Conflicting Views Emerge on Impetus of GSAS Benefits

When the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences announced it would provide a 50 percent discount off T passes in January and double the stipend and leave time for adoptive and expectant parents in February, two different groups celebrated victories: the GSAS administration, and the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers.

Members of the unionization movement see a direct link between their efforts and the new changes coming out of GSAS. Following the increase in parental leave time and stipends, the HGSU-UAW posted on its Facebook page, “When we organize, we win! Once again, we see what grads at Harvard can accomplish when we act together.”

GSAS Dean for Student Affairs Garth O. McCavana, meanwhile, stated that the improvements resulted from a reassessment of the program and from engaging collaboratively with graduate students.

At an event that brought together graduate student organizers from several universities, Aaron T. Bekemeyer, a member of Harvard’s unionization effort, mentioned the new benefits in his speech.

“We didn’t see these things happening until January. We started our campaign in the fall,” Bekemeyer said. “When we organize and when we act collectively, it matters. It makes a difference. We’re seeing concrete changes as a result of what we’re doing already.”

GSAS Dean for Administration and Finance Allen Aloise pointed to the administration’s track record of providing benefits without the work of unions.

“Benefits for graduate students have been increasing and improving for more than a decade, and we are working hard with graduate students to ensure that trend continues,” Aloise wrote in an email.

The administration has responded to student groups advocating for change in the past. In 2013, the Graduate Student Council and the Student Health Planning Committee successfully pushed for increased mental health visits covered by student health insurance—from 12 visits to 24.

Julia M. Rogers, a board member of the Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering, said the group actively advocated for a parental support program back in 2008, when it joined with the Graduate Student Council and the GSAS Student-Parents Organization to survey graduate student parents on their concerns. That information was taken to GSAS administration.

“There was some progress towards working a solution at that point, but then with the economy crashing and everything, things started going on the back burner,” Rogers said. “And then we picked everything back up again in 2012.”

The GSAS administration created the Parental Accommodation and Financial Support program in 2013. Rogers said the group had not been actively advocating for an improvement to the program leading up to this year, when GSAS announced it would double the stipend and leave time.

McCavana did not specify if he worked with any specific student groups this time around, leading to speculation that the unionization effort placed the ball in the administration’s court to improve benefits.

“I know they say it has nothing to do with the union, but people pushed and pushed and pushed for parental leave for years and years and they finally got a little concession, and then we show up and within months they double it,” Avery A. Davis, a graduate student and supporter of the unionization effort, said. “I am a scientist so I can’t say that’s causation, but it’s a pretty odd coincidence.”

Rogers said the women in science group has maintained an open and effective communication channel with GSAS administration.

“They’ve been willing to talk to us about every issue that we thought was important to discuss,” Rogers said. “Clearly there are still things that I think Harvard needs to work on, but I’ve never tried to discuss something and not been able to.”

GSAS administrators still maintain that the relationship between graduate students and faculty should remain academic in nature. To that end, the University jointly filed an amicus brief to the National Labor Relations Board on Monday arguing against the unionization of graduate students.

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


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