Graduate Student Workers Organize Against Sexual Harassment on Campus

It was January of 2017, a few months after Donald Trump had been elected president, and Alli Carlisle, a Ph.D. student and graduate student instructor (GSI) at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), was feeling powerless and angry. The broader political situation was part of the problem, but so was the university that employed her.

Professor Gabriel Piterberg had returned to the classroom after a suspension that had been part of a settlement with UCLA over multiple accusations of sexual harassment — including forced kissing and pressing against two female graduate students. The settlement had been widely criticized as too lenient — indeed, the graduate students had gone on to sue the university in federal court for insufficient action — and Carlisle and some of her colleagues decided to do something.

Dishonor RollA group of graduate students in the history department, where Piterberg was based, had formed Bruins (UCLA’s mascot) Against Sexual Harassment, and Carlisle joined the group in marching on Piterberg’s first classes back on campus. “We just filled the hallway, had people with signs chanting, bullhorns, a lot of noise,” she told Truthout. “We had people not just in the hallway but outside the windows on the other side of the classroom. Then, a bunch of us went into the classroom and stood up at a certain point, held up signs, chanted and made it impossible for him to teach his class.”

Those protests went on for weeks, and Piterberg was eventually removed from the university in March (he continues to deny the charges against him, but his removal was part of a settlement with the university).

A UCLA spokesperson directed Truthout to a published statement on the Piterberg case, which says in part, “In 2017, after an extensive investigation, the UCLA Title IX Office found that Prof. Gabriel Piterberg committed sexual harassment in violation of University sexual harassment policy by making unwelcome comments of a sexual nature and unwelcome physical conduct of a sexual nature (in the form of an open mouth kiss).” The full statement is here.

The experience, Carlisle said, also made her decide to get more involved with the UC student workers’ union, United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents more than 16,000 student employees in the UC system. Within the union, which is currently in the middle of bargaining a new contract with the university, she is part of a broader struggle to ensure that the Piterberg situation is not replicated.

Rampant Sexual Harassment in Academia

Graduate student workers across the country have turned to unions — either already existing ones or attempts to form them — as a way to combat what several of them described to Truthout as endemic conditions of sexual harassment.

Sarah Arveson, a graduate student worker at Yale University and a leader in the longstanding drive to unionize the graduate workforce at Yale, pointed to a 2015 survey that showed 54 percent of female graduate students at Yale had been sexually harassed at the university. In May of 2017, Arveson was part of a civil disobedience protest that highlighted this number, blocking three busy intersections in the university town of New Haven, Connecticut, and demanding the university recognize the union, UNITE HERE Local 33, which had won elections in eight departments in 2016.

A university spokesperson disputed the election results, calling the union’s “micro-unit strategy” of going department-by-department “undemocratic,” and noting that the union had withdrawn its petition to the National Labor Relations Board under Trump. The union was one of several to pull out of the NLRB process rather than risk overturning the Obama-era board’s decision that graduate employees were in fact workers. But to Arveson, recognition or not, the Yale graduate student workers continue to act as a union. “We, as a union, have continued to speak out against the university’s pretty lackluster response to sexual harassment on campus.” The graduate student organizers continue to call for a clear grievance procedure around sexual harassment, and for recognition that they are employees, not merely students, of the university.

Sexual harassment has drawn new attention in the #MeToo moment, and Yale has not escaped scrutiny. The Yale spokesperson told Truthout, “Yale has fair and comprehensive procedures in place for adjudicating complaints of sexual harassment, and they apply to faculty as well as to students. The university reports twice a year on every complaint of sexual misconduct it receives, and if you study the reports you will see that there is no impunity for faculty who violate the policies.”

Arveson had heard that response before. “Their response to everything is that we are told we have ‘policies and procedures’ in place,” Arveson said. “But … we know these policies and procedures don’t work because of things like that study. And we know these policies don’t work because I can talk to any woman graduate student, and it is rare that they don’t have a story about sexual harassment and sexual assault. It is very, very, very common that things are said to me that are inappropriate remarks about my appearance. Professors have put their hands on me when I said, ‘No, I didn’t ask for that. Please stop.’ My colleagues come to me regularly reporting these kinds of things.”

