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EDITORIAL: We Need to Clear the Air in Graduate Programs

By James Lyons Walsh | November 6, 2023

Walsh is a UAlbany alumnus who graduated in 2020 and who offered this essay for publication.

A photo taken on Aug. 9, 2023 of east-facing windows in the Massry Center for Business, including a pane damaged, apparently, by an impact.

Photo Credit: James Lyons Walsh

The killing in August at the University of North Carolina of Professor Zijie Yan, allegedly by his graduate student Tailei Qi, has me thinking about my efforts in 2019-20, as I finished my physics doctorate at the University at Albany, to improve conditions for graduate students in my department. I don’t have any reason to believe that Prof. Yan did anything wrong and certainly do not believe that the killing of Prof. Yan is in any way justified. As a person trained not just in physics but also in education, I believe that bad student outcomes can motivate teacher reflection and yield insights that may improve education.

My activism was prompted by the death of John Carlos Garcia-Mendez, a senior in physics at UAlbany who was found dead after disappearing just before final exams in May 2019. His mother said, “I think he was depressed about not graduating.” I don’t know the manner of his death, and I have no particular reason to believe that anything untoward happened at UAlbany. Nevertheless, the department’s loss and the department’s silence about that loss fired me up to do what I could for the students I knew best: my fellow physics graduate students.

Just before the semester started, I happened to find out that I, and other teaching assistants, were going to be assigned overload duties. I complained to the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU), and the matter was resolved satisfactorily. I was acting mainly on behalf of others, but if a graduate student needs to speak up about their working conditions, the GSEU is there for them. I note that Mr. Qi wrote on social media about working extremely long hours, a condition not conducive to maintaining civilized behavior, let alone doing good research.

In 2019-20, I had concerns about what I considered to be unnecessary stress in my own life as a student, which suggested that there was room for improving other students’ lives, too. When I wanted to do something about this, I didn’t know how to begin. I had gotten the impression that professors in the department wanted students to talk to them about any problems we had and that professors thought that they had the best interests of students at heart. However, the interests of professors and students can diverge, especially when the professors are not only teachers but also bosses and, in the view of some, friends of their students.

I was satisfied with the resolution of the complaint I eventually made, but I believe that the process by which the complaint was resolved should be considered unprofessional. I met alone with the person I recall having been told was head of the Graduate Studies Committee. This should never have happened. I should have had representation, or at least an advisor, in the complaint process. I should have been directed to the Graduate Student Ombuds Office, which can supply any graduate student with confidential advice from a professor in another department.

According to a quote in the Times Union attributed to Prof. Doug Chrisey, the thesis advisor at RPI of Prof. Yan, “Yan mentioned to me in our last correspondence how one of his graduate students had a mental health problem causing delusions and he hoped he could graduate quickly and remain stable. He let his department know of the situation.”

Did that department provide Mr. Qi with an advocate? I believe that graduate students ought to be given representation by an ombudsperson automatically, as soon as they complain about a professor or a professor complains about them. This would protect both students and professors while promoting professionalism and maintaining confidentiality. Knowing that someone is on your side promotes mental stability, too.

I read in The Daily Tar Heel that "almost 200" professors at the University of North Carolina petitioned for improved mental health treatment for graduate students. I didn’t hear that the professors had secured salary increases, reduced working hours, or any of the other employer concessions that could reduce the strain on the mental health of their students.

The same Daily Tar Heel article mentions the burden on professors’ mental health from various sources, including their efforts to help students deal with stress. As a person trained in education, unlike most professors, and a person who was subjected as a teenager to unwanted, harmful interventions, I wish that professors would do far less themselves about the mental health of students and leave such matters to professionals. In fact, no intervention at all might often be preferable to the untutored psychological ministrations of untrained teachers.

There seems to be a subtle point of confusion when it comes to reducing violence. Regardless of what anyone thinks of people who have committed violent crime, criminals were, at one time, innocent people. There is evidence that higher levels of “social stress” are correlated with higher levels of “maladaptive behaviors, violence, and crime.” Thus, reducing the stress on innocent people might well reduce the rate at which they become criminals, harm themselves, or simply implode mentally.

Making it easier for innocent people to cry out against the conditions of their lives may reduce the likelihood that they will commit offenses. As I wrote recently in a letter to the Times Union, we should promote the suicide and crisis lifeline, 988, as a resource for people considering harming others, not just for those considering harming themselves. We could likewise connect graduate students to the advocates already available to them, rather than hoping that they’ll keep all their troubles en famille, within the department.

Faculty in each department could conduct a meeting, once each year, to discuss adverse student outcomes. Most often, the teachers would be found to bear little or no responsibility for the poor results, but thoughtfully confronting each premature student departure will, at least occasionally, bring forth useful ideas for improving instruction. I was taught in the adolescence education program at the College of Saint Rose to reflect on my teaching, and it’s common sense to recognize that silence corrodes institutions by multiplying suspicions among their members.

Furthermore, I wish that every student who passes through the university’s halls would receive some measure of recognition from the faculty when they leave, even if it’s just a few moments of thought about why they didn’t graduate.

One of the most chilling things I heard while advocating for student safety was that professors are afraid of students. Cancel culture endangers students by increasing the degree to which professors and administrators are secretive, inflexible, and defensive. Most professors already lack the advantages of having been forced to confront their privilege and the nature of power differentials, as trained teachers were in their education programs. If professors, who can almost effortlessly end the career prospects earned by students through intense and years-long work, start to think of themselves as nice people threatened by unhinged students, universities will become increasingly dangerous for everyone. The solution to this problem will come from discussion of it, not secrecy.

Even very nice places can become unwholesome if the air is never cleared.

Before studying at UAlbany, James Lyons Walsh received bachelor's and master’s degrees in physics from the University of Vermont and a certificate of advanced study in adolescence education from the College of Saint Rose. Because of the good offices of his thesis advisor at UAlbany, James completed the Complex Systems Summer School of the Santa Fe Institute. Since leaving UAlbany, he has written about the global polycrisis, the mutually reinforcing crises that threaten our civilization.

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