ATEC revising doctoral program after complaint, third party investigation
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools reviewed, starting in 2013, UTD and the Arts and Technology program after accusations were made by a student that the program was not up to academic standards.
While the ATEC program was cleared on all counts as of June 2014, the university awaits a decision on two counts of compliance.
The review was initiated after a former ATEC doctoral student, Leslie McMillin, filed a complaint in 2013 with SACS, the accrediting institution for UTD, alleging lack of discursive rigor in the ATEC Ph.D. program.
For a complete list of complaints and issues go here.
There were various complaints: claims that masters and doctoral students were required to take classes together; faculty teaching masters classes that they were not qualified to instruct and that the program only had two core courses and far too many independent study courses, McMillin said.
While the structure of the program at the time McMillin attended the ATEC doctoral program (2010 – 2012) allowed a student to take many independent study courses, there were no discrepancies in regard to faculty qualifications, said ATEC Ph.D. advisor Frank Dufour. Masters and doctoral students were often required to take classes together in the nacent years of the program, although Ph.D. students had to submit additional research deliverables, he said.
“And that was expected. The program was in its first year and we did not have the faculty members to teach a whole series of organized courses and we did not have the student population to justify that,” Dufour said. “That is the reality of beginning a doctoral program.”
There weren’t enough resources available to provide organized courses but the faculty did their best by offering independent study courses.
In a program such as ATEC, independent studies allow for more flexibility and in many parts of the world, doctoral programs are comprised entirely of them, he said.
Sherri Segovia, who will be ATEC’s first doctoral graduate this spring, said the requirement of two core courses paired with the independent studies helped her create a custom structure for her course.
Segovia, who had some classes with McMillin, joined the program even before the Ph.D. program was officially instated in 2007. She already had a Master of Fine Arts in dance and knew she wanted to combine dance and technology in her dissertation, she said.
“I approached it when I came in knowing that no one here was going to be able to provide the dance angle,” Segovia said. “I already knew I was going to have to define for myself my own trajectory.”
In addition to the two core courses, students had to take seven electives which could be chosen from a wide selection of classes, Segovia said. Students in the program are also required to take four free electives that are organized classes.
The fact that ATEC draws students from a variety of backgrounds including fine arts and technology makes it very difficult to tailor the program to suit everyone, Segovia said.
“How could they create a template that could be applicable to so many of us?” she said.
McMillin, however, said she felt that the quality of education was lowered by mixing masters and doctoral students together. She also said that the syllabi of some undergraduate and graduate courses were identical and the additional requirements for graduate students were not very rigorous, such as turning in a five-page research paper.
Segovia said the doctoral courses require more discursive rigor and she too shared classes with MFA students, but that there was still much to learn from the other doctoral colleagues in those classes.
McMillin said the admission policies for ATEC doctoral students weren’t rigorous at the time and the stipend for teaching assistants was also low compared to other schools. Segovia said she agreed the stipend wasn’t enough.
“I couldn’t live on my TA salary, I’ve had to supplement it,” she said. “I’m not as inclined to be an activist about it because I don’t have time.”
One doctoral class in McMillin’s concentration was canceled in fall 2012 because it did not meet the minimum enrollment requirement of five students, McMillin said.
Although the class was re-instated after Dufour found two other students to enroll in it, the incident ultimately made McMillin question the administration on academic policies.
McMillin spoke up on the issues with the program director and other top faculty members several times during her time at UTD.
“If no one stands up and does anything it’s never going to get better,” she said.
She filed a complaint first at the university level with the Provost’s office in fall 2012 and then with the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board which forwarded her complaint to SACS for review in 2013.
SACS asked UTD for materials on eight separate issues and cleared two of them during the Board of Trustees meeting in December 2013.
Dufour was in charge of preparing documentation for SACS and realized the shortcomings of the program during the process, he said.
“We had to acknowledge that yes, we were in a program in its infancy and we did our best to comply with the requirements,” Dufour said. “But (with) some of them, yes, we failed. We failed at offering a large selection of graduate courses every semester. Yes, we failed at having large enrollment in seven thousand-level courses.”
However, he said that these are common problems to run into the first few years after a new doctoral program is launched. Several of these issues have been remedied already, and Ph.D. students in the program now take four core courses, a requirement that is set to change again this fall, he said. Starting fall 2015, teaching assistants will also receive a higher stipend.
More faculty have been hired since and the leadership and faculty within the program are all engaged toward improving the quality of education which is what matters, Dufour said.
“Basically SACS said what everyone else says— “Yes, you’ve made mistakes,” he said. “I have made mistakes and here they are and I made them because there were no other possibilities and if it was wrong then that’s just the way it is. But I know exactly what happened and we know that we’re working toward avoiding that in the future.”