UMD doctoral students say they lack the tools to navigate conflicts with their advisers

Mark Shayman, the graduate school’s ombuds officer, meets with concerned students in his office in the A.V. Williams Building. (Suze Creedon/The Diamondback)

Read Part 1 of this series, which focuses on the complex and sometimes fraught relationship between graduate students and their advisers. 

Tucked away in a maze of classrooms on the second floor of the University of Maryland’s A.V. Williams Building is a place where graduate students can air grievances against their advisers without fear of retribution.

From the other side of a wide desk swept free of clutter, Mark Shayman, the graduate school’s ombuds officer, listens as they share their stories.

Some say their advisers are making them work 80 hours a week. They describe the emails they’ve received from their advisers — the kind that are laced with “four letter words” and denunciations that they’re the stupidest student to come through their program in 20 years. Still others come to him after they say they’ve been dismissed from their positions, a move that could destroy them academically and financially.

In the nearly four years Shayman has served as ombuds officer, a handful of advisers have been brought up to him again and again.

“I could probably name maybe half a dozen faculty members that are serial abusers,” he said. “And nothing happens to them.”

Last semester, a story lit across national news, stirring up conversation among administrators at this university and making the urgency of addressing student mistreatment all too clear. In October, the Wisconsin State Journal published a lengthy account of a “toxic” lab environment that had proliferated for years under an abusive adviser at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Few knew how bad it was until a research assistant killed himself in 2016.

“It could happen here,” Shayman said.

For students who run into issues with their advisers, this university’s graduate school offers mediation and counseling services. The school’s website hosts two 1,000-and-some word grievance policies and a form where students can anonymously submit reports of abuse.

But some graduate students say these resources don’t cast a strong enough safety net.

A coalition of graduate student workers is calling for a change to the current system: They want the right to unionize and negotiate binding contracts with the graduate school. It’s a solution that’s currently prohibited under Maryland law, and one that the graduate school has opposed for years.

“That’s the main way the root of this problem can be solved,” said Adelaida Shelley, an American Studies doctoral student.

*****

They’ll contact Alessandra Zimmermann on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter. Some have just stepped out of meetings during which their advisers pressed them to leave their labs. Others are petrified that’s about to happen.

All are frantic, and desperate for guidance.

Zimmermann, now the executive director of a company that offers advice on writing grant proposals, got a call once while she was in Washington, D.C. She was busy that day, she told the shaken doctoral student on the other end, but she could meet tomorrow.

“‘No, I need advice right this second or else I’m going to blow up,’” she recalled the student saying. “So I just sat down in a coffee shop and had a phone call with them.”

She understands their urgency. She’s been there before.

In the summer between her second and third year in the biochemistry doctoral program at this university, she said her adviser — Paul Paukstelis — suddenly announced that she wasn’t progressing quickly enough.

And while Paukstelis stressed that he has never pressured a student to take a master’s degree, Zimmermann recalled him telling her that she had two options: leave the university then and there with a master’s degree, or leave with nothing.

Zimmermann did neither — she fought to stay. Now, years later, she said she’s become a sort of shepherd for students in similar situations. She has counseled at least five, listening as they vent, then explaining how to salvage their graduate school careers.

A week after Zimmermann’s meeting with Paukstelis, she said she started looking for a new adviser, Googling around for candidates. Within two weeks, she was in a new lab — and spent the rest of her time at this university co-advised by faculty in the biochemistry and bioengineering departments.

Switching advisers doesn’t go as smoothly for everyone, though. Academia is widely recognized as a community where connections are currency. So, for many graduate students, leaving one adviser for another becomes an exercise in cooling tensions to avoid burning bridges.

Breaking apart a relationship where so much hangs in the balance can be fraught with fear and anxiety, but the process receives little acknowledgement in the rulebooks of schools and colleges across campus. Few doctoral programs host a policy on their website or handbook explaining how a dissolution should proceed.

One of these lonely departments is Zimmermann’s. It created the policy after Zimmermann and two colleagues sent a letter to the chemistry and biochemistry department chair, detailing reforms they wanted to see.

The department took their feedback to heart.

In May, administrators posted a policy on their website that explains the steps advisers and students should take if they want to dissolve their relationship.

The policy describes the procedure students should follow when changing research groups, as well as a series of obligations they should honor: It requires students to return research materials before leaving, for instance.

