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Deans Email Students Before Historic Union Vote

By Brandon J. Dixon and Leah S. Yared, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: November 16, 2016, at 1:07 p.m.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Xiao-Li Meng wrote separate emails about the unionization vote to graduate students on Tuesday, touching on personal experiences and the presidential election.

These emails come just one day ahead of a historic vote that will decide whether students form the first graduate and undergraduate union in Harvard’s history.

“The recent US presidential election should remind all of us of the importance of voting, and of how a democratic system determines outcomes by those who cast their votes, and not popular opinion,” Meng wrote.

Smith’s email, which was sent to GSAS students and forwarded to FAS faculty members, urged eligible voters to consider the impact of a union on the “important relationship between a student and a teacher, a graduate student and a mentor.”

“I worry that the conversation has lost sight of the primacy in the faculty’s mind of each student being a student, even when classified as a research or teaching assistant,” Smith wrote. “While we as faculty might not express this primacy often enough, it absolutely shapes, as I will describe, our interactions with each of you as research and teaching assistants.”

Harvard administrators have corresponded with students about unionization several times over the past few months. In his email, Meng stressed that Harvard is working in uncharted territory. He referenced New York University, the only private university to have a graduate student union, writing that the school’s union “lacks the impressive breadth of the union being proposed at Harvard.”

“As a statistician, I know too well the dangers of relying on a sample size of one, especially when the sample is from an indirect source,” Meng wrote.

Their emails come amidst an 11th-hour push by advocates for and against unionization ahead of this week's vote, as well as last-minute questions from graduate students—compiled by the Graduate Student Council—which ranged in topic from union dues to the potential for a strike. The GSC provided answers from both GSAS administrators and the union effort.

In his email, Smith invoked his relationship with the graduate students who work under his wing at Harvard, calling them his “research partners.” Smith noted, however, that his relationship with his graduate students is not necessarily the standard among all faculty members.

“I’m not naïve. I know that not all faculty members relate to their graduate students,” Smith wrote. “And as Dean, I have seen that most of our faculty act as I do.”

Abigail Weil, a union organizer, had sharp words for Harvard administrators after receiving the email.

“It’s deeply troubling to see this disregard for empirical evidence and this really energetic attempt on the part of the administration to convince people to vote ‘no’ and protect the status quo,” Weil said.

Still, Weil said union organizers were optimistic about the vote, and also referenced the recent election.

“The importance of this vote through the context of the presidential election is lost on nobody,” Weil said. “And I think that’s really adding to that sense of urgency because now people think that the bargaining table is a place to really share a lot of the things that are important to us.”

John Froberg, a graduate student who plans to vote against unionization, wrote in an email that he does not feel there has been adequate time to “have a robust debate” about unionization.

“I think the volume of these emails so close to the election highlights a critical problem with this unionization drive: the very short time frame of the election,” he wrote.

Smith and Meng were not the only administrators to weigh in on the vote. Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf sent an email to Kennedy School students encouraging them to cast their ballots.

In an email to The Crimson sent through FAS spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven, Smith wrote that "We are encouraging an open discussion where all perspectives are welcome.”

—Staff writer Brandon J. Dixon can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BrandonJoDixon.

—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Yared.

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