A University of Utah report, commissioned after the apparent suicide of a graduate student, describes significant dysfunction within the school’s physics and astronomy department.
Overworked students are left aimless and their degree completion delayed, while “factionalized” faculty members prone to “temper flares” avoid contact with one another, according to a March 8 memorandum by outside attorneys Larry Perlman and Julie Lee.
“Currently, a number of faculty members refuse to speak with each other, pointing to issues with loyalty and trust,” the memorandum states. “The lack of communication amongst faculty members has had a negative impact on department morale.”
The attorneys, with the Florida law firm Foley and Lardner, were asked by U. administrators to review issues and concerns related to the experience of graduate students after the October death of an international doctoral degree candidate.
Their memorandum was released by the U. on March 17, along with a statement outlining changes to the physics and astronomy department.
The department will not accept new graduate students during the 2018-19 academic year. And Peter Trapa, a U. professor of mathematics, will take over as chairman of the department.
“It comes down to better monitoring of the progress of graduate students,” U. spokesman Chris Nelson said of the leadership changes. “These students are spending too much time before they graduate the program.”
Allegations of abuse and sexual harassment by faculty accompanied the graduate student’s suicide. But the attorneys found no evidence to corroborate what it described as anonymous assertions after interviewing more than 40 individuals, including U. faculty, staff and administrators, current and former student and the family and friends of the deceased.
“No interviewee identified concerns or observations of sexual harassment, discrimination, sexual assault, or any sexual relationship involving the student or individuals in the lab in which the student conducted research,” the memorandum states.
The attorneys did find evidence of institutional problems, with multiple students — including the deceased — failing to complete their programs in a timely fashion as a result of lax oversight and faculty bickering.
Department programs were also altered unilaterally and students were asked to write letters in support of a faculty member’s tenure application, both in violation of U. policies.
The attorneys suggested the effect of lapses within the department’s leadership were potentially amplified for international students, due to their lack of familiarity with the norms of higher education in the United States.
“International students may hesitate to raise concerns regarding their experiences and progression,” the memorandum stated. “Because they are from other countries, they may tend to perceive negative experiences as ‘normal’ for the United States.“
Trapa on Thursday said he was optimistic about providing more structure to students and healing the interpersonal tensions between the department’s employees. Investment in a common purpose is a powerful way to bring people together, he said, and the university has laid out clear expectations for the physics and astronomy department.
“I think we’re going to come together,” he said. “We’re going to make a lot of progress in a short amount of time.”
Trapa did not anticipate additional faculty or staff reorganization. And he said administrators will review the department’s progress later this year to determine whether an extension of the enrollment freeze is necessary.
“That allows us to devote more attention and more resources to our existing students,” he said.
The suicide of the graduate student, who is from China, occurred in the same month as the shooting death of a Chinese undergraduate student on the University of Utah campus.
Nelson said U. administrators have proactively met with the school’s Chinese student association and international student clubs following the deaths. Information has also been shared with Chinese media organizations, he said, and the memorandum on the physics and astronomy department is available in Mandarin on the university’s website.
“We do take it seriously and that’s why we’re trying to be so transparent,” Nelson said. “We’re doing a lot of hands-on outreach to these student to make sure they’re getting listened to and getting the support they need.”