Columns, Opinions

Stand Up for Grad Students: Standing up for Brown’s grad students

By
Guest Columnists
Thursday, January 29, 2015

The old joke goes that graduate students are paid to read. It’s true, we read. A lot. But reading is not solely what we are paid to do: We are also paid to teach and mentor undergraduates, conduct research for faculty members and conduct our own research in order to write journal articles, papers for presentations at academic conferences and — finally — book-length dissertations.

The work we do isn’t just meant to advance our own careers in an increasingly brutal academic job market. Our teaching and mentoring helps the University make good on its promise of delivering a rigorous, engaged and collaborative undergraduate education. And our academic work burnishes Brown’s reputation as a prestigious research institution.

Far from just getting “paid to read,” graduate students perform much of the intellectual labor that goes on at the University. We represent a crucial motor that keeps this community running.

But despite all of the intellectual labor we do in and for Brown, a question persists: Are we workers or are we students? The Graduate School certainly treats us like workers when it requires our labor. But it insists we are students when we demand workplace protections and an institutional voice.

We live in a precarious in-between space here at Brown — not quite students and not quite workers — and this insecure position makes us vulnerable to reduced wages and benefits, lacking much recourse for sexual harassment and assault and subject to a broader invisibility on campus. We at Stand Up for Grad Students are committed to exposing the increasingly precarious position of grad students. We argue that the vulnerability we face threatens to impoverish the integrity of workplace democracy, academic freedom and racial and gender equity in the larger Brown community.

In order to bring graduate education in line with the University’s commitment to educational leadership and academic excellence, SUGS is launching a multi-pronged campaign devoted to improving grad students’ access to housing, child care and healthcare; transforming the ideal of racial and gender equity into a lived reality; reducing the culture of competition among grad students, exacerbated by the Grad School’s new measures to push funding burdens onto cash-strapped departments; and delivering transparent, responsible sexual harassment and assault adjudication for grad students. These issues, we believe, are not just important to grad students. They are crucial to making the Brown community healthier and more just for all who participate and work in it.

We urge you to stand with SUGS and our efforts to make Brown a better place to learn, work and live for everyone by supporting these demands:

The Grad School must provide us with access to affordable housing, childcare, healthcare and dental insurance. This would ensure that all enrolled grad students are able to research, teach and contribute without need. Healthy bodies and families are essential for a healthy Brown.

Institutional structures should also be created that would increase recruitment of faculty of color and mentoring for both grad students and faculty of color. Diversity at Brown should be more than just a buzzword — it needs to be a lived reality on campus.

The Grad School must abandon its unrealistic five-year model for doctoral degrees and provide all students in good standing advanced funding in order to preserve the noncompetitive ethos at Brown that is so attractive to prospective and current students. It takes between six and eight years to complete a PhD program in the humanities and social sciences, but the University is increasingly pushing students onto a five-year funding clock despite the fact that peer institutions regularly allow grad students to work for funding beyond their fifth year. Last fall, Yale formally acknowledged the importance of rejecting the time-to-degree speedup by guaranteeing all students six years of funding. We urge Brown to model Yale’s funding structure in order to foster community, not competition, on campus.

Finally, we are also calling for responsible, transparent sexual harassment and assault protection, training and adjudication. Sexual protection for grad students makes everyone on campus safer.

We hope you will stand with SUGS in our efforts to make Brown a more democratic, fair and equitable place to live, work and learn.

SUGS is kicking off its spring campaign with a Feb. 2 rally on housing and healthcare, and its members will be present at the Feb. 4 open forum on sexual assault hosted by the Graduate Student Council.