It also encourages advisers to discuss their concerns with students, and vice versa, as soon as they arise. Should a student continue to come up short, faculty members are required to communicate the issues to the student in writing and give them 30 days to make adjustments — and an additional 30-day notice of their dismissal, if the adviser continues to be dissatisfied.

Six months after the policy was posted on the department’s website, biochemistry graduate program director Douglas Julin said he hadn’t heard of it being used by students or faculty members. But, at least in his program, Julin said the dissolution of an adviser relationship is rare — since he became director in 2010, he said he can only remember two times a biochemistry student was dropped by their adviser.

However, he added that there have been cases where a student entered the program as a doctoral student and wound up leaving with a master’s degree instead. Maybe adviser-related issues contributed to some of these early departures, Julin said, but he can’t know for sure.

Still, Julin said, he’s glad to have the policy.

“This happens in graduate programs everywhere,” he said. “I think it’s probably better to have it written down — ‘This is how you should go about doing it.’”

However, graduate school dean Steve Fetter said it wouldn’t be appropriate for the graduate school to adopt an umbrella version of the chemistry and biochemistry’s department policy, since students’ experiences vary so much by department.

But Shayman said having a broader version of that department’s policy would “make sense.” Then, he said, it would be helpful if each college filled in specifics about how the dissolution should be handled.

*****

By the time Sarah’s relationship with her adviser started to fall apart, she was already well on her way to earning her doctoral degree in this university’s computer science, mathematics and natural sciences college.

So, rather than seek out a new lab, she told herself to suck it up and shut up — even as she sat in her adviser’s office, struggling to hold back tears as he loudly declared she didn’t deserve a doctoral degree, she said.

In an emailed statement responding to Sarah’s experiences, the associate dean for faculty affairs and graduate education at her former college wrote that he encourages graduate students to share concerns with their adviser, graduate program director, department chair or ombuds officer.

But Sarah hesitated to report her adviser’s behavior, weighing the risks of coming forward with a grievance versus just graduating quietly.

“Those resources are there, but it’s either they’re not helpful, they don’t listen to you or it’s just a mental drain that takes away from your time in lab,” said Sarah, who asked to be identified exclusively by her first name. “Is that a risk you’re willing to take, when that professor is tenured, so it’s extremely unlikely that any action is going to be taken against them?”

Some students, like Sarah, spoke on the condition of anonymity for this series out of fear of retribution. They worried that sharing their experiences with their advisers or former advisers could endanger their academic progress or future employment opportunities.

The graduate school hosts two detailed grievance procedures on its website: one for graduate assistants and another that covers all graduate students.

They’re thorough. Multifaceted. Broken up into different sections for ease of digestion.

And, Fetter said at the end of January, they haven’t been used once to file a formal grievance since he became dean of the graduate school in October 2017.

Not a single student has anonymously reported a faculty member or staffer since the graduate school posted a form on its website allowing them to do so, either, Fetter said.

“I interpret the lack of any formal grievances as the success of Professor Shayman in helping students to resolve [their issues] at a lower level,” Fetter said.

Shayman, though, finds the absence of grievances during Fetter’s tenure surprising. He notes that, for whatever reason, he’s had fewer students come to him recently with complaints about abusive behavior — a fact that he said might just be an anomaly.

Some graduate students offered a different reason the policies have gone unused: They include no assurance that students will be protected from retribution should they file a grievance. And, students say, many simply aren’t aware the procedures exist.

The grievance procedure for graduate students is listed at the bottom of a webpage entitled “Other Graduate School Policies.” And, until last semester, the anonymous reporting form was buried deep under a series of links.

“You won’t go out of your way to try to solicit reporting of problems that are on campus. Then you say, ‘Well, there are no problems to warrant a change,’” said Will Howell, former chair of the Graduate Assistant Advisory Committee. “If you shut off the water supply, and then you’re like, ‘Why isn’t there any water?’ Well, it’s like, because you shut off the water supply.”

But Fetter said that since the graduate school covers a wide variety of fields, students tend to look to their own programs for guidance. To help those who run into issues with their advisers, Fetter encourages graduate program directors to include a section in their handbooks listing out resources for students.

However, many have yet to follow his advice. Of the graduate school’s 81 research doctoral programs, only about 30 include a grievance procedure or mention the ombuds office on their website or in their handbook. Others link to the Graduate Catalog, a centralized source of graduate school policies but do not elaborate upon the resources it describes.

