Gutted Universities and Grad Workers as Defense by Sabeen Ahmed

Check out Sabeen Ahmed's recent article at In These Times. It's entitled "As Universities are Gutted, Grad Student Employee Unions Can Provide a Vital Defense." You can find it here.


I did not come to graduate school to spend thousands of dollars out-of-pocket to fulfill professional obligations while watching my institution insidiously cut funding opportunities for faculty and graduate workers. I did not come to graduate school to listen to administrators rebrand us as students gaining ‘experiential education opportunities’ rather than as employees teaching introductory classes, executing research programs, or building scholarly communities. Most importantly, I did not come to graduate school to bolster a system that abuses its workers, ignores academic rigor, overlooks sexual harassment allegations against distinguished (male) faculty, engages in unlawful labor practices and disregards the needs of its staff and faculty.
... We instructors are the face of the university and provide the classroom education that students pay for, yet revenue we bring in doesn’t pay for our security. Instead, we are told that admission to a doctoral program is a gift, that our employers are benevolent, and that quiet gratitude is the only appropriate response to our conditions. They pretend this is enough to ignore watching us sink below a living wage, struggle with mental health with little support, and work ourselves to exhaustion.

Scumbag Steve's Been Coaching Vandy by boomer trujillo

Vanderbilt has a $4,000,000,000 endowment. Yet it refuses to pay lecturers what Nashville public school teachers make.

#15 in undergraduate education (US News Ranking), #23 by endowment size in America (Wikipedia), Vanderbilt chooses not to pay lecturers a minimum of $48,600 per year (which a certified, PhD-holding teacher in Metro Nashville schools makes).

Don't tell me it's because they don't have the money.

Forbes estimates Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos's salary at $2,230,000. USA Today estimates Football Head Coach Derek Mason's salary at $2,556,877. Nashville Post estimates former Vice Chancellor of Health Affairs Harry R. Jacobson's 2009 annual salary at $5,280,000. I put the salaries in terms of weeks because it makes the numbers manageable. These amounts of money don't make sense otherwise.

Zeppos's salary alone is equivalent to 37 employees who make $60,000 per year (the mean salary for a junior philosophy professor). At some point, you have to ask whether an administrator, of any quality, deserves to make what a small department does.

This isn't about jealousy; it's about justice. If I made that much money, I wouldn't be able to relax knowing people in my community struggled. I could help them with that much money.

It would wreck my conscience to wear tailored suits, park my Audi near Kirkland Hall, and vacation extravagantly with alumni while workers in my community went bankrupt from medical bills.

Vanderbilt is my home. And this home is unhappy because the breadwinners refuse professors appropriate wages, deny all employees a living wage in the booming Nashville, and rest unconcerned with graduate workers who struggle to pay for prescriptions, dental, vision, or dependent care.

A Contribution to the Critique of Graduate Student "Work" by Kelly Swope

Work is not uniform among Vanderbilt graduate students, but it is universal.

Among the universal issues driving Vanderbilt graduate students to unionize–comprehensive healthcare coverage, stipend increases, legally arbitrated contracts–the issue of recognizing and improving graduate student “work” is an essential one. According to the National Labor Relations Board’s 2016 Columbia decision, “work” is what all stipend-receiving graduate students at private universities have in common, and our legal status as workers allows for cancer biologists, civil engineers, and literary critics alike to form a single collective bargaining unit through which to negotiate contracts with our employer. Despite these assurances from federal labor policy, however, I have heard many graduate students express concern that our work varies so widely across departments and programs that they cannot see the common thread in it. Indeed, different departments ask for different contributions from their graduate students depending on their missions. Some departments ask graduate students to serve as instructors of record in introductory courses as early as the first year. Others allocate teaching assistantships that involve grading and guest lecturing under faculty supervision. Some require a combination of these first two (such as my own Philosophy Department), while others require no teaching at all from their graduate students, instead putting them to work as research fellows or laboratory assistants. Long story short: work is not uniform among Vanderbilt graduate students, but it is universal. Federal labor law recognizes this basic fact about what it means to be a graduate student at a private university, while Vanderbilt’s administration, longing for bygone days, continues to present us with alternative facts about what we do for the university.

Yet all graduate students, no matter our area of study, need to cultivate specialized professional skills in order to survive in our PhD programs and become competitive candidates on the job market.

