Last week, Penn graduate students withdrew their petition for a vote to unionize. A lengthy campaign — and months of heated debate between the administration and various graduate student groups — has drawn to a temporary close.
The unionization campaign, spearheaded by the organization Graduate Employees Together — University of Pennsylvania, shone a spotlight on a raft of issues that Penn graduate students face: sexual harassment and discrimination, compensation disparities between programs, trouble finding proper mentorship, and access to health insurance.
Ultimately, the petition was withdrawn as a strategic move — not because the prospect of a union lacked support, but because the current tilt of national politics threatened GET-UP’s ability to win a favorable ruling from the National Labor Relations Board. A sizable portion of graduate students still feel that a union is necessary to mediate their relationship with the University, and ensure that they receive the benefits they feel they are owed.
Disagreement remains about whether the upsides of a union would outweigh the downsides. But what is clear is that Penn’s administration must continue its dialogue with graduate students, even though the threat of a union is no longer immediate.
Graduate students, spread across 12 different schools, are a relatively disjointed constituency. Some arrive at Penn fresh from undergraduate programs, but others are married with children. Some programs take a year, while others can last up to a decade. In addition to taking classes, graduate students form an army of teaching and research assistants that keep Penn running.
Addressing their needs is imperative to the success and vitality of the University. The Graduate and Professional Assembly meets with administrators regularly to make progress on these issues, and many graduate students are involved in both GAPSA and GET-UP.
The administration must make sure that these conversations continue. It also must expand, taking into consideration the needs of all students, not just those formally organized in student government or activism.
In an email to graduate students following the petition withdrawal, President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett promised that the Graduate Student Center would host a “series of conversations.” In these conversations, administrators said graduate students will have the opportunity to “share your views about the issues that are most important to you, especially regarding diversity, mentoring, and harassment.”
These talks, if productive and inclusive, are a commendable first step. But the dialogue between the administration and graduate students must also yield action.
In the fall of 2017, the University introduced a number of new policies designed to improve the experience of graduate students. Full-time Ph.D. students saw half the cost of Penn Dental Insurance reimbursed. All professional and full-time graduate students earned access to Pottruck Health and Fitness Center, Sheerr Pool, and Fox Fitness Center without needing to pay any additional fees. $1 million in annual funding for need-based grants to Ph.D. students, to help cover the costs of health insurance and childcare, was announced.
Though GAPSA had spent years advocating for these changes, they were announced at the height of GET-UP’s unionization campaign. When considering new policies that impact graduate students, Penn should act with the decisiveness and urgency that it did while the unionization campaign was ongoing.
In their email, Gutmann and Pritchett promised that “graduate and professional students are at the very heart of our mission at Penn: expanding the frontiers of innovative scholarship and research, teaching the next generations of future leaders, and creating new ideas that change the world.”
Even though, for now, graduate and professional students will not wield formal bargaining power, Penn must continue considering their needs in addition to valuing their work.
Graduate students teach and guide their undergraduate peers, provide valuable assistance to professors, and pioneer new research. They’re a large part of the reason Penn gets to call itself a top research university with global reach, and a center for innovation and social change.
And, regardless of whether or not they ever form a union, graduate students must continue to have a voice.