Grad Students Deserve a Seat at the Table

09/02/2016 12:38 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2017

In a response to the recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board that allows graduate student workers to unionize, Northwestern University reacted by saying, "Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address concerns raised by graduate student assistants." It was a statement echoed by other elite private universities across the country. As a PhD student who has spent years trying to get the university to address student concerns, I would very much like to know, what would more "appropriate methods" be?

The Student Parent Alliance, a group I co-founded in 2014, has been lobbying Northwestern for years trying to get things like paid parental leave, flexible child care subsidies for low-income students, and lactation rooms. Research shows that such workplace policies are critical to enabling parenting students--particularly women-- to do their research and graduate on time.

We have done everything imaginable in order to get the university to change. We collected testimonies from parenting students. We analyzed existing survey data, and worked with education researchers to conduct focus groups. We compared resources at Northwestern to those offered by our peer institutions and came up with a list of best practices. We summarized all of this information in a report and presented our findings multiple times to the Graduate Leadership Advocacy Council, the Women's Center, the Faculty Senate Benefits Committee, Dean of the Graduate School, Vice President of Student Affairs, Executive Vice President, and the Provost.

Because we learned that a group of grad students had raised similar concerns in 2009--but the University did nothing in response--we also worked to generate internal and external pressure. We built a website, set up social media accounts, published op-eds, and worked with reporters to cover our story. We also solicited letters of support from graduate student groups, faculty members, and local and national organizations. We even received a blistering 5-page letter from the National Women's Law Center, signed by NU alumni, who wholeheartedly support our efforts.

We have spent hundreds of hours and years of our lives doing this work. Along the way, Northwestern complimented us on our efforts and showered us with praise, giving us awards and trophies, and even put our pictures on the wall to showcase our exemplary student leadership. But when it finally came time to sit down, do the work, and craft solutions, we were excluded.

Instead, Northwestern set up a Task Force for Graduate Students with Children, whose members were hand-picked by the Provost's office. Although the task force did include several graduate student parents, our group--whose efforts were responsible for the task force being formed in the first place--was not allowed to participate. Nor was the Graduate Leadership Advocacy Council--a body who is supposed to represent student concerns to the administration--allowed to nominate its own representative. When we protested, the university responded in so many words: tough. It was a sobering lesson in how powerless graduate students actually are. No increase in stipend or benefits alters this power dynamic.

At a university that supposedly values collaboration, accountability, civic engagement, and inclusivity, not being able to participate in the process has been a great disappointment. All we were asking for was a seat at the table--a chance to work with administrators to solve these problems and come up with lasting solutions. We put in the time and effort, had the knowledge and deserved to be included. Instead, Northwestern chose to shut us out.

When I started this effort, I was still pregnant with my daughter. She turned two this month, and I have recently graduated. We are still waiting for Northwestern to enact any meaningful policy change. Although I fully expect the University to eventually implement at least some of our recommendations, the process has certainly given me pause.

What I have come to realize is that this is bigger than us as parenting students. This is bigger than Northwestern. This is about graduate student workers having any say whatsoever in the policies and institutions that govern our lives, and the lives of our spouses and children. What about the future? Whatever issue comes up next--will graduate students have any voice, any guaranteed representation of their interests?

One way to be sure is to form a union, something that our counterparts at public universities like the University of Michigan have long understood. University administrators may issue dire warnings that forming a grad student union would "significantly change the relationship between these students, their faculty mentors and the University.” But last time I checked, the University of Michigan has not imploded. On the contrary, it's one of the top research universities in the world.

In fact, I would argue that transforming the relationship between grad students and the university is exactly the point. When the university has become so hierarchical and unresponsive that it takes this much effort to have our concerns heard, let alone addressed, it is a relationship that needs to be transformed-- and the sooner the better.

As much as Northwestern and other private universities may argue that forming a union is "not the appropriate method to address concerns raised by graduate student assistants," I, and many other grad students across the country, have concluded otherwise. And although I will be long gone, I hope the students that come after me will realize sooner than I did why doing so is important.