Once we acknowledge that work in all of its forms is the legally sanctioned foundation of our solidarity, we can start to think for ourselves–without the administration’s counterfactuals–about what our work means for us and for the university as a whole. The first thing we notice is that graduate work is a universal economic need without which we could not become viable candidates for future jobs. Now, the administration tells us that we ought to think of ourselves as “students first,” rather than as employees, and that we ought to view our work in terms of “professional opportunities,” rather than professional needs. Yet all graduate students, no matter our area of study, need to cultivate specialized professional skills in order to survive in our PhD programs and become competitive candidates on the job market. Gaining teaching and research experience is not an optional “opportunity” that we may or may not choose to seize, according to our whims. Imagine a new humanities PhD trying to compete for a tenure-track job at a four-year teaching college without having ever been an instructor of record or a TA during her graduate career. Imagine a biomedical engineer trying to land an industry job with a medical technology company without ever having worked in a state-of-the-art laboratory. Neither of these candidates would have a fighting chance. Encouraging us to think of graduate student work as an educational “opportunity” rather than an economic need is to mislead us about our relationship to the world beyond Vanderbilt University.

Graduate work generates substantial economic products that bring revenue and recognition to Vanderbilt.

The second thing we notice about graduate work is that the university depends upon it for its day-to-day functioning. That is to say, at the same time that graduate work meets our own professionalization needs, it also generates substantial economic products that bring revenue and recognition to Vanderbilt. Countless examples corroborate this essential point. As far as graduate teaching is concerned, Philosophy PhD students serve as the gatekeepers of our department by designing and teaching the Introduction to Philosophy and General Logic courses that are required for the undergraduate major. Similarly, English PhD students design and teach writing-intensive cultural studies courses that fulfill core requirements in the undergraduate curriculum. On the research side of things, science and engineering students labor year-round in labs generating raw data that eventually turn into publishable papers for their faculty supervisors. Every paper that comes out of a lab staffed with graduate student workers contributes to Vanderbilt’s growing global reputation as a leader in science and engineering research. And let us not forget the hundreds of graduate teaching and research assistants whose efforts as graders and editors generate time for Vanderbilt faculty to write the articles and books which secure their own positions within the university. Knowing how integrated graduate students are into the productive activity of the university, it is nothing short of amazing that Vanderbilt’s administration continues to claim, contra federal law and all empirical evidence, that we are not employees.

The structure of a graduate education presupposes a measure of equality between graduate students and the faculty who teach them–further confirmation that even as students we act as professionals do.

This twofold understanding of work as professionally necessary and economically productive should influence how we think about the “student” part of our status as well. We know, for instance, that the educational dynamic between faculty and PhD students is quite different from that between faculty and undergraduates. For, unlike our undergraduate counterparts, graduate students have already demonstrated a certain level of competence in our subject matter and are in the process of becoming faculty ourselves. Hence, we are expected to deal with the same intellectual materials that tenured faculty deal with, and to produce intellectual work of comparable quality to our teachers’. Moreover, graduate students are encouraged–if not expected–to submit our work to professional conferences and peer-reviewed journals where the best minds in our fields come together to judge each other’s work. By graduate education, then, we understand an activity that is already professional in numerous respects. This is not to say that no significant knowledge gap obtains between PhD-holding faculty and their graduate students. It is rather to recognize that the structure of a graduate education presupposes a measure of equality between graduate students and the faculty who teach them–further confirmation that even as students we act as professionals do.

Vanderbilt owes us more than it currently gives us for our labors, and we owe more to ourselves for giving so much of our lives to this institution.

I hope this analysis makes clear that the corporate hierarchies at Vanderbilt University do not reflect the real conditions of graduate student work and education here. A graduate student properly understood is the unity of a worker and a learner. As workers, we are both trainees and producers in relation to our employer. As learners, we are both students and colleagues in relation to our faculty. These activities entitle us to negotiate with the administration concerning the conditions of our employment. Furthermore, they warrant the recognition and accountability that a legally binding contract would bring. Vanderbilt owes us more than it currently gives us for our labors, and we owe more to ourselves for giving so much of our lives to this institution.

Unionization Beyond the Trees of Vanderbilt Univeristy

Throughout this semester and last, I’ve heard from graduate students across disciplines tell me and my fellow organizers which aspects of graduate life are of highest interest and concern. Although at times there have been department- or area-specific issues, university-wide concerns are largely the same: stipend increases that reflect the increasing cost of living in Nashville (Expatisan in 2017 has listed Nashville as #27 in its list of cities with the highest cost of living in North America); improved health care that includes more comprehensive benefits for leave and for dependents, as well as the fan favorites: dental and vision; and general calls for greater transparency, a seat at the table for administrative decisions that affect us directly—and here people frequently mention the increase cost of parking passes that occurred at the beginning of the fall 2016 term (which was ultimately and quite quickly reversed) and, especially, the elimination of Buttrick’s third floor as graduate student space and concomitant reduction in size of graduate student carrels at the end of the spring 2016 term—and mechanisms that hold all parties accountable to agreements reached between different strata of the university hierarchy.

