I want a union

This week, English 1st year PhD student Jeremy Gallion tells us why he joined GET-UP. Do you want to share your story? Get in touch! #getupgrads

“GET-UP gives students of color and their families a stronger voice in combating profiling and discrimination across campus, whether it be from Penn employees, students, or faculty.”

Posted by GET-UP on Wednesday, April 26, 2017


After a racially motivated incident between students and a department administrator, I spoke to the administrator about what occurred. This administrator wields a significant amount of institutional power within the department, including overseeing finances such as stipends and reimbursement for graduate students. Since our conversation, my reimbursements have been significantly delayed despite multiple emails and other forms of communication. It is clear that the delay in processing is related to this incident and I am concerned about being further racially discriminated against by this administrator.

— Graduate Student, School of Arts and Sciences

As a graduate student of color, it is important to me that Penn take more initiative in making minority and students of color feel welcomed. For example, more attention to mental and emotional health care services for minorities is an important issue which is important to me. At a PWI [predominantly white institution], being able to seek emotional and psychological help in people that look like you and understand you is key to feeling welcome in an otherwise, at times alienating environment.

— Graduate Student, School of Arts and Sciences

While I am fortunate that my department has many female faculty, the faculty at Penn do not adequately represent the makeup of its graduate students – less than one third of Penn School Of Medicine faculty are women though many of its research graduate students are women! There are even fewer faculty from underrepresented minority groups. Throughout my 6 years as a graduate student, I have cobbled together less than a handful of faculty mentors that can understand my needs, career ambitions, and how best to plan my next career steps. Having a diverse faculty ensures access to mentors with broad experiences and ideas, both in research and career paths.

Faculty diversity is also essential to cultivating an inclusive environment accessible to all students. A more inclusive environment can also be fostered if Penn were to expand and improve its support systems for students from other underrepresented groups such as the LGBTQ community, students who are the first in their family to go to college, immigrants and international students, and students with mental illness.

— Graduate Student, Biomedical Graduate Studies

The extra emotional and intellectual labor that comes with being a grad student of color at Penn – especially when you are often the only person of color in the room, is draining. For all the talk about diversity and inclusion, change has been slow to come. I don’t want to just wait and hope things get better before I burn out. A union could put the weight of all the graduate workers behind our neglected interests.

— Graduate Student, School of Arts and Sciences

Despite all the talk of improving diversity, graduate student workers from marginalized backgrounds still experience structural inequalities throughout their time at the University of Pennsylvania, and these problems often go unnoticed, ignored, or silenced.

When talking about a lack of diversity, we must begin with the fact that few graduate students from marginalized backgrounds are admitted to Penn. But the conversation should not stop there. After all, diversity does not end with the admissions letter. For GET-UP, a commitment to diversity means not only admitting more students from marginalized backgrounds, but building and ensuring the conditions to allow these students to flourish in an environment that is so stacked against them.

Fighting for diversity, then, doesn’t mean publishing glossy brochures that showcase Penn’s cultural mosaic. It means directly confronting the structural conditions that disadvantage so many masters and doctoral students year after year. To do that, we not only need to learn more about those conditions, which means urging the administration to compile and make available more substantial data about diversity; we have to start by foregrounding and making visible the experiences of students from marginalized backgrounds.

Through hundreds of one-on-one conversations, we’ve learned that in many departments, graduate students of color feel alienated and alone: they see only a handful of professors who look like them, have few colleagues who share their experiences, and often can’t find advisors and mentors who understand their situation. Students from lower-income backgrounds have said they don’t receive the material support they need, like better healthcare, travel grants, summer funding, or adequate funding to complete their degrees. First-generation students find themselves thrown into an unwelcoming atmosphere that makes them feel out of place. Those students facing racial and sexual discrimination have no easily accessible, centralized, neutral, formal grievance procedure they can turn to. In many schools at Penn, women feel suffocated by a sexist, patriarchal culture. Undocumented students across the university constantly wonder if the administration will actually defend them from deportation. Many disabled students find Penn’s buildings unwelcoming or inaccessible. Pregnant students have told GET-UP they feel not only unsupported, but actively edged out of their departments because of their decision to have a child. International students worry about visas, taxes, and the lack of funding opportunities for non-citizens. LGBTQ students have to deal with homophobia and transphobia. Teaching Assistants, especially women and students of color, have said they often feel they don’t have department support when harassed by hostile students.

