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Credit: Julia Schorr , Autumn Powell

Members of Graduate Employees Together — University of Pennsylvania say they are still focused on campaigning for change for graduate students despite withdrawing their petition for a union vote in February — a decision made over fears that the Penn administration would oppose and prevent legal unionization.

A key focus going forward for GET-UP is continuing to promote its ongoing campaign for improved sexual harassment reporting policies in the Graduate School of Education. 

Since GET-UP withdrew its petition to unionize, GET-UP member Katie Pak, who is in her third year at GSE, said the group has had meetings with the administration about Penn’s sexual harassment policies. 

She described the meetings as “all dialogue and no action.” 

Pointing to Penn’s decentralized administrative structure, Pak said that GET-UP has met with various administrators, none of whom individually have “a ton of power” over University policies, she said. According to Pak, these encounters have, for the most part, been GET-UP members “just informing [administrators] over and over again about the same things.” 

“We’ve been getting the runaround,” Pak said. “We feel like we have a lot to offer but that we haven’t established the type of partnership to move things forward that we would want.” 

Pak said that graduate students have been “frustrated” with the administration and want to bring more attention to GET-UP’s recommendations for improving sexual harassment policies, which have been emailed to various administrators, including Provost Wendell Pritchett.

First-year GSE student Amy Schindelman said she joined the group after learning about its campaign for improved sexual harassment reporting policies in GSE. Schindelman said that interactions with the Penn administration have been "pretty hollow" and that the administration seems “resistant to talking” about sexual harassment policies.

“It doesn’t feel like students have been listened to by the administration," Schindelman said. "Instead it seems like kind of all policies that exist right now are here to protect the school and not the students."

GET-UP's campaign began last September with a petition to "strengthen and clarify sexual harassment procedures" — which cited a 2015 Association of American Universities Campus Climate Survey that indicated of the 28 percent who responded, 42.4 percent of female Penn graduate students were victims of sexual harassment. 

Credit: Lucy Ferry

In March, Penn introduced a new policy banning all sexual relations between faculty members and undergraduate students — a shift from the University's previous policy, which stated that sexual relations between teachers and students were only prohibited "during the period of the teacher-student relationship." 

After months of campaigning in anticipation for potential unionization, GET-UP decided to withdraw its petition to vote to become a legally recognized union in February. Group members say the decision was a strategic one. 

GET-UP feared that the Penn administration would appeal the election result, which would have sent the case to the National Labor Relations Board. Trump's newly appointed anti-union members of the NLRB would then have the opportunity to repeal the “Columbia precedent” – a 2016 ruling allowing graduate students to unionize. The repeal of this precedent would have prevented graduate students across the country from forming unions at their schools.

On Friday, the GET-UP organized "work-in" at GSE began at 9:30 a.m. and lasted three hours. Bright yellow and orange posters bearing messages like “Grad students say #MeToo” were tacked to the outside and inside of the building. Participating students handed out stickers and printed copies of their recommendations to the administration on improving the existing sexual harassment policy. 

GET-UP's recommendations include establishing an independent third-party body to investigate sexual harassment claims, rather than the current system of deans or department chairs. The group also wants the creation of “an easily accessible flowchart of reporting possibilities across the University."

Pak said that the University has not even acknowledged the student activism around improving sexual harassment policies.

“It’s not like Wendell Pritchett woke up one day and was like 'Hey, this is something we should change,’” Pak said. “I think we brought attention to these issues and we want recognition for what we’ve been doing to make the University better.”

Pak said that GET-UP sent an email to Pritchett with their recommendations on March 5, and that Pritchett responded to GET-UP on March 9 thanking the group for their recommendations and telling them that he was going to send an email to the Penn community asking for more student feedback on Penn's sexual harassment policies. 

When asked to comment on student concern that the administration's actions regarding sexual assault reporting processes have been inadequate, Pritchett wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, "President Gutmann and I take issues of sexual violence, sexual harassment, and all other forms of sexual misconduct extremely seriously. Every member of the Penn community must feel safe and supported on our campus." 

"Last month, to further advance this work, a group of university leaders emailed every member of the Penn community to learn more about experiences and recommendations regarding our procedures for sexual harassment," Pritchett continued. 

"We have received many valuable responses, including from members of the GSE and graduate student communities," adding that they will review all the responses once the deadline to submit closes April 6, and report to the community at the start of next semester of the "concrete next steps."

Other recent efforts by GET-UP include speaking at a Feb. 21 University Council Open Forum, where many students — including students from GSE, GET-UP, as well as undergraduates — criticized Penn’s existing reporting procedures.

The student feedback at the open forum indicated a lack of administrative action in response to the GSE petition. One day prior to the forum, Provost Wendell Pritchett had said in an interview with the DP that he thought the existing procedures were “pretty good,” and that the administration had not heard any deeply critical feedback regarding them. 

On March 13, three weeks after the forum, members of the Penn administration – including Pritchett – sent a University-wide email calling for suggestions on improving Penn’s procedures around sexual harassment. 

“[The email] was a joke,” GET-UP member and English Ph.D. candidate Aaron Bartels-Swindells said. “Especially given how long it’s been an issue, how recently we raised it at University Council, and how studiously [the administration is] still avoiding meaningful public conversation.” 

Another Open Forum was held on March 29, the day before the GSE work-in held this past Friday. Schindelman was not able to attend the forum — she had class, as did many other GSE students — but she said that GET-UP members who attended left with many of their questions unanswered.

“We don’t feel like [the March 29 Open Forum] really addressed any of our questions or concerns or provided students with a transparent plan going forward of how they’re going to take those recommendations into consideration,” Schindelman said. “And so that’s one reason why we feel that this work-in is still extremely important and still relevant. At this moment I don’t trust that the administration is going to answer our questions without additional pressure.”