Op-eds, Opinions

Wilks ’15 GS: Graduate student unionization improves power dynamics, institutional memory

Op-Ed Contributor
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

It is important to celebrate our achievements; Brown University and its student, staff and faculty representatives have accomplished a lot in its very long history. However, the recent barrage of propaganda targeting graduate students on a daily basis from various administrative offices in response to the pending unionization vote raises some troubling concerns, particularly because it emanates from some of the only individuals within our community who have a full picture of happenings on campus. This kind of messaging erases the many students who have not had positive experiences at Brown and the many hours of work required of students who advocate for themselves because their basic needs are not being met. The two strongest arguments for unionization center on equalizing this kind of one-sided narrative. First, a union would even out the power dynamic in our shared governance model in which graduate students are currently the most vulnerable. Second, a union would provide institutional memory for graduate student voices by documenting grievances, student retention and patterns of abuse.

The progress cited in administrative emails, proselytizing postcards and posters dropped off in various departments directly resulted from  student advocacy consisting of hours of dialogue, sometimes protest, and other forms of unpaid labor. This kind of advocacy work to improve our working conditions via dialogue — and on the rare occasion protest — is how we are already improving our working conditions. We bring our individual or collective issues to our directors of graduate study, chairs, departments, deans and various offices on campus. However, a union would formalize this mechanism of advocacy work so that graduate students can collectively discuss the issues that matter to us. Some issues affect us all — such as wages, grievance procedures, wrongful termination — or disproportionately affect some among us, such as student parents (childcare, health insurance), international students (visas, federal policies like the immigration ban), undocumented students (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) and students from historically underrepresented groups (microaggression training, Title VII, Title IX, cultural competency education). By uniting graduate students under the aegis of a union, we would have a formal mechanism to discuss and document the issues that matter to us and bring those issues to the bargaining table with the American Federation of Teachers backing us. This is in stark contrast to the current situation, where we are siloed within our respective departments with little to no formal power to negotiate or prevent arbitrary changes to our benefits or status. Currently, we must plead to whoever will listen to advocate on our behalf. With a union, we negotiate at the table.

In any workplace there are inherent power differentials. At Brown, graduate students are at the bottom of the heap. I believe that in most cases when a student approaches a dean for support, the dean will do everything they can to help. I’ve personally met with many senior administrators and believe that many, if not most of them, care deeply about the Brown community — including graduate students — and are working tirelessly to try to make the institution a better place for us. However, in the all too possible scenario that the dynamic of a complaint becomes student versus the University, the inherent power dynamic stipulated by a dean’s financial security and career prospects pose a direct conflict of interest. By definition, no one employed by the University can truly be independent or unbiased because their job security depends on supporting the institution. That is why external reviews by independent third parties exist. Even if your complaints are heard and pursued by a dean, what are the potential outcomes?

The University has a system of shared governance characterized by strong decentralized departments. There are many benefits to this structure, but the bureaucratic policies that ensure autonomy can make administrative intervention challenging, especially in departments with faculty leadership that have an adversarial relationship with the administration. I find it difficult to imagine how bringing in deans to engage with faculty who might have skepticism and animosity toward the administration will mediate, not inflame an already challenging situation. Furthermore, the few cases I’ve seen play out don’t support the hypothesis that administrative intervention de-escalates the situation or results in a desirable outcome for the student. A union would provide a third party mediator that could have better success than University administrators in this regard and would support students in navigating bureaucracy and legalese.

As a counterargument, I often hear administrators make the case that the dissertation committee exists as a form of checks and balances, and in the off-chance that an advisor oversteps their authority, the committee will intervene. But why? Tenure-track faculty positions are permanent whereas students are transient. I don’t want to imply that no faculty member ever sticks their neck out for students and advocates on their behalf to the chagrin of their colleague. However, the academic system is engineered to make choosing to fight for a student against a colleague an uphill battle. In the vast majority of cases that I’m aware of, the student is moved to a different advisor or even department, to continue — that is, effectively restart — their studies, or given the option of “mastering out.” Obviously, these are imperfect solutions, and at the very least we should agree that students deserve grievance redressal options.

Additionally, a union provides the benefit of documentation — institutional memory. The accumulation of data by documenting complaints by graduate students across the institution is powerful. It affords us a record that we currently don’t have due to the cyclical nature of graduate student turnover and the siloing of graduate students into departments, both of which inhibit the growth of an information network.

The constant turnover of students is intrinsically linked to institutional memory: the narratives that are preserved or quietly forgotten. Without robust systems of reporting in place to document formal and informal complaints between various offices, events are interpreted as extraordinary instead of common, and patterns of abuse cannot be identified nor perpetrators held accountable. As far as I can tell, Brown does not currently have a system in place to aggregate information from academic or administrative offices, whether informal or formal (Title VI, Title VII, Title IX or the ombudsperson), that would enable the centralized tracking of complaints.

Unfortunately, complaints defined by “this person said, that person said” are difficult to substantiate. They are even more difficult to investigate when viewed singularly instead of within the context of a pattern of behavior. This necessary context can only come from a system that aggregates this kind of data from multiple sources. Furthermore, even if that data were to exist, would we ever have access to it? If nothing else, a union’s record-keeping ability is justification enough to unionize. We need graduate student voices to have permanent memory in the form of a union and the data it collects. With this information, we can begin to ask our own questions about graduate student retention and patterns of abuse that arise from the accumulation of complaints so that our individual knowledge about abuse of power isn’t dictated by our circle of friends, department or if we’ve been around long enough to witness it firsthand.

As I conclude, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my concerns about the numerous accounts I’ve heard about individual members of Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees overstepping boundaries into territory that may be categorized as harassment. While I should clarify that receiving a cold call does not amount to harassment, I wonder what mechanisms SUGSE has in place or can think about implementing to facilitate the collection of critical feedback when representatives act in ways that conflict with the mission and values of the organization. For graduate students who are anti-SUGSE, not anti-union, I would remind you that SUGSE is a grassroots organization comprised almost entirely of our graduate student peers, and I fundamentally believe that graduate students have the capacity and incentive to be far better advocates for one another than the University could ever be. Why not vote, or better yet run, for elected positions within the union governing body that will advocate for what you care about in a contract if you don’t oppose the union altogether?

Benjamin Wilks ’15 GS can be reached at benjamin_wilks@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.