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Shall We Unionize?

Efforts are brewing to unionize the graduate students of Harvard. The administration has responded by warning that a union will disrupt the special relationship between graduate students and advisors and by instructing the faculty to tell students about unionizing’s “disadvantages”. Undergraduates, seeing that a unionized graduate student body promises better teaching, have spoken in support. Now we graduate students face a choice: unionize and draw the ire of the administration, or keep things as they are?

In the 2013-2014 academic year, I was the natural sciences representative on the Graduate Student Council, and a number of graduate student issues were coming to a head. In teaching, they included the fact that hours were often not adhered to or defined; that responsibilities were typically undefined; that there was no effective recourse for exploitation (especially when the course instructor was also the teaching fellow’s research advisor); that pay for teaching was often egregiously late; and that teaching appointments were highly uncertain, placing graduate students into financial precariousness.

In research, the problems were in some ways more insidious: Expectations, norms, and standards were not defined; norms of isolation, helplessness, and mendicancy were not uncommon; and there was again no effective recourse for exploitation, which at times led to mental and emotional harm. Indeed, in recent years, I have known graduate students (sometimes close to graduation) who have been fired by advisors over personal disagreements or over conflicts between advancing the student’s career or the advisor’s. These students are often left adrift to fend for themselves without formal recourse, with years of work (and youth) essentially wasted.

In the Graduate Student Council, we created a task force to address these problems. Our strategy was to bring them to the attention of the administration and work collaboratively to define norms and standards and to set up functional systems of recourse for exploitation and abuse.

Over the 2013-2014 academic year, our task force held a series of meetings with GSAS and SEAS administrators. We were surprised that administrators were unable to agree on how many hours corresponded to a teaching load. We were surprised that administrators, when told of cases of exploitation and abuse, said that it was the fault of students for not approaching administrators in person to resolve such issues, which indicated a profound ignorance of the power dynamic in place between graduate students and advisors. We were surprised that administrators regularly claimed powerlessness or cited faculty intransigence in order to argue that policies to protect students’ interests would be futile and thus were not worth pursuing.

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Despite the good-faith efforts of some administrative staff, progress at the level of decision-makers by the end of the year was almost non-existent: Teaching fellow responsibilities were still not defined, nor were effective systems in place for feedback or recourse. Tangible progress was limited to SEAS: Administrators had agreed on how many hours constituted a teaching load.

What does this have to do with a graduate student union? This: Even when administrators are made aware of the problems facing graduate students, experience has shown that the administration simply does not have sufficient incentive to address these concerns promptly or meaningfully. The faculty is regularly used as a scapegoat to justify lack of policy. Ad hoc efforts by students or staff languish in bureaucratic limbo and then evaporate. Indeed, if administrative decision-makers had a strong interest in solving these problems, it stands to reason that they would have addressed them before now.

Thus, if we believe Harvard should be a place where these problems are not the norm, then we must understand, too, that experience tells us that we will need to apply consistent, organized pressure through a body that operates outside the auspices of the administration. This is what a union can provide.

Of course, graduate students have a range of experiences depending on department, advisor, and personal circumstance. The issue at hand is not that all graduate students face all these problems all the time. Rather, it is that some do at least some of the time, and there is no organized body to apply real pressure to the administration to address these problems and others.

Would a union improve the graduate student experience? Would it improve the educational experience for undergraduates? It’s reasonable to expect so. Of course, there are other good reasons to create a union. One is to educate students on models of governance beyond authoritarianism—an important piece of understanding for students to have as they enter the world.

Will the administration be upset if the graduate students decide to pursue a union? Maybe. A union would challenge the administration’s ability to set policies as it sees fit. But I think the administration will, in the end, be okay.

Now we graduate students have a decision to make. What sort of Harvard do we want?


Benjamin Franta is a Ph.D. Candidate in applied physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He was the natural sciences representative on the Harvard Graduate Student Council in 2013-2014.

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