GSU Statement on ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program Modifications

U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) just announced that international students with F-1 and M-1 visas whose courseloads will be fully online must leave the United States or face deportation. GSU strongly condemns this policy and demands that the University of Chicago uses its financial and legal resources to act decisively in opposition to this policy. We also maintain that reopening campus is not the solution: it is reprehensible to force students to choose between risking infection to attend courses and deportation, especially when livelihoods and travel are so precarious. The administration of the University of Chicago must do its part to protect graduate students and other members of our community from the harmful policies of the federal government, from the dangers of COVID-19, financial insecurity, and from rising xenophobia and racism in our country. 


International students comprise 25% of the total student population at the University of Chicago. In Spring 2020, 918 undergraduate students and 2998 graduate and professional students were enrolled at the university; all are threatened by this and other xenophobic measures recently proclaimed by the Trump administration. The threat of deportation is a particularly grave problem given safety concerns stemming from the current COVID-19 pandemic. Travel to and from the United States is unreliable, expensive, restricted, or simply closed. International students, already under pressure from this country’s draconian immigration policies and mishandling of the pandemic, are now facing the very real possibility of having their education and lives further interrupted.
Even under the University of Chicago’s hybrid model for Fall 2020, international students on F-1 visas in coursework cannot take an entirely online course load and remain in the United States. Students do not have control over whether their courses will be in-person or online, and the university’s assurances that students with pre-existing conditions or other circumstances that require them to remain in online courses for their own safety can no longer apply to international students. Additionally, students currently abroad can only maintain their visa status if the university offers online-only instruction, which is currently not the case for the University of Chicago, forcing students to return to the United States despite the massive public health risks. If the COVID-19 situation worsens and forces the university to move online, students with visas will be forced to leave the country within 10 days. This would be unacceptable under normal conditions, but it is especially reprehensible during a worldwide pandemic. By leaving the “choice” between in-person versus online instruction to faculty and graduate instructors, the university is abdicating its responsibility to vulnerable students, instructors, and the university community as a whole. This places a burden upon departments to either force their faculty and instructors to risk their safety or to put students in a position to be deported – putting instructors in an impossible position.


Additionally, international students who are currently out of the country will not be able to re-enter the United States, forcing them into an especially difficult and unstable position where they must negotiate how to continue their research and education away from the university. This change comes on top of an already exacerbated situation for graduate students pursuing their degrees under the threat of probation and an already restricted timeline following the university’s recently unveiled funding overhaul program and the university’s refusal to address the unique hardships caused by COVID-19 for graduate students. We have already heard from several students that they have faced difficulties applying for and receiving their visas, an issue that will likely be further exacerbated by this measure. Additionally, it is still unclear how students no longer in coursework would be affected by this policy. Further, it is entirely unclear how this change will affect stipend payments, health insurance, and other forms of university-provided assistance. The university needs to ensure that all graduate students will continue to receive their health insurance, stipends, and other payments in full and on time, regardless of where they are located in the world.  Understandably, this uncertainty is causing considerable distress among students and graduate workers in our community.
We recognize that the best advocates for graduate students and workers are graduate workers themselves, and that the university’s refusal to enter into collective bargaining with graduate students worsens our already precarious position in academia. Quoting from our graduate worker colleagues at Northwestern, the university’s refusal to communicate and bargain with graduate workers “remains a palpable barrier to ensuring international graduate workers have a say over their protection and livelihoods.” 


We call on the University of Chicago to denounce these immigration restrictions in the strongest possible terms, and to take all measures necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of its international community.


In solidarity,
Graduate Students United

Graduate Students Untied from American Federation of Teachers

We are excited to announce that our membership has voted overwhelmingly to disaffiliate from the American Federations of Teachers (AFT) and to proceed as an independent union. This decision comes after months of research, conversations among our membership, and a bargaining session with the AFT Academics (AFTA) program lead. Moving forward as an independent union, we are committed to the pillars of base-building, direct action, political education, and mutual aid. We encourage those who are interested in building a 21st century labor movement to reach out and join us.

