The School of Continuing Studies created unrealistic graduation expectations while providing sparse guidance for assembling thesis review committees, according to dissatisfied disaster sciences graduate program students.
The four-year-old program, which has graduated five students, has not upheld the University of Richmond reputation for intimate professor-student relationships, disaster sciences students Doug Goad and Andrew Hoehl said.
Hoehl said he chose the program because Richmond alumni friends had spoken highly of their alma mater, returning to visit and reveling in the 2008 football championship.
"That's the kind of pride I wanted for UR when I left there," Hoehl said. "I don't think that'll ever happen for me."
Goad said his other Richmond associations - working as manager of equipment and facilities at the Weinstein Center for Recreation and Wellness, and enrolling for his undergraduate degree eight years ago - were satisfying. But he called the graduate program the dark side.
"I'm one thesis away, and I don't think I'll ever see my masters diploma," Goad said.
At a March 2008 meeting, Walter Green, the program chairman, had approved Goad's plan to walk at graduation that May, complete his thesis during the summer and graduate in August, Goad said.
But when 10 students - including Goad - tried to register for the thesis course, there were not enough professors willing to chair their thesis committees. Former program coordinator Elizabeth McDade, who left the university after the spring 2008 semester, then told Goad in an April e-mail that his graduation plan was unfeasible because of limited faculty summer availability. Goad had already paid his graduation fee and ordered his cap and gown. He said other students had invited family members and reserved hotel rooms.
In another April e-mail, McDade admitted to Hoehl that the process for graduation application was flawed and that SCS Dean James Narduzzi was working on a new policy that would not set up unrealistic student expectations.
Green said he could not specifically remember what had been said in his meeting with Goad, but knew he had never told a student that a thesis would take fewer than two semesters. Completing it in one semester would take being a genius and unemployed, Green said.
Two thesis-oriented concentration courses had already devoted a year to the thesis before even enrolling in the thesis course, Hoehl said. Maintaining 3.6 and 3.9 GPAs in the masters program, Goad and Hoehl said their overdue graduations were no reflection of their unwillingness to work, but rather of the unwillingness of the program's supervisors to help them find the four-member committees - two from the department, one from outside the department and one student.
Sitting on a committee has low appeal for faculty members, because they earn 60 percent more teaching a course for the same 150 hours, Green said. Because the program is online-based, Hoehl said it had been especially difficult to find non-department members when he didn't know any.
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Hoehl, who had been anticipating graduation this past August, which was then pushed back to December and is unlikely to occur this May, is still without a full committee. He wrote the five-chapter thesis without a committee, under the advising of Ronald Wakeham, the one adjunct-professor helped despite another full-time job. But Hoehl can't graduate without full committee revisions.
McDade told Hoehl in an April 2008 e-mail to worry about his thesis and the university would take care of his committee. But Hoehl said he had found out only at the end of February 2009 that he was responsible for recruiting his own committee, through an e-mail from McDade's replacement, Bo Harris.
Green said he encouraged students to recruit their own committees but would help if necessary.
"If a student has a problem, we will assist them in finding a committee member," Green said.
Green was assigned to Hoehl's committee in another February 2009 e-mail from Harris. Hoehl said he had e-mailed Green at the time but had not received a response until two weeks ago on April 2. Green said he received 150 e-mails a day, and sometimes they got mistaken as spam. But he said that he eventually got back to people.
Another student, Lori Kabel, wrote in an August 2008 e-mail to Goad that Green's response to her eventually came, but a month too late. Kabel had moved to Colorado after being told she would need to start her thesis over, one she had been working on since 2006 and had cost $6,000. She was also preparing for an October deployment to Iraq and couldn't fly back to Richmond, as Green suggested, when he responded that her thesis wasn't as far as off as he'd thought.
"These are people that it's affecting [their] real life," Goad said.
If Hoehl doesn't graduate this May, his $1,000 tuition remission for the $2,340 thesis course will expire with his employer's July budget. He has invested $12,870 in the program and has already had to begin paying student loans last month because the university didn't submit a letter to his student loan provider listing him as an independent-study student.
"I'm spending money on a degree that I don't have, that I can't use to better my employment or move on with my life or my career," Hoehl said.
The Registrar's office could not prepare an enrollment verification because he was not enrolled in any credit hours, according to a December 2008 e-mail to Hoehl. The financial aid office is required to notify the National Student Loan Data System when a student is enrolled for fewer than the half-time status of six hours per term, according to an e-mail from Cindy Deffenbaugh, director of financial aid.
Green said he has never heard of loan or tuition remission problems. Students might be confused about the timeline for a thesis, because the thesis course appears as a one-semester charge on tuition bills, he said.
According to a Blackboard thesis manual, an exceptional student could complete a thesis in one semester, but this has never happened. The manual was not published until May, when students anticipated they'd be walking for their August graduation.
Narduzzi said students must recognize the time a thesis requires, but he believed the SCS was on top of the thesis process.
"We have a set of expectations and standards for a thesis," Narduzzi said. "The expectations are that these are major scholarly pieces of research."
Goad and Hoehl met with Narduzzi and Ned Swartz, associate dean, in July 2008 about the concerns of the students, who had begun e-mail chains sharing their frustrations.
Making contact with Narduzzi seemed to get things done, said Hoehl, who has 60 pages of e-mails trying to resolve problems.
Goad said Narduzzi admitted there had been problems with the program, but that no real progress had been made. Narduzzi said he had never heard of any committee assembly difficulties, and that no one had come to him in six months.
Some students, such as Ellen Black and Anna McRay, have eventually completed the program. Black said it was not perfect, but she has come to acknowledge the shortcomings as her own and will graduate in May.
McRay wrote an e-mail to Goad explaining that McDade had also denied her August graduation plans, and that her breast cancer diagnosis would delay them further. She has since completed her thesis this year and has received support from the program directors during her recent battle with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
A non-thesis track was created last semester, but Narduzzi said its dissimilar courses would compare to a switch from history to French for those students with time and money already invested in the thesis track.
"They've done a ton of things to make it better," Goad said. "But what about [those students] that are still trying to finish ... [who got] burnt in the process?"
Contact staff writer Maura Bogue at email@example.com
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