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C-11  Research Policy Committee

Overview of Activities

At the first meeting of the Research Policy Committee (RPC) on September 10, the chairperson was selected and several issues of concern to committee members were identified. These included UT policy concerning indirect cost return, and issues related to research ethics. Subsequent meetings of the RPC during this academic year addressed some aspects of these issues.

The RPC meetings on October 8, 2001, and November 12, 2001, were devoted to broad policy issues regarding research at UT. On October 8, the RPC met with Dr. Juan Sanchez, vice president for research, to discuss UT's policy for allocation of indirect cost return. On November 12, the RPC met with Dr. Lisa Leiden, director of the Office of Research Support and Compliance, to discuss whether UT is conforming to federal government regulations based on human subject research. Further information about these meetings is given below.

The RPC meetings on February 11, March 4, and April 8 focused on problems concerning the working environment for graduate research assistants at UT Austin.

On February 11, the RPC met with Dr. Teresa Sullivan, vice president for graduate studies, Sherry Sanders from the dean of students office, and Nicole Landes from the student ombudsman's office, to discuss problems that graduate students might be having as GRAs. The result of this meeting was a consensus that UT needs to create a "best practices" statement concerning the mentor-student relationship when a graduate student is appointed to a GRA position. On April 8, the RPC met with Ann Brooks, associate professor of education, who listed steps she thought would be needed in order to begin to formulate a "best practices" statement. Dr. Teresa Sullivan has expressed interest in pursuing this and has forwarded our recommendations to her policy committee.

Summary of Main Results for each Meeting

October 8, 2001
Dr. Juan Sanchez, vice president for research, met with the committee and one of the main issues discussed was UT policy on indirect cost return on research grants. Indirect costs correspond to an amount added to each research proposal to help cover UT's costs for facilities and administration. It is negotiated with the federal government every few years and currently amounts to about 50% of all costs (excluding equipment and tuition) in a proposal. When a proposal is funded and UT receives these funds, 50% goes to the state of Texas and 25% is given to the various deans of colleges to be used at their discretion. The way in which these funds are used is different for each college. There was some discussion at the meeting about problems that have arisen when a college changes the way the funds are used without notifying previous recipients.

November 12, 2001
Dr. Lisa Leiden, director of the Office of Research Support and Compliance (ORSC), and Sharon Brown, associate vice president for research, met with the RPC to describe the responsibilities of this new office. The ORSC has three main responsibilities: (1) human subject research, (2) institutional bio-safety, and (3) animal research. Currently, ORSC, under Dr. Leiden's direction, is trying to prepare UT Austin for an audit by the federal government as regards its compliance to federal regulations governing research on human subjects. It is not known when this audit will occur, but it will be sometime within the next few years, and at stake is federal funding that UT Austin receives. The UT administration is taking this very seriously. The U.S. government has recently suspended funding at some institutions because research projects did not have adequate approval or documentation. If UT passes the audit, it will receive accreditation to pursue human research. Such accreditation has been granted to UT for its animal research. The main issue of concern to the federal government is this: Are the human subjects in research projects protected and do they understand what will happen to them in the research project? Research projects that involve human subjects at UT Austin must now receive approval from the UT Institute Review Board (IRB), which meets once a month. This approval process must be fully documented and available to the federal auditors. Beginning in spring 2002, no PhD dissertation, which involves human subjects, will be accepted by the graduate school unless it has IRB approval. The ORSC is very concerned that some PhD candidates, those who began their research more than two years ago, may not have obtained IRB approval and will have problems when they attempt to graduate.

February 11, 2002
The committee met with Dr. Teresa Sullivan, vice president for graduate studies; Sherry Sanders, from the dean of students office; and Nicole Landes, from the student ombudsman's office. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the working conditions of graduate research assistants.

Dr. Sullivan had a list of GRA salaries and showed that these vary significantly from college to college. Also, concern was raised about the length of time it takes for some students to complete their PhD dissertation work, and a number of scenarios were discussed as to why this may happen. These included the following: (1) many students work at other jobs and can only work on PhD degrees part time, (2) some students delay their graduation to write more papers and improve their chances for good jobs after graduation, (3) some foreign students delay to stay in the U.S. longer, and (4) advisers may sometimes delay the graduation of their students because the students provide inexpensive expert labor.

