MCS GSAC Meeting Minutes
October 19, 2004

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November 17, 2004

GSAC Meeting
Tuesday, October 19, 2004

In attendance:

Abhijit Brahme (PHY)
Gerard Brunick (MSC)
Zeb Krahn (PHY)
Allison Marciszyn (BSC)
Violeta Marin (CMY)
Sandra Zimmerman (BSC)

Gregg Franklin
Rea Freeland
Katya Malkin
Rick McCullough

1. Undergraduate Access to Mellon Institute after Hours
Undergraduates do not have access to Mellon Institute after 11:00 PM and on weekends. Some of them work closely with graduate students and while it is understood that they should not be allowed to work in the labs alone, they may still need access to the library or need to get in to work on the weekend.

When the issue of undergraduate access was initially raised, a decision was made not to give them access for several reasons. First, there was concern about them being in the labs alone and safety issues associated with this. Secondly, there has been some difficulty in getting their access cards back when they leave. This is a security issue in general but has been more of a problem with undergraduates.

Suggestions for allowing access while dealing with these issues included cutting off everyone's access at the end of each semester (i.e., coding the system so that their cards no longer work) and requiring them to specifically request access at the beginning of the next semester, or requiring a special request from the department fro each undergraduate who needs to have access (since the majority of them do not).

Rick will check with Sharon about this and bring these suggestions to her attention. He added that there might be insurance issues that we are unaware of.

2. Lack of Security in Mellon Institute
Although everyone acknowledged that significant efforts have been made to improve security in Mellon, there are still some outstanding issues:
  • Guards do not check IDs during the day, particularly when people follow someone else into the building who has an access card.
  • Guards leave at 11:00 PM, when many graduate students are still entering and leaving the building, and when security is most important.
Over two million dollars have been spent to upgrade and improve security in the building. This includes added security guards and improved lighting outside of the building, particularly at the rear entrance where most people come and go.

Suggestions for improvement included informing people by word of mouth that guards will check IDs and thus encouraging those who have proper ID to present it, posting informal sign in sheets so that if you are working late, you will know who else is in the building, and placing alarms on lab or office doors. One biology lab uses an alarm and although it does not alert campus police it will at least let someone working there know when someone else has come in and perhaps discourage someone from entering who should not be there. Finally, Gregg suggested making security pendants available to those who are working after 11:00 PM, which would alert campus police if activated. We would need to have a better idea of how may people are typically in the building at this time in order to determine the cost.

Finally, campus police do perform walk throughs of the building from time to time, though less frequently now that security has been increased. Another option for increasing personal safety is to take the Escort Service home. One problem with this is that the service does not go to all local neighborhoods where students live.

3. Parking for Graduate Students
This year, the parking lot assignment policy for graduate students was changed so that everyone was assigned a space based on a lottery system and those who had spaces the prior year did not have priority. While most felt that this was unfair, they also felt that it should have been better publicized so that people would have ample time to make alternate arrangements.

Rick will follow up with Bill Elliot on this.

4. Computing Issues
The overall quality of computers and computing services in Mellon Institute is very poor. A relatively small number of students use the Mellon cluster, but this is due in large part to the fact the computers there are often in poor condition and lacking updated software. The cluster is used primarily by first year graduate students who do not belong to a lab yet, but the group felt that other students would use it more often if the computers were in better condition. Printing is a problem and sharing computers in labs also makes having a functional cluster available important. Computing Services maintains this cluster, but is often reluctant to provide maintenance service.

Rick suggested gathering statistics to see exactly how many students are using the cluster (or would like to use it if it were functional) and how many printers/computers each student has access to. It may be that he best solution is for MCS to simply purchase new equipment and take over management of the cluster. The college is already considering hiring additional computing services staff. A more short term solution is to ask Ken and Drew to put pressure on Computing Services to improve maintenance of the cluster.

The Math and Physics Departments are satisfied with their computing resources and feel that computer administration for the departments is excellent.

5. Office Space in Math
Although some effort has been made to improve the space problem in the Math Department, there is still a shortage of office space for graduate students. Students have a choice of sharing an office in Wean Hall (typically with three other people), which is closer to faculty and other resources they need to work, or having more space in Physical Plant Building, but in a less convenient location.

The crowding in Wean Hall is particularly problematic if one of the four people in an office has office hours and several students show up. In this case, if everyone is actually in the office, it is always necessary to find another location to conduct office hours.

6. Graduate Curriculum in Physics
There are some issues with the curriculum required for graduate students in Physics. Although most people are satisfied with their overall experience, some find the first few semesters too restrictive. Students are required to complete at least eight courses, which is a full load for three semesters. They also feel that the course choices available to them are fairly limited. The rigidity of the curriculum can also make it difficult for students to gain the exposure necessary to determine what their thesis research will be. The degree to which this is a problem is dependant on which area of physics a student is interested in.

Other problems include an inconsistency in courses depending on who teaches them, which in turn leads to problems with qualifying exams. Passing qualifying exams also depends on the approval of a committee, which may also be inconsistent depending on the membership.

Although there is an overall positive attitude about the department, the students feel that a more open dialog is needed. Several task forces, composed of faculty members, have been organized in the past few weeks to address these issues.

Rick is meeting with Fred Gilman after our meeting today and will bring these issues to his attention and emphasize their importance.

7. Health Care
There are several issues of concern regarding graduate student health care:
  • Overall cost Increasing health care costs are a national trend and there is little the university can do to alleviate this problem. However, there was concern that the increase in stipends this year was not enough to cover the increase in health care costs and the difference was significant.
  • Departmental involvement in subsidizing the cost
    Some departments are subsidizing all or most of the cost of health care while others are not. Rick said the university does not give the colleges money to pay for health care and that students should take this issue to their department heads. This is issue directly effects recruiting success and it might be worthwhile to see how Carnegie Mellon compares to other universities in this regard.
  • Payment options
    Since most students cannot afford to pay their yearly health insurance premium in one upfront payment, financing has typically been available which allows them to make monthly payments. This year, however, the financing was outsourced to a company that charges students a $35 one time fee, plus a $5 monthly fee for this service. In addition, for those who do choose to pay up front, it is difficult to determine how and where to pay. Even if these issues cannot be remedied, the students would like more timely notice about these types of changes in order to allow them to make arrangements for payment.
  • Requirements for opting out
    In order to opt out of the mandatory graduate insurance plans, students must provide proof of coverage by another plan. This plan must provide fairly specific coverage including mental health. In addition, it must be a government or employer sponsored plan. This is problematic since individual plans that otherwise meet these requirements can be purchased for less than the cost of the mandatory CMU plans.
Rick is aware of these issues and understands the students' concerns, though there is little he can do directly to resolve them. The issues have been brought up at ADC meetings and at his meetings with the president and provost. He will continue to pressure the university to make positive changes in the students' favor. In addition, there are extensive efforts being made to increase graduate fellowships and endowments, which will offset healthcare costs.

8. Lack of Food Vendor in Mellon Institute
There is currently no food vendor in Mellon Institute, making it very inconvenient for those working there to get food, particularly during the winter. Rick is very supportive of bringing in a vendor and suggested bringing in an independent vendor. He was even willing to hire a delivery service in the mean time.