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COVID-19 response for graduate students discussed at Administrative Board meeting

<p>A screenshot of the Administrative Board of the Graduate School meeting held via Zoom on Tuesday, April 21, 2020.&nbsp;</p>
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A screenshot of the Administrative Board of the Graduate School meeting held via Zoom on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. 

The Administrative Board of the Graduate School discussed possible responses to COVID-19, its upcoming budget and a potential change to the GRE testing requirement at its meeting Tuesday afternoon via Zoom. 

The Graduate School’s response to COVID-19 was the main topic of discussion at the meeting. 

The Administrative Board has legislative powers in matters that impact graduate students’ education, according to the Graduate School Handbook. Dean of the Graduate School Suzanne Barbour is the chairperson of the board, which additionally consists of academic and health affairs faculty representatives appointed by the Chancellor.

Jennifer Gerz-Escandón, associate dean for Interdisciplinary Education and Fellowship Programs, discussed the Carolina Graduate Student COVID-19 Impact Program. The program will provide financial support to doctoral students whose paid summer experiences were cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic.

Gerz-Escandón said a steady stream of applications have been submitted since the program’s launch and funding will be awarded starting in May.

Barbour said actions have been taken in an effort to address graduate students’ concerns such as converting some courses to a pass/fail grading system, extending the deadline to complete degree requirements and offering weekly virtual social circles that graduate students can attend.

“We recognize that accommodations are only a part of the question,” Barbour said. “There’s also the issue of how students feel about themselves, feel about their prospects for the future, feel about staying in graduate school or doing something completely different. Student wellness is also something that is on our radar screen.”

The general themes emerging from responses to the COVID-19 Student Care Hub survey administered by the University are difficulty focusing and loss of ambition among students, Barbour said.

Michelle Hoffner O'Connor, the Board’s Graduate and Professional Student Federation representative, said another concern among graduate students is navigating conversations with advisers and thesis committees who may be expecting too much of students in an environment that may not be the most conducive to productive work.

Michael Jarstfer, associate dean for graduate education at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, said professors are struggling to find the best way to help students be productive without adding undue pressures.

“Communication is really key,” Jarstfer said. “I think the faculty really want to hear from students and what their needs are.”

Barbour asked the board to consider additional non-financial ways the Graduate School can better support its students.

“We’ve gotten requests, for example, to increase graduate student stipends across the University, and while certainly having more money in their pockets would make a difference for graduate students at this time — no question about it— the degree to which the University can do that is very questionable right now,” Barbour said.

Barbour said budget cuts are expected in the upcoming fiscal year due to the impacts of COVID-19. She said all UNC deans have been advised to think carefully about what expenses should be prioritized and what they could potentially do without.

In response, Andrew Nobel, a professor in the Department of Statistics and Operations Research, voiced his concern about graduate student stipends. Nobel said stipends should not be decreased due to financial constraints.

Barbour said she has not heard discussions about a reduction.

Barbour emphasized that the Graduate School is able and willing to work with students individually to address their needs.

At the end of the meeting, Barbour asked the board to consider a five-year pilot in which the GRE — the standardized exam used in the admissions process at many graduate schools — would no longer be required at the graduate school level. Instead, individual graduate programs could opt-in to requiring GRE scores based on the emphasis programs place on the test in the application process.

Barbour cited data that suggest the GRE is not predictive of success in graduate programs in all disciplines, and that some underrepresented groups do not perform well on the test as reasons to consider making the change.

Bill Rivenbark, professor of public administration and government and MPA program director, said GRE scores are a valuable piece of information in the admissions process at UNC’s School of Government. He said the score provides consistency in the evaluation of applicants, unlike GPAs, which vary significantly by school.

Board members did not vote on the proposal during the meeting. Many said they wanted to have time to more thoroughly consider the proposal and get feedback from their department faculty.

Although the board was not scheduled to meet again until the fall, they decided to hold another meeting in May solely on the topic of the GRE requirement. If the board votes to remove the GRE requirement from the graduate school level, the change could be incorporated into the upcoming admissions cycle.

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