For the grievance procedures to be sufficient, though, Howell said the school needs to assure students their academic status and employment would be protected should they come forward.

Fetter said he is open to adding language to the policies that protects students from retaliation, but pointed out there are limitations to what the graduate school can promise.

However, in the end, many graduate students just aren’t willing to risk filing a grievance, Shelley said. Doing so could be seen as rebelling against their department and establishing themselves as the enemy, she said.

“Most people, they kind of end up just taking it,” she said. “They kind of just accept it, keep their head down, do whatever their adviser says because they know that the alternative could be worse.”

*****

In a conversation with Shayman about advisers mistreating students, Fetter shared a policy that allows the graduate school dean to remove or suspend faculty from the graduate school — revoking, at least temporarily, their rights to teach classes and advise students.

The policy was published in the graduate student catalogue two years ago, Fetter said, but this was Shayman’s first time hearing about it.

“It would be a huge penalty to those faculty members and presumably, a big deterrent,” Shayman said.

In an email, a university spokesperson declined to comment on whether the policy has ever been used to suspend or remove a faculty member, calling it a personnel issue.

The policy doesn’t give Fetter the power to revoke tenure — a step, Shayman said, would almost certainly result in litigation.

According to University System of Maryland policy, tenured professors can only be terminated for “moral turpitude, professional or scholarly misconduct, incompetence, or willful neglect of duty.” If a faculty member is simply a bad adviser, their job is likely safe, said former graduate school assistant dean Jeffrey Franke.

“Unless it’s egregious, you can’t get rid of a tenure-track faculty member,” said Franke, who was interviewed while he was assistant dean and has since moved on to a position in the behavioral and social sciences college. “That’s what tenure means — it’s a job for life, there’s no retirement age.”

The graduate students who seek Shayman’s help often feel wronged, and many want to see some sort of punishment handed down. Often, though, students don’t want to risk stirring the pot.

So, Shayman frequently tells students to first concentrate on securing a new adviser and source of funding. He tells them that after they graduate — and are no longer in danger of facing retaliation — they could consider writing a letter to the chair of the department or asking for a face-to-face meeting to share their experience. Doing so would have the highest likelihood of affecting an adviser’s career if they have yet to receive tenure, Shayman said.

However, Shayman said, it’s not his job to go after faculty members.

“My job is to help the student and to somehow get the student to a safe situation and hopefully be able to stay in school and finish their degree and go on with their life,” he said. “I’m not a prosecutor.”

*****

Shayman said the graduate school has been taking some big steps to offer students a greater sense of protection.

“All of a sudden, things are really moving forward,” he said.

Since last year, Fetter said the school has hosted a mentorship guide for faculty members on its website. The school also hosts a companion guide for doctoral students, which offers suggestions on “mentoring up” to their advisers.

On top of this, Fetter described recent efforts to help graduate students seek out their own funding, so they don’t have to rely solely on their advisers. This year, he said the graduate school contracted with a market research firm, which has provided a series of webinars and training sessions for students writing grant applications.

Even when funding isn’t in the mix, graduate students often still depend on their advisers to usher them through their academic careers and provide them with the professional networks to find a job.

But Franke said it’s really up to individual colleges to develop a culture where graduate students can thrive — one that supports collaborative relationships and doesn’t approve of faculty members who are “bad apples.”

“We can provide best practices and we can say here are the ideals, but it has to happen at the local levels,” Franke said.

*****

Last March, Zimmermann stared up at a panel of state legislators from behind a sturdy oak desk. She was terrified.

But when she spoke in support of a bill that would legalize unionization for graduate assistants, her voice didn’t waver.

Over the 5 ½ years she’d been at Maryland, she told the Senate Finance Committee, she’d been a research assistant and taught 17 courses as a teaching assistant. In both roles, she said she saw professors abuse their power.

Sen. Delores Kelley nodded knowingly. Sadly, the committee’s chair told Zimmermann, many of the professors who now mistreat their students are only mimicking the way they were treated when they were in graduate school.

“We want to break the cycle,” Zimmermann replied.

Zimmermann’s testimony built upon a long fight by activists at the university to win collective bargaining rights for graduate assistants — a category encompassing most doctoral students at Maryland.

