bullying also includes behaviors or comments that indicate disregard of one’s concerns, ignoring contributions, minimize one’s efforts in the eyes of colleagues, and other means of exclusion or withholding information.  Expectations of unreasonable workload, limiting earned vacation and prohibiting graduate student’s own agency for professional choices and personal decision could also be inappropriate.  As is well known, comments or behaviors that are sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic and more are unacceptable and can fall under the umbrella of academic bullying and should not be tolerated.  Academic bullying occurs throughout the academic or professional space; in the classroom, in meetings, at conferences, in the laboratory setting, in face-to-face interactions, and of course through email and social media.

Essentially, the behaviors and actions described above would be considered unprofessional and could be considered as “misconduct”. In their book entitled Professors Behaving Badly: Faculty Misconduct in Graduate Education, the authors (Braxton, Proper & Bayer, 2011) provide some more specific examples based upon their study including the following (more discussion in a later blog post):

Professors behaving badly

• Publishing an article without a graduate student among the authors who made significant contributions to the study.

• Prohibiting graduate students from expressions differing viewpoints.

• Requiring additional hours of work per week regularly beyond that of the assistantship and on nights, weekends and vacation times.

While it is important to understand what constitutes academic bullying, it is just as important to understand the context for graduate education and what would not be considered as academic bullying.  Graduate school should be challenging and is sometimes difficult and frustrating.  Graduate school should not be demoralizing although students might occasionally question their ability to perform.  Graduate students need to understand the conditions for graduate study set by the Graduate School and the department or faculty.  Obviously there are policies and procedures that need to be followed.  Academic freedom is valued and respected for graduate students and faculty.  Freedom of speech is a right but must be exercised in an atmosphere of respect for others. Disagreements are likely and emotions will be expressed but must be civil.  To read about the VT Graduate School’s description of the graduate environment, link here.

Communication and clarity are key to success in graduate school.  The next blog will focus on expectations for graduate study and ways in which we can move the conversation about graduate school from surviving to thriving.

Academic bullying

Academic bullying. In what ways does it manifest itself?  When does it occur? Why does it exist?  And most importantly, how can bullying be eliminated and an affirming environment for graduate education be enhanced?  The questions are many, the answers actually complex.

Academic bullying has become increasingly more visible in the past few years and might even to aProfessors behaving badlyppear as being more tolerated in higher education today.  One comprehensive study was conducted and the results published in 2011 by John M. Braxton, Eve Proper, and Alan E. Bayer entitled Professors Behaving Badly: Faculty Misconduct in Graduate Education.

 

Several other books on bullying have been written in the last few years. Articles, reports and coverage within the higher education media (see articles in Chronicle of Higher Education, InsideHigherEd) occur with some frequency.faculty incivility workplace bullying in HE Bullying in Ivory tower Bullying exists in higher education and Graduate Schools must assume a leadership role in addressing the concerns for graduate education and graduate students.

Although the terminology of ‘academic bullying’ is recent, the emphasis upon quality of and for graduate education extends back to at least the 1990s including prominent examples from AAU and the AAUP.  The Association of American Universities (AAU) established the Committee on Graduate Education and issued its report calling on universities to examine graduate education programs (AAU GradEd report).  Shortly thereafter in 1999, the AAUP established policy about graduate education and resources for graduate students.  Mentoring, collegial relationships and affirming education + equitable employment conditions were important and remain so. Civility should be the expectation and bullying should not be tolerated.

Today, most if not all of the U.S. Graduate Schools now have statements and documents in which they articulate the established principles for graduate education frequently referred to as principles or guiding principles, codes, or expectations. Even though the terminology of ‘academic bullying’ might not be specifically mentioned, the intent of these documents is to articulate the expectations for quality graduate education and an affirming climate for graduate students.  This is the approach taken by the Virginia Tech Graduate School.  We entitled our document Expectations for Graduate Study in which the expectations for graduate students, faculty, departments/programs and the Graduate School were articulated.  A website was created along with a summary of the expectations Expectation_Glance_2011.

The VT Graduate School is committed to enhancing the graduate education experience and providing opportunities for graduate students to thrive.  We are changing the paradigm from survival, silence and acceptance of status quo to transforming graduate education. The conversation about academic bullying will continue.  Watch for additional blog posts, information about models and promising practices, and ways to share concerns anonymously.