Tuesday, February 14, 2012

UMich student let go because of associations with grad student unions?

I don't know if this has been covered elsewhere in the science/chemblogosphere, but I thought it was interesting. It's the story of a dispute between materials engineering graduate student Jennifer Dibbern and her faculty adviser, Rachel Goldman, over efforts to get the research assistants in the department to join the graduate student instructors union:
Former engineering GSRA Jennifer Dibbern claims that shortly after informing her faculty adviser she was an advocate of forming a student researcher union she began receiving poor reviews and was ultimately dismissed. Dibbern said she was essentially told by her adviser to cease her involvement in unionization efforts. 
[UM provost] Hanlon, however, says that's not the case and that Dibbern's account of her dismissal, which she shared during a news conference Wednesday, is incomplete.
"I have personally reviewed the academic record for this case and I'm convinced that the academic decisions made by our faculty were justified and appropriate," Hanlon said, adding that faculty "followed a thorough and fair process and I want to offer my strong support for them."
Here's some of the timeline, as provided by the graduate student union:
August 5: In an individual meeting (called to discuss data) Goldman stated that she wanted to go to the MERC hearing Monday as she feared the union would ruin grad education at U of M. She relayed conversations she had with graduate students who were involved in the No Campaign. In the conversation, she referenced the consent agreement reached between GEO and the University regarding terms of election and said she was following the situation “very closely.”  She then stated Ms. Dibbern had more data than they could review in that meeting and that they would discuss it the following week. 
August 8: At a 10am individual meeting, Goldman reviewed the GEO website and spoke about it with Ms. Dibbern.  She stated that the MERC meeting will determine whether "we have a research university left." She stated she would leave if the union was formed. 
August 8: Goldman sent Ms. Dibbern an email that, for the first time, questioned the progress she was making on research and instructed her to stop all outside activity to demonstrate her commitment to her research. 
August 10: Goldman repeatedly instructed Ms. Dibbern to stop all outside activity, this time in
person.  When Ms. Dibbern asked for clarification, Goldman stated, "you know what I mean."
Here's a snippet of a blog comment from one of the union's stewards, Dan Hirschman (who is speaking for himself.) Go over and read it -- it's much longer and very informative:
Although Prof. Goldman has a reputation for running a very intense lab, no other student was ever told (to my knowledge) to curtail other outside activities (such as participation in sports, or family obligations). The first allegations made by Prof. Goldman of specific failures were in the email linked above, dated August 8 (after having favorably reviewed Dibbern’s progress just two months earlier). Prof. Goldman fired Dibbern just three weeks later. 
So Dibbern and the union seem to have a couple grievances:
  • Professor Goldman seems to have fired Ms. Dibbern not because of any poor performance, but because of her enthusiasm for unionization. 
  • Professor Goldman did not follow established procedures for removing a research assistant.
I think this story is interesting because it lays out the current balance of power between professors and graduate students at top research departments in the US. If the professor doesn't like the graduate student for any reason, they can be removed (counter to the university's own policy!) and the administration will make it very clear that they're going to back the professor, not the student. Graduate students (and especially undergraduates considering graduate school), be aware of this possibility.

If it is indeed true that Professor Goldman runs an intense laboratory, one of her funded students should be aware that announcing that you'd like to get involved in a political and organization effort outside of your laboratory research is really unwise. It may not be fair, but is it worth 2+ years of your research career to die on that hill? (...And this is how the balance of power will continue...) 

I'm also discomfited by the suggested solution by Mr. Hirschman (the union steward):
One brought up above is the ability of PIs to fire research assistants for whatever reason they chose, and how often that is used. At least at Michigan, it is not uncommon for a student to switch labs or to leave a program with just a master’s degree because of disagreements with a PI - personal or professional. That is precisely one of the most important reasons why GEO has pushed to bring RAs into the union (currently graduate student instructors (aka TAs) are covered, but not RAs). PIs should have the ability to fire students who fail in their research tasks, but they should be required to prove that the student has actually failed. (Whether or not PIs should be able to demand 80-hour work weeks and forbid their RAs from taking Christmas vacations is also something that will hopefully be up for negotiation – bearing in mind the complexity that many RAs work on their own projects in conjunction with their paid work.)
"Prove that the student has actually failed"? That sounds like a high bar (depending on who's doing the measuring, of course.)


  1. Or ridiculously low: "The student tried experiment X and it didn't work, therefore they failed." We grade our undergrads that way; why not the graduate students?

    I don't see anything changing...