The issue of harassment is a concern to Sherry Sanders. Cases of harassment can involve male or female students, although the majority of cases involve female students. She mentioned that these cases often involve the same faculty members and can lead to litigation.

The student ombudsman office appears to be one of the first places a student will go if they have problems. Nicole Landes gave the committee information concerning cases the ombudsman office dealt with during 2000-2001. They saw 889 students and officially opened 130 cases. Approximately 22% of the cases they see concern graduate students. The problems graduate students encounter include: (1) conflicts with their graduate adviser/committee, (2) conflicts with instructors, (3) conflicts with their department, (4) scholastic dishonesty, and (4) problems with University services.

Many of the problems that students encounter do not get resolved because students fear retaliation. This is something that everyone agreed was occurring. It was also agreed that a preferred way to deal with these problems is at the departmental level, but only a few departments appear to handle these problems well.

One result of the meeting was a consensus that the University could be doing more to head off potential problems before they reach a crisis stage. It was pointed out that there are no guidelines regarding the student-faculty working relationship at the graduate level. Students (and perhaps some faculty) have no idea what is considered to be professional conduct. It was determined that the Research Policy Committee might help in developing a "best practices" guideline as regards the working environment for graduate research assistants.

Teresa Sullivan gave committee members a questionnaire that the graduate school is developing to gain insight into the range of problems faced by graduate students. Dr. Sullivan asked if committee members could read the questionnaire and give her feedback concerning its content.

March 4, 2002
The committee met on Monday, March 4, and discussed the GRA survey that is being considered by the graduate school.

April 8, 2002
The topics of discussion at the April 8 meeting included: (1) the summary of results of a recent graduate school survey of GRAs, and (2) issues involved in the creation of a "best practices" policy regarding GRA working conditions. An invited guest expert, Ann Brooks, associate professor of education, described what she thought might be involved in the creation of a "best practices" policy. She gave us an outline of how to proceed, which is reproduced below. In short, she said that it is necessary to get all issues on the table, and one way to do this is with focus groups. She suggested setting up three cross-college focus groups (six people in each group). These focus groups would involve faculty, students, and administrators, respectively, to help generate issues based on their experience, and the results should be available for discussion to a wider group of interested members of the University community. Professor Brooks indicated that human resources has some experience with such things and might be helpful.

After Professor Brooks left, the committee again discussed whether or not creation of such a "best practices" policy was worthwhile. The committee unanimously agreed that it is worthwhile and should be done.

Below is a procedure, suggested by Professor Ann Brooks, for developing a "best practices" policy.

Thoughts on Developing a Faculty/Graduate Student Mentoring Relationship Ethics Document

  • F aculty-graduate student mentoring relationships are power saturated.
  • Although graduate students are not powerless in the relationship, students' formal power is only available through invoking institutional policy or legal sanctions.
  • Both participants in a mentoring relationship need to experience the relationship as beneficial and non-explosive.
  • An ethics document for faculty that addresses this relationship needs to specify the elements of this power relationship.
A Possible Process for Generating the Document
1. Set up three cross-disciplinary/cross-college focus groups, each comprised of a different group of stakeholders: (a) faculty; (b) graduate students; (c) administrators, who address grievances or complaints regarding these relationships.
2. Have each focus group generate a list and explore issues around breaches of ethics in faculty/graduate student mentoring relationships, either that they have themselves experienced or about which they have heard happened or could imagine happening.
3. Record each focus group and have them selectively transcribed for items directly useful to the list.
4. Cluster the results into topic areas with major subareas or descriptors.
5. Distribute results to the "ethics document committee" for comments and then meet again to discuss a revised document that incorporates the comments.
6. Incorporate insights and refinements into the document.
7. Go through steps 4 and 5 until the "ethics document committee" is satisfied with the document.
8. Distribute the document to a broader base of concerned people for written comment. Inform them that no comment indicates satisfaction with the document as it stands.
9. "Ethics document committee" meet to consider how, if at all, to incorporate comments gathered from the wider community into the final document.
10. Generate the final version.

  Linda Reichl, chair

This document was posted on the Faculty Council Web site, www.utexas.edu/faculty/council/ on July 29, 2002. Paper copies are available on request from the Office of the General Faculty, FAC 22, F9500.

  Last updated:July 29, 2002
  Comments Welcome.
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