Most striking, however, is that these concerns are not really Vanderbilt-specific, nor do they express or suggest any sort of unbridge-able antagonisms dividing the Vanderbilt community. These concerns, in other words, show us that desires for unionization do not reflect an “us” versus “them” mentality, but rather reflect a larger trend that has been quietly permeating higher education for decades.

Many of us—student, faculty, and staff alike—are concerned with the direction in which higher education is moving: some call it the ‘corporatization of the university’, increased emphasis on proficiency over growth, or general profit-motive pressures on the institution of education (as more often than not, and as is the case here at Vanderbilt, university board of trustees do not hold doctorate degrees but rather come from backgrounds in law and business). These trends have certainly intensified over the last 10 or so years, and Vanderbilt University, although one of the most prestigious universities in the country, is not immune to these external pressures by any means.

To be frank, we need only look at the political situation of the U.S. right now: we are a country run by business-minded oligarchs who have little regard for or believe in the importance of education. Trump’s executive orders restricting immigration from (now) 6 Muslim-majority countries, too, has already had tangible effects on higher education. According to Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Students, 40% of universities have seen a drop in applications from international students—and these students bring more than $32 billion a year into the U.S. economy. The Trump administration’s preliminary budget proposal for 2018, released on March 16th, has outlined alarming cuts: to pay for increases in defense spending, the proposal reduces funding for 19 federal agencies, two of which are the Department of Education (by more than 13%, or, $9 billion) and the Department of Justice (by about 4%). To put this in perspective, the Department of Education oversees the implementation of IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act, and the Justice Department oversees the implementation of the 1972 Education Amendments Act, one of which is Title IX.

The proposal also outlines the total elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as decreases in agencies that award funding for research such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Vanderbilt hospital chief Dr. Jeff Balser has himself expressed concerns over the roughly 20 percent proposed cut of the NIH’s budget: In 2016, the NIH granted Tennessee researchers $512 million in grants, including $353 that went to the VU School of Medicine. Additionally, MTSU’s Business and Economic Research Center direct Murat Arik warns that “we all need to be concerned about it. This is the next generation of medical research. This is the next generation of health care, the next generation of medicine and treating disease.”

On March 16th, the same day that the budget proposal was released, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled “What Trump’s Budget Outline would mean for Higher Ed.” The authors write that the cuts in the Department of Education are aimed at “several programs that aid primarily low-income and minority students” and which will “sacrifice the possibility of year-round grants.” The budget also proposes to eliminate funding for 19 independent agencies, including the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the U.S. African Development Foundation, and the Appalachian Regional Commission, as well as reduce spending for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which oversees the Critical Language Scholarship Program and the Fulbright Program. Cuts in research spending would, according to university leaders, launch “a dangerous assault on the United States’ pre-eminence in science and technology” and, according to Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, these and similar cuts “signal the end of the American century as global innovation leader.”

The budget proposal is not set in stone, and there is no hard and fast guarantee that the cuts will end up being as severe as they’ve thus far been outlined; contrarily, there's no hard and fast guarantee that they will not be more severe. What is true, though, is that this is a problem that goes beyond Vanderbilt University and goes beyond our tenure as graduate students. For those of us who plan on staying in academia—about 25% of enrolled PhD students here at Vanderbilt—and for our friends and colleagues in the Vanderbilt faculty, these policies have the potential to drastically reshape (or raze) the landscape of higher education, and Vanderbilt will have no choice but to ride the wave when it comes.

One union at one prestigious university is certainly not enough to reverse the overarching aims of a nation’s government, but it can serve as a symbol that the anti-intellectual, anti-creative, and anti-innovative mentality that so often accompanies far-right demagoguery is something that we do not support and will not tolerate. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in August 2016 that graduate workers at private institutions have employee status, joining the ranks of graduate workers at public institutions where many have been unionized since the 70s and 80s. There are two empty seats on the NLRB right now, and the Trump administration has the power to fill them. We can expect with near certainty that its nominees will not be friendly to unionization, and we should anticipate the possibility of the August 2016 ruling being reversed. Governments only restrict the freedoms of its people when it knows it has something to fear, and history has shown us that the freedom to think is one of the most terrifying adversaries of social, political, and economic oppression that there is.

I am one graduate student among over 1200 brilliant minds here at Vanderbilt University. But unionization is bigger than me, and it’s bigger than all 1200 of us. I can only speak on behalf of myself, but if you share the same commitments to education, free speech, and freedom of thought as I do, I hope you, too, see that unionizing is a way not only to protect ourselves, our colleagues in graduate programs, faculty, staff, and administration, but to protect all of the things that we represent and hold dear as scholars.

With love and solidarity,

Sabeen Ahmed, 2nd year PhD student, Department of Philosophy