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Student Workers Need a Contract Now Because #TimesUp

This week marks the one-year anniversary since the Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that Harvard University Government Professor Emeritus Jorge I. Dominguez sexually harassed at least 18 students and colleagues over the course of nearly four decades. That’s longer than we have been alive.

The first reported incident occurred in 1979, and the University’s own investigation determined that Dominguez committed “serious misconduct” as early as 1983. Nevertheless, Dominguez was kept on University payroll without significant consequences. In fact, he was rewarded. Not only did the University promote him to Vice Provost and other powerful gatekeeping roles, but he was even assigned to teach a freshman seminar in fall 2017. Through these decisions, Harvard knowingly and at best carelessly put hundreds of students and colleagues at personal and professional risk over and over again. After being finally shamed to act by community concern in response to the media reports, Harvard announced that it was considering a neutral, external investigation. But a year later — despite repeated inquiries from students in the Government Department, where Dominguez taught — we haven’t heard a single update on the promised external investigation since. No wonder nearly half of Harvard graduate women (and more than half of female undergraduates) don’t trust that the system will take sexual misconduct seriously if they come forward.

When will the University protect its student workers the way it protects its reputation? That is, when will we have real redress to protect us from the pervasive harassment, abuse, and discrimination that happens here at Harvard? It is clearer now than ever before that we cannot simply trust the University’s own internal processes to eradicate harassment on campus — especially as the federal government turns a blind eye to schools that sweep sexual harassment under the rug. It was only after last year’s media reports and subsequent public outrage that the University gave Dominguez a gentleman’s exit from teaching by allowing him to retire. The Law School afforded Brett M. Kavanaugh the same courtesy, without opening any known investigation into the allegations against him. All the while, new allegations against faculty members such as Economics professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr. and others Harvard has kept below the radar continue to mount.

Harvard’s processes are supposed to protect students’ and employees’ civil rights, but instead, the University has used the process to protect itself. It comes then as no surprise that the University has not heeded Government graduate and undergraduate students’ call for an external review. The University repeatedly asks students and workers to trust that the administration does right by us, even though the University has so flagrantly and chronically failed to protect its students and workers.

This is why it’s so critically important that student workers are bargaining for strong protections against discrimination and harassment in our first union contract. Specifically, we are bargaining for a voluntary, neutral grievance procedure, which means that if we as student workers have our rights violated — for example, if we experience wage theft, unsafe working conditions, or harassment — we can choose to take our claim to a neutral, third-party arbitrator with no conflict of interest. Thus, student workers who have experienced discrimination or harassment would have the option of seeking help through the grievance procedure, the University’s internal offices, or both, based on their individual needs and goals. This is especially important for students who experience discrimination based on their race or disability status, who cannot use the Title IX process available for gender-based claims.

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Third-party grievance procedures are standard parts of a union contract, and they help insulate student workers like us from arbitrary or biased decisions by our employers about pay, discipline, and remedying discrimination at work. But in contract negotiations with our Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW, the University administration is insisting that harassment and discrimination based on race, gender, disability or other protected categories should be carved out of the protections in the contract. Students would be able to use a fair, neutral grievance procedure for all other workplace contract violations — but people of color, women, BGLTQ people, immigrants, and disabled students who are discriminated against would have to rely on the University's internal "dispute resolution" processes. Under the University’s internal processes, we believe a Harvard administrator always has the final say — and Harvard protects itself, not students or workers.

Harvard has fought our student union every step of the way, from illegally excluding over 500 student workers from the voter rolls in our first election, to using our tuition money to hire expensive union-busting law firms, to blasting our mailboxes with anti-union emails and mailings. Now the University is dragging its feet on bargaining and fighting to deny us a fair, neutral grievance procedure for harassment and discrimination. Under no circumstances should student workers agree to a contract in which we cannot vindicate our rights not to be harassed or discriminated against at work.

The last we heard, Dominguez retained his faculty emeritus privileges, and the internal “investigation” into the allegations against him has no clear end date. We’re not willing to wait any longer. Every day our union doesn’t have a contract with a fair and neutral grievance procedure is another day we don’t have adequate protections against harassment and discrimination.

Harvard, time’s up.

A. Vail Kohnert-Yount is a second-year student at Harvard Law School. Sejal S. Singh is a second-year student at Harvard Law School. Ivy Z. Yan ’15 is a second-year student at Harvard Law School.

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