Graduate students’ unique position on campus — they function as both teachers and students, and yet are neither one completely — has meant that they have the most power when they act collectively through the union. Individual students, said Leana Hirschfeld-Kroen, also a graduate student employee at Yale and a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature and film and media studies, are often intimidated by their advisors, who have a great deal of power over their future prospects. “Getting harassed by someone within your department, especially by a superior, means that you are facing something that can potentially follow you throughout your entire career in academia around the country. There is nothing like that to terrify. I have to believe that a grievance procedure is the way to remove that fear of this following you your entire career.”

Without collective action and support, Hirschfeld-Kroen said, graduate students instead leave the university rather than continue to face their harasser. “It is so dispiriting. It is so hard to imagine any kind of support from the job that I am entering into.”

Collective Organizing in Response to Harassment

At the University of California at Berkeley in 2017, Deborah Wood and several of her colleagues did use the union to act against the person they say harassed them. For Wood, her experience at first didn’t reach the level where she could imagine Title IX, the federal civil rights law against sex discrimination and the offices on campus where it is enforced, applying to her: A fellow graduate student instructor cornered her at an off-campus social event organized by their student cohort, an event she described as “this really fuzzy grey area that graduate students often have to navigate, which is that your peers are both your colleagues and your closest friends.” The other student, she said, demanded repeatedly that she go home with him as she repeated “No,” until her friends pulled her away.

Later, after she had demanded an apology from him, she said, another colleague came to her and told her that other graduate student instructors had had frightening or even violent experiences with this same person. “I also heard from someone else that the number of cases that were pending at the Title IX office didn’t seem to be ‘enough,'” she said. “That is how it started to seem on the grapevine, is that somehow the Title IX office needed x number of women to come forward.”

Hearing that her experience was not the only one made her decide to file a complaint with Title IX after all, hoping that her story would help support others. Next, she and other union members decided to collectively file a grievance through the union, to draw out, collectively, a pattern of behavior across time. The university agreed to move the people who shared an office with the accused graduate student instructor, and the accused instructor did not take a teaching assignment the following semester. But, Wood said, the Title IX office found that her complaint did not constitute harassment, and furthermore the university argued that her Title IX complaint should be completed before the union grievance could be handled. This, she said, “clearly suggests that they were thinking about my case individually and not as a package with other victims, other recipients of this harassment.”

A University of California spokesperson, while not commenting on Wood’s specific case, said: “It is the standard university policy for a Title IX investigation to be completed before the processing of a union grievance. There are a number of good reasons for that: UC’s Title IX investigators are highly trained in investigative practices, the university’s Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence Policy, and how trauma may affect individuals who have experienced SVSH, among other crucial knowledge and skills. Further, the campus Title IX offices are in the best position to inform parties of their rights and options as well as critical resources available to them.”

Acting through the union was one of the first things that occurred to Wood, who stresses that the harassment was a collective experience for her and her colleagues, one that, she said, added up to a hostile work environment.

To Hirschfeld-Kroen, who became involved in the Yale unionization drive shortly after arriving on campus, the idea of a procedure for sexual harassment complaints was central to how she makes the case for the union to her colleagues. “It is such a basic part of managing to get your interests addressed, as opposed to your employer’s interests,” she said. Her experience with Title IX procedures has left her frustrated — she has seen three friends leave from her department alone. Arveson, who has been part of Yale’s Graduate and Professional Student Title IX Advisory Board for a year, agreed, noting that while Yale has a well-developed Title IX office and facilities for talking anonymously to counselors, these procedures wind up protecting the university rather than the victims of harassment or assault. “When it comes to dealing with people that are in power, the universities are always going to protect that professor who publishes like crazy,” she said. “I regularly see that Title IX isn’t strong enough on its own, and students end up having very little agency when harassed by a faculty member or any other power figure at the university.”

Title IX, Carlisle noted, can be isolating and tends toward secrecy in the name of protecting victims — but this can make it harder, as Wood’s experience showed, to identify patterns of behavior and cultures of discrimination.

All of these experiences with the flaws in Title IX enforcement drove these workers to pursue union procedures — and to try to improve those procedures. In the UC system, that has led them to push for explicit contract language that allows union grievances to go forward concurrently with Title IX. They are also challenging the way that Title IX complaints go through the Privilege and Tenure Committee — which happens when the respondent is tenure-track faculty — and calling for an explicit timeline and protections for the complainant during that process.

