By: Hibah Chughtai
Paul Thaler spoke with The Michigan Daily about the imbalance of power between students and their research professors in regard to reporting misconduct and abuse.
The University of Michigan prides itself on being one of the nation’s top public research universities. Across all three campuses, 20,540 graduate students and 8,598 faculty members study and work at the University, many of whom are active in research. In addition, over 1,500 undergraduates participate in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program at the Ann Arbor campus.
Despite the thousands of researchers, the University’s anonymous reporting system received only seven reports in 2019 related to “issues arising in the research setting,” according to University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen.
A Michigan Daily investigation found that flaws in the system deterred student researchers from reporting alleged abuse. The Daily spoke to three students who claimed the small size of their lab prevented them from using the University’s reporting system to report alleged misconduct. The Daily also found that little oversight of research supervisors strengthens the hierarchical system in research labs.
Jason Altom, a graduate student in Harvard University’s chemistry department, died by suicide in 1998. Two of the three suicide notes Altom left called for changes to the department that he felt could have prevented his death.
“Professors here have too much power over the lives of their grad students,” Altom wrote in one of his notes.
After extensive coverage by The New York Times, Harvard’s chemistry department adopted a series of changes, including a three-member committee to monitor student researcher progress and free, confidential access to a therapist. Since Altom’s passing, journalists have uncovered alleged research abuse at other institutions like Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.