To be sure, a number of minority student groups on campus have been hard at work on these issues for years. In some cases, they have won important changes. Affinity groups played a role in lobbying for a Community Impact Fund, and black student groups have urged the university to improve communication regarding traumatic events.

But in many other cases, their struggles to improve diversity at Penn have run up against serious obstacles placed by the administration. For example, student groups have created online discrimination and bias reporting forms, and were even able to collect some reports of discrimination, but were forced to take them down by university administrators, who have still not provided a clear and accessible alternative procedure. To take another example, the IDEAL Committee has called for a Central Diversity Office, but the administration has not officially addressed this call to action, nor publicized a concrete plan to follow up on the need for a CDO.

GET-UP can complement these efforts by taking active, transparent steps to maintain pressure on the administration to follow up on these issues. We will invest time and labor in the important initiatives already undertaken by student volunteers, who are overworked and unpaid for the service they do on behalf of the university community. Our goal in aligning with existing student groups is to amplify underrepresented voices, offer them a platform with the force of law, give our support to ongoing projects, and provide a venue for interested groups on campus to educate the largest possible audience on the lived experiences of marginalized graduate students. Above all, GET-UP will work to secure direct support to students from marginalized backgrounds working to resolve these issues. At Penn, the struggle against racism, sexism, and discrimination and the fight to create a positive campus climate often falls on disadvantaged and marginalized students themselves, who have to volunteer their time and unpaid labor to solve the university’s diversity problems. By defending the legal rights of student workers, a union can hold the university accountable to its mission and win a contract that remunerates the hard work of those students who choose to take time out of their studies to make the university a better place.

As a legally-recognized organization of student workers who have come together to achieve common goals, a graduate student union can make a unique contribution to addressing issues of diversity. GET-UP can provide students with a formal voice, give us a greater say in the operations of the university, and allow us to codify the changes we want to see in a contract that’s recognized by the law. In addition, affiliating with a diverse national union, the American Federation of Teachers, allows us to make use of the AFT’s effective negotiating skills, crucial resources, and its past experiences working closely with university administrators to solve serious problems affecting graduate students. Lastly, a union like GET-UP can add to existing efforts to improve diversity by mobilizing the support of over three thousand graduate students at Penn and by bringing to the negotiating table students who have been underrepresented in the past. Through this organization, we can make connections with the thousands of other teachers, instructors, and academics who are working to address related issues across the city of Philadelphia and beyond.

Of course, a union cannot do everything, and we don’t presume to suggest that a union will automatically solve the serious lack of diversity on this campus, which is ultimately a problem connected to American society as a whole. But through collective bargaining, GET-UP can fight for specific gains that can help improve the lives of marginalized students at this university:

  • Working with the administration to collect and make readily available data on diversity and discrimination on campus;
  • Improvements to concrete material conditions such as higher stipends, summer funding, and healthcare for dependents;
  • Increased funds for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) to hire more staff, with a focus on increasing diversity and specifically addressing the experiences of marginalized students;
  • Greater transparency about funding, degree requirements, teaching and research opportunities;
  • A legal contract with provisions against discrimination;
  • A formal, neutral, centralized, legally-backed grievance procedure for all cases of discrimination;
  • Greater visibility of the issues that Master’s students from marginalized backgrounds face, such as the difficulty of securing financial aid;
  • Legal support for students from marginalized backgrounds;
  • Trainings for faculty, staff, and graduate students about discrimination, microaggressions, and diversity;
  • More effective teacher training for graduate student TAs that foregrounds the role of diversity, discrimination, and privilege in the classroom;
  • Lobbying for graduate student workers to become more involved in hiring processes;
  • Holding the university accountable to its commitment to diversity;
  • Following precedents set at other universities, such as the University of Michigan, including a provision in the union contract that provides compensation to graduate students who work to address diversity and racial inequality on campus, rather than relying on their unpaid labor;
  • Offering support to existing minority student groups on campus.

Most importantly, through collaborating with existing student groups, GET-UP is working hard to create a safe space to discuss, acknowledge, and make visible major issues that do not receive appropriate attention at Penn. Together, we hope to make diversity about more than just inclusion, multiculturalism, or celebrating our differences, but about building the collective power to transform the structural inequalities that so many students from marginalized backgrounds face on a daily basis.

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