Shane White, Chair of the University of California Academic Senate, confirmed that UC faculty who are accused of violating the faculty Code of Conduct have disciplinary charges heard by the Privilege and Tenure Committee, and said, “The Committee holds a fair and impartial hearing, at which the accuser (through the Administration’s attorney) and the accused faculty member may ask questions of each other and of witnesses. This is a standard component of a hearing that is fair to both sides. The report of the Privilege & Tenure Committee is advisory to the Chancellor, who has ultimate authority for the imposition of discipline.”

But Kurt Horner, a member of the bargaining team for the UC graduate workers union and a Ph.D. candidate at UC-Irvine, raised concerns about this system. “The people who are being asked to review this are just faculty in the system,” Horner said. “They are not in any way specialized in law or sexual harassment cases or anything like that. They are just randomly selected peers. It is very easy to send those people off on a tangent that is victim-blaming.”

The university spokesperson said, “UC is committed to pursuing contract provisions that align with the university’s systemwide Sexual Violence and Sexual harassment Policy, which outlines a transparent, consistent process to ensure fairness in investigating and adjudicating such cases. This policy was shaped with the input of student leaders serving on a presidential task force.”

The union, however, wants to improve upon that policy. Previously, Horner said, they had decent language in their contract around harassment, but there is now a particular focus on the issue in this year’s bargaining, in part because of prominent incidents — Piterberg’s departure and the accusations against Gopal Balakrishnan at UC-Santa Cruz, among others — and in part because UC had rolled out a new set of procedures around harassment and sexual violence. (A spokesperson for UC Santa Cruz confirmed that allegations against Balakrishnan are under investigation, that he is on paid leave and not currently teaching, and declined to comment further, citing privacy and confidentiality concerns.) So, this year the team has approached the bargaining process with explicit demands around harassment, including notification of reports of findings against faculty or students, a longer timeline for grievances since victims of harassment or assault often have justifiable fears about coming forward, and more.

“Honestly, when unionization is normalized and everybody knows the rules, everybody knows the boundaries and protections, that just makes it so much easier because you don’t have to negotiate individually with your advisor or your professor about your workload and what they can and can’t say to you,” Carlisle said. “Everybody just needs to know what their rights and responsibilities are.”

The “#MeToo” Moment Gives Unions New Leverage

At the University of Washington (UW), where Sam Sumpter is a Ph.D. student and part of contract enforcement for the student employee union, UAW Local 4121, graduate workers won new protections in their latest contract. Ratified June 3, the contract improves its language around sexual harassment, and the union backs it up with collective organizing. “If someone in a department has been experiencing harassment by a specific faculty member, what we typically do is try to talk to as many people in that department as possible and get everyone talking about if they have had experiences with that professor.” They constantly try to think about what action they can take as a union to add extra leverage to getting the grievance resolved. Moving away from a “compliance/liability model” and toward aiming to prevent problems in the first place is key, Sumpter said.

In this latest contract, the UW workers won protection from retaliation if they file a complaint, and protection from being forced to work alongside the person they’d filed against. Importantly, they also got language in the contract that says that the university office that investigates complaints must notify the complainant that they may have support from the union. They will also be working on an equity survey, developed by the union and the university, that will go out to all graduate students and academic student employees.

“That is going to be a really good opportunity to just get better data and better intel about what people are dealing with,” Sumpter said. Additionally, a new sexual harassment training program will be implemented that will be jointly administered by the union. “[The trainings] are going to be much more geared toward figuring out how we can actually change the culture of the university now that we have identified the specific power dynamics that often get exploited in graduate student work,” Sumpter added.

Meanwhile, Carlisle and the UC bargaining team are also looking toward this kind of peer-to-peer training to challenge the problem that often arises where trainings either are geared toward students or toward employees and miss the gray areas and unique dynamics of the graduate student instructor’s role.

One of those unique dynamics is that professors have so much power over graduate workers because of the very narrowness and specificity of a Ph.D. candidate’s research. “What it can often create is there being a very narrow range of people in the system who can even be your supervisor,” said Horner. “It is entirely possible that you can count on one hand the number of people whom you can actually work with for a [teaching assistant] appointment or a research appointment. Also, they are colleagues, so if you levy an accusation against one, they might close ranks and just try to push you out of the program. It is a very, very dangerous situation where, while we do represent 17,000 workers, really, all of those workers are fragmented often in these very, very tiny shops within this larger unit.”