  2. wow what a massive pile of fucked-up

  3. If Goldman's anything like her colleagues, she probably drives a Prius and voted for Obama, and is very good at turning her beliefs on and off when it's convenient for her.

    The TA vs RA thing needs to be addressed - when I was in grad school, a grad student union was formed, but it only applied to TA's. The problems it dealt with mainly applied to humanities grad students who often had excessive teaching loads. Science students were often treated badly in their RA duties (google Jason Altom for an example), but we generally had light teaching loads. The union extracted dues from science grad students to fight a battle that didn't really apply to us - in my opinion, they should have had separate votes in each department to exempt folks who would pay dues and not benefit much. Unionization could be a good threat to prevent more Sheri Sangi and Jason Altom situations from developing in the future, but only if it applies to RA's and not just TA's.

    1. Unknown as to what car she drives, but in 2004, it appears that a Professor Rachel Goldman at the University of Michigan donated $250 to the DNC.


    2. Great investigative work CJ!

  4. This story is very troubling. I don't know if it's a union the students need but Hirschman is right that dismissing a student from a research group should be more than sudden negative reviews. Personally I think grad students should have a contract, perhaps year-to-year, which outlines expectations. Also, dismissing a student should be a process, like have a probationary period, a plan to address specific criticisms, etc. Goldman can't prove she didn't dismiss the student because of union activities but she doesn't have to.

    1. Also, dismissing a student should be a process, like have a probationary period, a plan to address specific criticisms, etc. Goldman can't prove she didn't dismiss the student because of union activities but she doesn't have to.

      I think there is a process and Prof. Goldman didn't follow it. I think that's the union's/Dibbern's strongest peg to hang something on.

      Of course, how can she be made whole? The adviser/student relationship is already shot, and Dibbern's out 2 years (I guess) of her life.

    2. So there's a process and Goldman didn't follow it and nothing happens to her. I can see why students might want a union.

    3. In the most charitable reading of the situation for Professor Goldman, one could presume that:

      1) Before the provost made his public statement of support, he said to Prof. Goldman: "You know I'm going to back you up on this. You also know that you screwed up. I'm not going to do this again, you know."
      2) No one wants this sort of reputational junk to get out into the open. The e-mail (http://www.annarbor.com/GSRAemail.pdf) is not a pretty one for a research supervisor to write. It's been preserved for eternity that she's a (justifiable?) hardass. Even the most 'intense' professor doesn't want that stuff out there.

      So I hesitate to say that "nothing happens to her." I'd say that the cost to her was insufficient, from the POV of the graduate students.

    4. I've been thinking about this some more, thinking about the specific times to dismiss a student. I think there are probably 3:

      1) ethics or people treatment incident - there should be a code of conduct that students follow
      2) end of 2nd year - this way the time isn't really "wasted." The student can get a master's degree. There should be some criteria for the dismissal, documented by the professor, IMO.
      3) 3rd year "admission to candidacy" - there are several tasks (at least where I went to school) like research proposal, finishing cumes, etc. where a student could be easily dismissed.

      IMO dismissal at other times seem problematic. Like 1st year - they haven't really done enough to be judged (unless there is some kind of ethics violation). Once they are a Ph.D. candidate, it should be very difficult to dismiss the student, they have a lot of time and work put into the program at that point.

    5. Also, that the student didn't understand cloaked criticism is a problem with the professor, I think. Someone who's work is not up to the standards of the professor should be informed of it so they can have a chance to address those criticisms. Trying to read between the lines afterwards is bad.

  5. Just an observation...the email linked in the news article (which you linked at the beginning of the post) lays out a serious deficiency of adequate work. It seems like a measured and reasonable email to see from a PI to a graduate student to indicate general lack of satisfaction with progress. If there is a history of this lack of attention by the student to her paid duties, then dismissal could be the correct course of action. The provost seems to think there was adequate and reasonable treatment.
    What we see, in the other links, is the student's "perception" of the affair, but the professor cannot comment (it is a personnel issue), confirm/deny the timeline, or even defend herself from ad hominem attacks. It is always worth considering that the professor has zero recourse if a student is dissatisfied with a personnel decision and goes "scorched earth".

    1. You've actually hit on something I was meaning to address tomorrow, but let's get it out now. (For those not following, here is the e-mail A11:20a is referencing: http://www.annarbor.com/GSRAemail.pdf) FWIW, I saw this e-mail after I hit "publish", not before.