Over the past two decades, lawmakers have heard nine bills that would have granted collective bargaining rights to graduate student workers. Legislators listen with varying degrees of sympathy to the impassioned pleas of activists — and the fight usually stalls there, the bills dying in committee without receiving broader debate. That’s what happened last year.

But the battle rages on. On Tuesday, delegates heard this year’s bill in the House Appropriations Committee, and its companion is planned to drop in the Senate on Monday.

Because the ombuds officer, the grievance procedure, guidebooks, counselors — while these resources might be helpful for some graduate students, many expressed that they don’t confront the underlying issues that remain.

Short of hiring a private lawyer and going to court, there is no external body that graduate student workers can turn to if they face issues with their advisers. And, unlike other employees across the state, graduate assistants don’t have contracts to fall back on should their supervisors abruptly change their expectations.

If graduate student workers could unionize, activists say these challenges would no longer exist. They could take workplace issues to the State Higher Education Labor Relations Board, the agency charged with enforcing Maryland’s collective bargaining law for state university employees.

Activists say collective bargaining rights would offer graduate student workers some semblance of leverage when engaging with administrators, even if they don’t actually create a union.

But the graduate school and the university have put up a fight over the years to oppose collective bargaining bills. On Tuesday, Fetter drove down to Annapolis to make the graduate school’s case.

In an interview with The Diamondback, Fetter echoed many of the same arguments he has previously brought up in testimony.

For one, he said the duties graduate assistants perform are part of their education. Furthermore, Fetter said the graduate school can address student concerns without collective bargaining. Since April 2017, the school has increased the minimum stipend by 16.4 percent. It has also adjusted policy in response to student feedback, Fetter said, pointing to the recently reformed grievance policy as one example.

Collective bargaining would also likely lead to further stipend increases, Fetter said, which could reduce the number of assistantships departments offer.

Students have disputed these arguments in the past, though, pointing out that the work some assistants typically conduct — updating websites, for instance, and completing paperwork — could hardly count as contributing to their education.

Stipends are also a point of contention — at $18,791, the minimum stipend afforded to those with 9 ½ -month assistantships at this university is about half the salary MIT’s Living Wage Calculator lists for a single adult in Prince George’s County.

Still, the fight for collective bargaining hasn’t been without victory.

In 2012, the University System of Maryland tweaked its policies to allow graduate assistants and adjunct faculty to meet with administrators to discuss job-related concerns in a process called “meet-and-confer.”

And starting in the fall 2018 semester, this university’s graduate school began requiring graduate student workers to meet with their supervisors at the start of each term to discuss responsibilities both would be expected to uphold.

But graduate student activists argue that these measures are poor substitutes for the sorts of protections collective bargaining would provide.

Meet-and-confer sessions aren’t for binding agreements — they’re just meant to give employees a chance to air concerns with the university. And the group of graduate student workers tasked with participating in meetings with administrators have found them less than fruitful.

Plus, the graduate school has made it clear that while it hosts a sample form assistants can fill out with their advisers during their expectation-setting meeting, no documentation is required. And even if a student and their adviser complete what’s called a “statement of mutual expectations” together, it’s not considered a legally enforceable contract.

Last September, the graduate school sent a survey to gauge how many graduate assistants had met with their supervisors under the new policy. Of the 1,279 students who responded, 73 percent indicated they had participated in an expectation-setting meeting. Broken down by college, though, that statistic varied.

In the journalism college, 100 percent of survey respondents reported having met with their advisers. But in the engineering school, this number was only 56 percent. In the computer, math and natural sciences college, it was 63 percent.

These numbers are far from satisfactory, Howell stressed — especially considering they represent the experiences of only a fraction of the just over 4,000 graduate student workers on campus.

Over the seven years Howell has been involved in fighting for collective bargaining rights, he said he has watched support for the cause swell across campus — last year, activists submitted a petition with more than 800 signatures to state legislators. While he’s encouraged by the movement’s growth, though, he said it’s distressing it’s had to continue for so long.

“It’s just depressing that a good public policy issue can’t just see the light of day,” he said.

Still, Howell has already signed onto his fourth legislative battle. And when he graduates in May — facing life after university with no money put away for retirement after years of earning a teaching assistant’s salary — he knows the fight will go on.

“The desire is still there — just like it was there when I arrived in Maryland,” he said. “It will be there after I leave because it’s everybody’s future.”

Please support our journalism by donating to The Diamondback.


Recommended Articles