In Wood’s situation, an additional challenge for the union was that the person she filed a grievance against was not her supervisor, but a colleague and a member of the union as well. “Our union representatives were very frank with us to say, ‘He would be eligible for [union] representation, but that also doesn’t mean that we are not going to fight tooth-and-nail for your rights.'” Going forward, she said, the union needs to consider what its policy would be in such cases. Also, she said, in the process of filing her complaint, the union realized that it had no harassment policy of its own, and so it drafted one — one that she felt was all the stronger for having been drafted in 2018 rather than decades back.

One of the reasons for that, of course, is that the #MeToo moment has directed a lot of attention toward sexual harassment — harassment that isn’t new at all but now, perhaps, finally commands headlines and thus, extra embarrassment for a university when stories of misconduct make national news. To Sumpter, the #MeToo moment helped the UW union win stronger protections recently because the university realized that pushing back too much would look bad. Yet Carlisle noted that “a lot of that inertia is still there. It feels like it is kind of broken open, but at the same time it hasn’t.”

Changing the Structures of Graduate Student Labor

When graduate student employees move to organize, a common refrain from administrators is that it will damage the “academic relationship” between professors and students. An attorney who represents universities, including Yale as well as other Ivy League schools facing union drives, argued to The Atlantic last year that a union could create an adversarial relationship in place of the teacher-student dynamic that anti-union administrators and lawyers tend to emphasize. Things are fine as they are, the argument goes, and treating graduate assistants as workers would disrupt an otherwise harmonious situation.

But every student worker that spoke with Truthout argued that the situation needs to change — whether at public or private universities, and whether involving those who are already unionized or those working toward unionization. Ending sexual harassment is only part of that process. “Because we are between undergraduates, who give the university money through their tuition, and faculty, who bring the university prestige through their research, graduate students get sort of lost,” said Wood. “We don’t bring the university money. We cost the university money, and we don’t necessarily bring prestige.” But what they do is a significant portion of the teaching, grading and research work at the university for significantly less money than it would cost to have full professors do the labor.

The students who spoke to Truthout talked of “nebulous” situations in which it is unclear whether graduate employees are acting as students or as workers; of the ambiguities of their position making it hard to demand accountability; and of questioning whether they are “on the clock” or not. They spoke of being afraid to alienate their advisors and worrying that their entire career paths can disappear in one dented relationship, especially in the current moment, as tenure-track positions have dried up and plenty of people with Ph.D.s already wind up in dead-end adjunct positions or leaving academia. The commitment required to complete a Ph.D. — years of deep research in one subject with little reward, all in the hopes of one day landing the coveted and increasingly rare tenured professorship — should not require a commitment to miserable work conditions.

“People sacrifice so much to be in a Ph.D. program, especially at UC. We make starting around $20,000 a year,” said Carlisle. “You put your life on hold. You do all these things because you are dedicated to this career, and if you do something to offend the person who needs to write you a brilliant letter of recommendation, you are just out.”

“That is obviously a power dynamic,” Sumpter agreed. “We are not saying that any power dynamic is automatically problematic, but it is one that can be abused and exploited very, very easily.” In talking about harassment, the union is uniquely placed to look beyond the immediate problem and to interrogate the shape of power on campus.

The Ph.D. candidates defended the idea of tenure — one that academic institutions seem all too happy to try to do away with — but noted that its very rarity these days gives outsize power to the few who do get it. So, responsibilities fall more heavily on the professors who don’t harass their students, as whisper networks direct students away from those who’ve been accused. “The people who perpetrate these sorts of actions and make students feel uncomfortable, they end up getting more time to do their research because they lose advising and mentoring responsibility,” Wood pointed out.

Structures such as the single-mentorship model, which places so much weight on a student’s relationship with one professor, might be something to change, Sumpter suggested. What would it look like, for instance, to have a community-mentorship model instead? How could the structures change to make the graduate instructor’s role less ambiguous, clearer, and less dependent on one or two relationships?

It should matter to the university, Wood said, because the harassment, abuse, and even just the confusion and low pay that graduate student instructors face affect their teaching. Protecting them would, in turn, improve their teaching and the quality of instruction at the institution.

The struggle against sexual harassment belongs in the union because it is part of the broader fight against the increased neoliberalization of academia, said Carlisle. “The fight is one fight, and it is for a more equitable university.”