Grievance Procedure

Grievance Procedure to Address Discrimination, Sexual Harassment, and Dismissal

In my first year, I was in a class that required rotations in a hospital and students who did not pass this portion of the class failed the entire course. My instructor/evaluator was consistently insulting of students and also inappropriate with me, touching me when approaching from behind, commenting on my clothes and talking about my appearance with statements like “you have a very pretty face. I just wish you shaved your beard and wore your hair differently.” When I spoke to people about the instructor’s behavior, I was essentially told “that’s just how she is” and no change occurred. I feared going any further as I needed to complete this course to stay in the program but my ability to trust faculty and feel safe at the school has still not recovered.

— Graduate Student in The School of Nursing

Early on in my time at Penn, I was harassed by a professor in my department. Week after week, I was harangued in front of my peers. I felt silenced, as though speaking up in the presence of this professor would only produce more harassment. This cuts against one major purpose of a graduate education, to grow as a scholar and develop one’s own voice in these settings. As a young graduate student, I was not sure where to turn to address the issue. Though I knew criticism was par for the course in grad school, I was not expecting to be called out for my ethnicity, my general background, and my overall capacity for knowledge on a weekly basis in ways that were neither constructive nor related to the work that I was producing. I was afraid to confront the professor, worried that this would jeopardize my position in the program. I made my advisor aware of the recurring issue, as well as the graduate group chair, and was advised to solve the problem within the department. They communicated that taking the issue to the university would unnecessarily escalate the matter at hand, likely making the situation worse. I was unclear how to navigate the university’s system, because it seemed like there were different issues (harassment, discrimination, and academic grievances) bubbling up in this set of interactions with the professor at hand. Being told that this professor had a history of similar behavior with other students was comforting, but ultimately did not offer a solution to the problem of harassment. I hope that the university recognizes that sometimes, going to a grad chair or advisor is not a useful solution, since the concerns of graduate students can easily be silenced in an effort to achieve department harmony. I would have benefitted from some clarity with regard to how to navigate the confusing set of procedures at the university level, as well as someone who was not beholden to department politics to help me understand what resources and recourse might have been available to me.

–Graduate Student in School of Arts and Sciences

When my adviser came onto me, it was in a public, professional setting and I was humiliated. He had been drinking and never brought it up again, so I’m not even sure he remembers. I went to my grad chair but was told that if I made a formal complaint, my anonymity would not be guaranteed. My grad chair told me that since I am graduating in December and will need letters of recommendation from my adviser for the job market, I should “think carefully” about filing a complaint because it might affect my career. I didn’t know where else to turn and felt completely alone. As it stands now, nothing has changed, and no concrete actions have been taken.

— Graduate Student in School of Arts and Sciences


Penn’s current grievance procedures do not provide clear protections for graduate student workers in the event that our interests conflict with those of the administration. Penn has distinct policies and procedures for grievances related to discrimination, sexual harassment, and academic matters, the latter of which is school specific. But there is a lack of centralization among these procedures and a lack of guidance during the process, which results in many issues remaining unresolved. The most egregious feature of many of these mechanisms is that the power over the final decision often lies with a Program Director, Dean, or Provost, which limits the possibilities of redress and can deter aggrieved parties from coming forward.

Each school has its own academic grievance procedure, designed to distinguish “academic” grievances from others. Separate guidelines also mean that students with identical complaints in different schools could have distinct experiences when seeking resolutions and redress, because schools end up policing their own behavior. In BGS, the grievance procedure only addresses concerns about course attendance and grading. For all other matters, students are referred first to the course director, then the BGS office staff or director. Students in “serious distress” (Expectations of Students in Biomedical Graduate Studies, Articles 5 and 6) are referred to CAPS. This places the burden of fair arbitration on the benevolence of faculty members, many of whom are willing and able to advocate for their students. But we need a fair, unbiased procedure in place for those not as fortunate, or whose grievances exist beyond the scope of faculty members to address.

The bifurcation of grievance procedures along arbitrary lines prevents the University from acknowledging when a dispute about labor leads to academic reprisals. The SAS grievance procedure, for example, defines academic grievances as ones that “concern only matters pertaining to a student’s performance and progress in his or her academic program, such as coursework, grading, evaluations, teaching and research responsibilities, examinations, dissertation, and time-to-degree. But these “academic” issues often do not exist in isolation from grievances concerning discrimination more broadly. In short, those who want to challenge academic outcomes, including dismissal, related to disputes over the conditions of labor do not know to whom to turn, and they rarely can turn to someone outside of their school for arbitration.

Problems with how the procedures are set out in writing are compounded by inconsistent practice, and many grievances are left unresolved. Accounts of graduate students who have taken their grievance to their department or graduate chair only to be advised not to file a formal grievance are too numerous to be dismissed as anecdotal. When students seek recourse beyond their departments, the ombudsman has told students to ignore a problem or “avoid” a predatory faculty member rather than take action. Further, the demarcation between “informal” and “formal” modes of grievance resolution is blurry in practice.

The recent changes to and lack of knowledge about graduate students and mandatory reporting has left graduate student workers with a grievance procedure that is difficult to navigate when students want to preserve their anonymity. Other unions established by graduate student workers have negotiated contracts with grievance procedures that are clear, explicit, and offer recourse to parties who are not satisfied with decisions at the university level. These unions successfully negotiated for grievances to be resolved by an external, neutral arbitrator as a way of checking the unilateral decision-making by administrators who currently have final say.

Currently, student workers who wish to raise a grievance must navigate a dizzying array of procedures alone. But this does not have to be the case. Other unions, for example, have a standing Grievance Committee within the union with the sole purpose of aiding student workers throughout the process of arbitration. Other contracts allow for the appointment of a union representative (Collective Bargaining Agreement between University of Oregon and the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, Article 13 Section 3) to accompany graduate students through the review process, whether in helping grads make a plan for resolving a grievance, advocating for students at formal hearings, and holding the University accountable for a change in behavior. These procedures demonstrate that a union can both clearly establish and help navigate grievance procedures so that workers do not have to confront anyone alone.

GET-UP, as a union of graduate student workers, can bargain for a contract that includes a grievance procedure and review from a third party. The grievance procedure is inseparable from and guarantees the contract: its purpose is to resolve any dispute concerning the interpretation, application, or violation of a specific term or provision of the contract. This will enable graduate student workers to be confident in the terms of their working conditions, rely on a clearly communicated set of expectations, and fairly arbitrate academic issues related to labor disputes.

Back to Issues overview