The University of Michigan’s flourishing Visiting Scholars program promotes scholarship, boosts faculty at U-M, and sparks collaborations between Michigan scholars and expert faculty outside the university.
The program currently engages some 500 scholars from outside institutions who hold graduate degrees. They pursue independent work while visiting U-M, or often collaborate with U-M faculty on many different kinds of research projects, lasting from a month up to a full year.
“It allows our faculty to collaborate with other professionals and experts. It’s good for our reputation,” says Rebekah Ashley, director of human resources for the Office of the Provost and the Office of Research. She oversees the Visiting Scholars program, on behalf of Academic Human Resources.
“The university clearly benefits from the opportunity to bring outside scholars here to campus to work with us,” says Timothy McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and Astronomy. He is working with Rebecca Matz, a visiting scholar from Chicago, studying gender performance differences in introductory STEM classes.
Matz is helping to expand the study throughout the Big Ten. Visiting scholar status allows her to get an Mcard, work in lab space in the physics department and use other university resources to perform research.
“Working on the project is definitely good for me professionally,” she says.
Visiting scholars typically learn of opportunities at U-M through connections with U-M faculty or through academic-focused publications and conferences.
“Our faculty are pretty well known internationally and a lot of our visiting scholars are international. They come with their own funding sponsored by their institution, and sometimes on their own dime,” Ashley says.
Visiting scholars generally are on sabbatical from their home institutions. The title is not designed for independent scholars, or those on the job market.
“These collaborations also can spark agreements for U-M faculty to go to a visiting scholar’s host institution,” Ashley says.
Mostly, visiting scholars come to U-M to work with a faculty member, rather than seek out the institution. But they say U-M’s reputation is a consideration.
Coming to Ann Arbor
Some visiting scholars come as doctoral students seeking to develop their dissertation research in consultation with U-M faculty experts.
Martina Montauti, now an assistant professor in the strategy department of IE Business School in Madrid, Spain, was a visiting scholar at U-M in 2013. Then a third-year Ph.D. student at USI Lugano, Switzerland, she developed her dissertation on the music industry at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, thanks to the competitive Fellowship for Prospective Researchers granted by the Swiss National Science Foundation.
“I chose Ross because of its reputation, amazing faculties and interdisciplinary approach — both rigorous and open-minded — to research. My visiting period at Ross was key not only to complete my Ph.D., but also to take the best out of the environment and grow up as an individual,” she says.
Montauti said her U-M experience exceeded expectations.
“Indeed, a visiting scholar experience is not necessarily a good one: Some students are left to their destiny, they do not find the support they were looking for, or they fail to integrate thus ending up feeling lonely and lacking motivation. Instead, I had a great, supportive mentor and faculty who were genuinely interested in my research and boosted it through quality feedback and constructive criticisms,” she says.
Montauti made friends within and outside the institution. Sometimes, she feels nostalgic about Ann Arbor, especially in the fall.
“I’ve never seen again those beautiful colors on the autumn leaves,” she says. “I hope to come back, sooner or later.”
Olena Strelnyk, a visiting scholar from Ukraine, is working toward a Ph.D. in gender studies. Becoming a mother inspired her to develop motherhood and mothering studies in Ukrainian sociology.
The Carnegie Research Fellowship Program awarded her a grant for scholars from post-Soviet states, to make her visiting scholar studies possible. Strelnyk says she appreciates the support of faculty and staff with U-M’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender.
“I wrote more than 10 letters to American universities with the request to provide me a place for research if I get a stipend. Some did not answer me, some refused. One of the invitations I got was from the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and personally from its director, Sarah Fenstermaker,” she says, adding this was a pleasant surprise.
Strelnyk also was surprised by the friendliness she has experienced in Ann Arbor.
“In Ukraine, it is not typical to smile to strangers or wish to ‘have a nice day’ a store seller. … I like the tradition here of informal communication in academia as well,” she says.
Strelnyk says she is amazed by the library, where students take books off shelves without asking.
“Here the library looks as a service organization rather than controlling one. I can’t imagine how one can’t be a successful student or scholar while having access to such a huge library collection and so convenient access to everything one needs.”
Ashley says that while visiting scholars are distributed across campus, main concentrations include the College of Engineering and the Medical School. “Visiting scholars see we have state-of-the-art equipment and top-tier faculty, and we have that international reputation that would bring people here in those fields.”
John Godfrey, assistant dean at the Rackham Graduate School, says Rackham continues to play a role in helping to coordinate visits by graduate students. He said 80 of the 99 who’ve applied to Rackham since July 1 are international students.
Some units including IRWG also present senior visiting scholars programs. At IRWG, the Senior Visiting Scholars program seeks to bring accomplished senior faculty from academic institutions outside U-M for up to a year to engage in research that advances understanding of women, gender or sexuality.
Senior visiting scholars are expected to offer a public lecture, hold one master class meeting with dissertation students, and participate in the intellectual environment of the institute.
Valerie Jenness, a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine, was invited to IRWG for the fall semester and to engage with students and faculty as she pursued research.
“It was really beneficial to me to be engaged with a kind of broad and deep interdisciplinarity around the study of gender and sexuality,” she says.
Jenness has conducted in prison research on sexual assault, transgender prisoners and inmate grievances. She recently published her fourth book, “Appealing to Justice: Prisoner Grievances, Rights, and Carceral Logic,” with Kitty Calavita.
Her research has served as a basis for her work with officials in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Los Angeles Police Department and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In December, as a Senior Visiting Scholar at U-M, Jenness presented the talk “The Feminization of Transgender Women in Prisons for Men: How An Alpha Male Total Institution Shapes Gender.” She also engaged with students in the feminist pedagogy class, sharing things she’s learned about teaching, among other subjects.
“But more importantly, I learned about things they think about as they embark on their teaching careers,” she says.