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October 26, 2019

Message from Ian Robertson, Oct. 26, 2019

An article published online today by the Wisconsin State Journal recounts the tragic death of an engineering graduate student in 2016. As the dean and a parent, I was shaken by the heartbreaking details of this loss. I know many of you will have a similar reaction. We have resources available to you; I’ve listed them below, and I encourage you to reach out.

The article describes a related investigation that led to disciplinary actions taken against a faculty member who was found in violation of the university’s policy on hostile and intimidating behavior. As the article indicates, this behavior was investigated after the death of this student, when the parents shared information with me about their son’s experience.

In the College of Engineering, we are fully committed to maintaining a supportive climate of inclusion, diversity, and collegiality in which all members of our community treat each other with respect, and hostile or intimidating behavior is not tolerated.

What constitutes hostile or intimidating behavior? UW-Madison defines it as “unwelcome behavior pervasive or severe enough that a reasonable person would find it hostile and/or intimidating and that does not further the University’s academic or operational interests.”

The behavior of the individual faculty member demonstrates a significant lapse in the college’s commitment to maintain a supportive climate. We need to renew and strengthen this commitment, and where needed, commit to change. I want you to be aware of the resources in place, and the continued focus on this important issue. Speaking for our faculty and staff, we want anyone experiencing or witnessing negative behavior to feel comfortable and safe bringing those experiences to our attention. The resources in the graduate student handbooks identify ways to do that. More are included at the end of this message.

Several steps have been taken to renew our commitment to a supportive climate. These include:

  • Providing training on addressing hostile and intimidating behavior to college leadership, faculty and staff.
  • Creating the position of Assistant Dean of Graduate Affairs in the College of Engineering (currently, Chris Brace). The assistant dean has taken several actions to address climate concerns of graduate students, including:
    • Developing a list of graduate student resources for grievances in the college
    • Creating and meeting regularly with a graduate student advisory group to hear concerns and address issues as they arise.
    • Hosting organized activities with graduate students throughout the year, encouraging the creation of a positive climate among peers.
    • Utilizing a new annual advising assessment tool.
  • Distributing a list of mental health resources available to advisors and graduate students.
  • Providing space for University Health Services to house a mental health professional on the engineering campus part-time.
  • Ensuring a Grievance Advisor has been identified in each of the eight academic departments in the college.
  • Ensuring a grievance policy is made clear in departments’ graduate student handbooks
  • Initiating department-specific exercises on civility and defining department expectations for behavior.

The issue of hostile and intimidating behavior is a disturbing one, but it is one we must face and remain diligent in our efforts to combat. As UW-Madison engineers, we should lead by example and create the environment that supports us as we strive for success. I want to assure you the leadership of the college and university are committed to addressing issues swiftly and appropriately; I hope you will feel comfortable bringing concerns to our attention. Our policies specifically prohibit retaliation against anyone raising a concern.

For more information on preventing or addressing issues of hostile and intimidating behavior involving faculty, staff, or students, the university has posted information on their human resources website.

We also want to share our concern and support for students’ mental health. If you are struggling with this or any issue, or if you’re concerned for the well-being of someone you know, call University Health Services to speak with an on-call crisis counselor who will help address your most pressing concerns, assess your safety and help connect you will follow-up service needs. They can be reached at (608) 265-5600, option 9.

I commit to creating opportunities to talk with any of you who are interested this week and again in following weeks about the broader issues of climate and community building in our department.