Penn employees cook your meals and haul your trash. These employees teach your students, they collect your scientific data and they clear leaves on Locust Walk. What are employees worth to a university? Is the University as committed to its employees as it is to its students?
Personally, I’ve enjoyed Penn from several perspectives over a decade: as a student at a neighboring university in Philadelphia, an employee, a post-bacc student and as a graduate student. Now that I am an alumnus of Penn working at a rival institution I feel that I need to present why I left to the wider Penn community for discussion.
I believe that the University means different things to the different groups of people who interact with it, and on the other side of that argument, I also believe the University has varying levels of commitment to these different groups. When I transitioned to being a graduate student, I felt my connection to the University changed drastically.
This potent transition also came with an employment change within the University where I switched labs within a department, and this change in labs will forever be a part of my educational experience. The first lab I worked for at Penn was great. There were empowering tasks, professional interactions, meaningful results from strong science and friendships I’ll always cherish. I still feel it was extremely worthwhile having worked there, and it is the position I talk about when I interview for new positions. The second position I had at Penn was with a lab that was, and still is, in disarray. This lab recently transitioned its leadership which opened up the possibility to decentralize, and this change let the individual principal investigators make more independent decisions about their day-to-day operation. This gap in leadership revealed an issue at Penn to me: The University is harboring employees who are not up the standard that Penn should expect.
The decentralization of decisions created a level of employee disposability I doubt I will ever see again in my life. Prior to accepting the position, I heard from several coworkers that this lab had a history of mistreating employees of all levels, but I thought that it couldn’t be that bad.
I was wrong.
Essentially, there was one “rogue” PI who was unprofessional. They excessively micromanaged everyone; they bullied peers, subordinates and their bosses daily. They held conversations ripe with innuendo and intolerance of non-WASPs that were much more explicit than your usual microaggression, and became toxic when disagreed with — be it unscientific practices, administrative or regulatory concerns. All of these issues were brought up through proper reporting channels at Penn time and again by several employees including myself, and the answer was to deal with it or leave, so I left.
I’m torn about leaving Penn. While yes, this is capitalism and workers can talk with their feet, I still feel a deeper commitment to Penn that mandates this opinion to be published.
So, as a member of the Penn community, what should be done about this? Are some of Penn’s employees disposable, and if so is that OK? What about individuals who work for Penn who can’t afford to talk with their feet and leave? Does the University offer different levels of commitment and protection to the different groups it serves? Are there departments that need a closer look? If there are issues where does this bias accumulate? Who would be protected in the instance I put my name on this submission: The PI or the alumnus?
Penn should survey its employees about their working environment in an unbiased fashion and then make the results public. If there are issues, there should be a way to address them and achieve meaningful results rather than losing talent to other universities. I am sure this is something we can accomplish given our resources. This information is important for the health of the University, and by extension, the health of firms with workers in Philadelphia. Getting a better picture of the work environment at Penn is as important to the community as is the data on student loans.
Universities should be the leaders for which other organizations look to for guidance, and I feel Penn should revisit its commitment to its staff. There are far worse employers in the city than Penn, but Penn should set the example and make a stronger public commitment to its employees at a time when the working class has such little power.
J. LEON* is a 2015 GSE graduate and former University employee. His name has been changed to protect his identity to due the sensitivity of his position. Email Opinion Editor Shawn Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org for any inquiries.Comments powered by Disqus
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