      As a former graduate student, it's pretty obvious to me that this note is a sign of an unhappy adviser. I am curious to know whether Ms. Dibbern realized that she was skating on thin ice.

      After reading this note, other negative comments (or dismissal) seem pretty par for the course.

    2. If there was a history of inadequate performance, then was the appropriate process for dismissal initiated? It doesn't sound like it, unless this intense PI's hints were too subtle for Ms. Dibbern. I suspect the appropriate process got skirted and that CJ is likely correct in his take that the provost is giving Prof. Goldman a bit of a "grace" on this one.

    3. It's entirely possible that the PI's hints were too subtle - if Goldman had a history of coaxing productivity out of everyone in her group by giving negative feedback and never appearing satisfied, Dibbern might not have realized that she was close to being dismissed.

  6. As a former UM student, I've been following this situation pretty closely. It's worth taking a look at a piece one of Dibberns' former lab mates wrote for the UM student paper regarding her termination. I might also add that, in my experience at UM, most GSRAs were not interested in unionization, as our experiences with the GEO were generally negative.


  7. I have experienced a professor's disdain of student unions and outside activities. When I was a grad student back in 05', our PI (chemistry) forbid us from joining the union even though I personally was paying dues. He also forbid us from tossing a football around (or any sporting activity for that matter) after my lab-mate broke his finger. That guy still came to work and I helped him with his workups as he couldn't really manage a sep funnel with a cast on his hand. Also I came to work when my fume hood that was too short led to chronic back pains, and my PI allowed me to work when knowing I was on vicodin and flexerol. Oh and he took away my vacation time when I had to get my wisdom teeth pulled because I took a few days off. Grad students have been treated poorly at all three of the academic institutions I have worked/currently work at, well and post-docs for that matter too. When will academic professors have to treat their workers with the same rules that apply to workers in the private sector?

  8. To Chemjobber, 11:38AM

    You wrote..."2) No one wants this sort of reputational junk to get out into the open. The e-mail (http://www.annarbor.com/GSRAemail.pdf) is not a pretty one for a research supervisor to write. It's been preserved for eternity that she's a (justifiable?) hardass. Even the most 'intense' professor doesn't want that stuff out there."

    I don't see where this email makes the professor out to be a hardass? I think the email is somewhat reasoned and is simply outlining what she expected of the student, and what happened. I hope this isn't what passes for hardassness these days. I think this is a letter most advisers could write to most students any day of week. Graduate school isn't a simple 40 hour work type of endeavor. It's a commitment that needs to be taken seriously and I don't see a problem with an email that questions someone's work ethic.

    1. How do I parse this out in text?

      - I agree that the e-mail is (assuming best intentions, etc.) reasonable, and in the fat part of the professor bell curve of hardass-ness.
      - I agree with your normative statements about work ethic and graduate school.

      Perhaps "hardass" was the wrong word. It's certainly inelegant.

      I see this e-mail as discipline. Even when it's deserved, it's not pleasant to see anyone be disciplined, even kids. Perhaps I should reword my comment as such: "No one wants their disciplining of students to be public, even when it's deserved. Enforcement of standards is never pretty." Reasonable?

  9. @CJ:

    There is also something called covering your ass and that is where email can come in handy. One can have a meeting and go over everything verbally (discipline, dressing down, etc.) - but there is inherent deniability in that. By committing things to email, there is a record of what was said. So, although you say "No one wants their disciplining of students to be public, even when it's deserved" is more than likely not the intended result. The intended result may simply have been a paper trail. Also, it would have been different if this email was posted on the group website.

  10. This is amusing. The Union if doomed to failure. State and govt officials in Michigan are teaming up with the UMICH faculty to prevent unionization.

    The driving rationale behind their position is that it undermines the student-mentor relationship. What a joke!


  11. I am sure glad I didn't work for Goldman. Wow. I thought my adviser was bad when he blew a gasket when I informed him I was taking a week-long vacation, my first in five years, a few months before I defended.

    There is certainly potential for abuse in the PI/RA relationship, and I think it shines through here. Dibbern may or may not have deserved to be canned, but it's clear that the process is completely broken and one-sided. Goldman's email is intriguing. Dibbern claims this was the first email of this sort she had recieved. If Goldman is such a micro-manager, Goldman should be able to produce a whole host of emails of the same sort, both to Dibbern and others. If Goldman miraculously became a micromanager that particular day, well, the email is a cover. I don't think I have ever received an email from my PI or bosses that went into such detail about what I was doing NOW NOW NOW, and I certainly wouldn't appreciate it.