Senate approves trial on principal investigator eligibility, discusses faculty support during pandemic

During the final regularly scheduled meeting of the academic year, the Faculty Senate discussed principal investigator eligibility, support for faculty during the pandemic, including a new summer program to hire graduate students to help faculty develop and enhance remote courses; and the recently announced Community Board on Public Safety.

The Faculty Senate on Thursday approved proposals to implement and evaluate potential changes to Stanford’s policy on principal investigator (PI) eligibility at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the School of Medicine during a five-year trial period.

In addition, Provost Persis Drell outlined steps the university is taking to support faculty members during the disruption due to the pandemic, including hiring graduate students to help faculty develop and enhance remote courses for the 2020-21 academic year.

At the start of the meeting, Senate Chair Tim Stearns introduced Munira Alimire, who was recently elected president of the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU).

Alimire said the ASSU priorities for the 2020-21 academic year are affordability, racial justice, mental health, the Honor Code and responding to the challenges of COVID-19.

In other matters, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne described the new Community Board on Public Safety as the first in a series of initiatives designed to confront anti-Black racism on campus and in the Stanford community.

“The death of George Floyd and protests around the country have put a spotlight on issues of police brutality and racial disparities in criminal justice,” he said. “We’re committed to maintaining a healthy and safe environment here at Stanford, one in which all community members can live without fear of racism, discrimination, harassment and violence.”

Providing additional resources to faculty

Speaking to the senate, Provost Drell described the steps Stanford is taking to help faculty meet the challenges of teaching in 2020-21, as the university moves into the four-quarter academic year announced last week as part of its gradual return to in-person operations.

“First, to be clear, our intent is not to ask you to teach more than you would normally without additional compensation for overload teaching,” she said.

Drell said curricular offerings in departments may need to be streamlined and reduced to make it possible, if desired, for faculty members to teach in teams, and also to allow some people not to teach some quarters. She said teaching in teams may be especially helpful when the class is a blend of students taking the course on campus and remotely.

“This blended mode is challenging and needs additional resources to accomplish,” she said.

She said Stanford has created a set of summer graduate student assistantships to help faculty members develop and enhance remote courses for the 2020-21 academic year.  The job description and application is on the website of the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education. The application deadline is Monday, June 15.

Stanford expects to provide more assistantships during the year, she said.

Drell said Stanford is also developing a one-year postdoctoral fellows program in the School of Humanities and Sciences that will move students who will soon complete their doctoral studies or who were unable to land a job after graduating into teaching and pedagogy positions at Stanford.

Drell said she hoped Stanford can encourage younger faculty members, particularly those with young children, not to teach their full load next year and instead use some of the free time to “catch up” on their work.

She implored faculty members who may be reluctant to teach in-person classes because of concerns for their health or their family’s health to discuss their situation with their department chair or cognizant dean.

“We do not want anyone to feel pressured to teach in the classroom in person with students if they have health concerns,” she said.

In the Q&A that followed the provost’s remarks, senators raised issues regarding childcare, the need for “ground rules” for teaching, including the number of people allowed in a classroom and if classes can be conducted outdoors, and the importance of balancing the needs of students and faculty as the university recovers from the disruption of the pandemic.

Principal investigator eligibility

At the meeting, the senate approved proposals presented by the Committee on Research – on behalf of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the School of Medicine – to implement and evaluate potential changes to Stanford’s policy on PI eligibility during a five-year trial. The legislation, which was approved on a divided vote, will:

  • Permit the director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to approve PI status for permanent staff scientists or staff engineers in order to pursue significant research opportunities outside the Department of Energy.
  • Permit the School of Medicine to approve PI status for clinician educators to serve as principal investigators of clinical research studies that involve only patients at Stanford and affiliated medical centers and clinics. Waivers would be dedicated specifically for the conduct of clinical trials and patient care research.

Senate Chair Tim Stearns (top left) was joined by faculty members who gave presentations on proposals to make changes to Stanford’s policy on PI eligibility: (clockwise from top right) Ruth O’Hara, Mike Dunne and Jenn Dionne. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Three faculty members gave presentations on the proposals: Jenn Dionne, chair of the Committee on Research and an associate professor of materials science and engineering; Mike Dunne, a member of the PI Eligibility Subcommittee, director of the Linac Coherent Light Source at SLAC and a professor of photon science; and Ruth O’Hara, chair of the PI Eligibility Subcommittee, senior associate dean for research at the School of Medicine, and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

O’Hara said that without the waiver, the School of Medicine would be greatly limited in its ability to participate in clinical trials and clinical research networks, and in its ability to offer Stanford patients to be part of critical trials and state-of-the-field interventions.

Dunne said approving the proposal to permit permanent SLAC staff scientists to pursue research grants from other federal agencies has the potential to benefit SLAC by improving the lab’s competitive position and its ability to retain staff.

During the five-year trial period, the Committee on Research, a standing committee of the Academic Council, will provide updates to the Faculty Senate in its annual reports.

One senator who spoke in favor of the proposals said that adding PIs at the School of Medicine and at SLAC would not threaten the overall resource base of Stanford and would not take away from the university’s core mission. Another senator said adding PIs at the School of Medicine would make better use of its clinical and investigative resources.

Academic Council meetings in June

Stearns announced that there will be two meetings of the full Academic Council during the week of June 22 to review decisions the senate made during spring quarter: to enact new unit ranges for undergraduate majors, and to reject an ASSU resolution on fossil fuel divestment.

Stearns noted that although the June 11 meeting was the last regularly scheduled meeting of the Faculty Senate, the senate’s official term ends Sept. 1. He said senators may need to gather during the summer about issues related to COVID-19.

Since it was the senate’s final scheduled meeting, it was time for the traditional tribute and roast of the chair, a task that fell to Dan Edelstein, vice chair of the senate and a professor of French. Edelstein praised Stearns, a professor of biology and of genetics, for leading the senate through some “incredibly intense debates” on issues of critical importance to students and faculty with “remarkable serenity and poise.” Edelstein also joked that Stearns would be remembered for his virtual Zoom backgrounds.