In January 2020, AFT announced that they were ending their campaign with Graduate Students United (GSU). GSU undertook a months-long process preparing for an affiliation vote. The Stewards Council passed a bylaw that outlined how and when the bargaining process and the referendum regarding affiliation would occur. Two research committees were formed to research GSU’s options, one on AFTA and another on an independent union, and they presented their research at the General Members Meeting on May 20, 2020. On Wednesday June 3rd, we held a 48-hour electronic vote to determine our path forward. The referendum presented membership with two options: re-affiliation with AFT through the AFT Academics program or proceeding as an independent union. GSU members voted overwhelmingly in favor of moving forward as an independent union, a decision we take very seriously.

AFTA is not a union, but a membership program geared towards connecting individuals to AFT’s national media campaigns. AFTA members pay monthly dues of $11.00, an option that would go against our promise to membership that we would never pay mandatory dues until we had a contract. Richelle Fiore, director of the AFTA project, informed our bargaining committee that AFTA’s largest membership “cluster” (as opposed to union local) at this time has only 30 members, and that AFTA did not have a concrete plan to support GSU as an organization. When we asked for our members’ dues to be invested directly back into the work of GSU, Fiore told us “that’s not how this works.” Without exception, each AFTA-affiliated graduate worker that we spoke to, across several institutions, urged us to form an independent union, citing AFTA’s obstruction and hindering of campus action and lack of financial and organizational support. Our bargaining committee is working to ensure that AFT and AFTA will not use data collected through our campaign to contact GSU members.

As an independent union, our members now have the final say in the direction of our union in terms of our goals, actions, and finances. Given the unfavorable terrain of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and our fiercely anti-union bosses, we are re-evaluating our organizing priorities and re-dedicating ourselves to the project of strategically organizing around and winning material gains on our campus and in our community. Fighting for legal recognition via the NLRB has occupied much of GSU’s organizing capacity throughout the course of our campaign with AFT. Rather than waiting for a favorable change in the composition of the NLRB, we will fight for better working conditions and union recognition through direct action.

When we say that we are building a labor movement for the 21st century, we are talking about building a movement that fights for workers despite the lack of National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protections for many workers and despite the lack of courage on the part of business unions to stand up for the so-called “unorganized.” We stand on the shoulders of giants in this regard: the legal protections of the NLRA and subsequent labor laws were hard fought victories gained through protracted labor struggles against both employers and the state throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Going forward, we will continue our fight for dignity and justice by acting in solidarity with our fellow graduate workers here and at other universities across the nation, with other workers at the University of Chicago, and with community and labor organizations across the South Side. Our active solidarity and base-building work will allow us to combat the financialization and corporatization of the university, as well as giving us the collective power to win the living and working conditions that we all deserve. We are committed to strengthening our solidarity and engagement with other unions through the University of Chicago Labor Council (UCLC) and the X-Campus Coalition of graduate workers across the nation, student-led campaigns on our campus, and social justice organizations on the South Side. Given the University of Chicago’s historical relationship to slavery, systematic destruction of black and working class communities on the South Side, and maintenance of the University of Chicago Police Department, GSU believes that the struggle for a more just and democratic campus is inextricably tied to larger struggles against police brutality and racism.

If any GSU member wishes to join AFTA and pay dues to AFT as an individual, they are more than welcome to do so. However, we urge everyone to consider contributing directly to GSU if they wish to support a union financially. Please consider joining our organizing work over the summer. We have a lot of exciting work to do, including: revising and updating our constitution, planning and establishing fundraising mechanisms, expanding our media footprint, organizing for future direct actions, continuing to grow our mutual aid work, and more. To sign up for updates on summer organizing, please fill out this form and we’ll be in touch!

In solidarity,

Graduate Students United

Funding overhaul petition, COVID-19 relief campaign in the news, and Mutual Aid Open House

Sign the Funding Overhaul Petition Today!

Last year, on May 1, 2019, GSU members joined with nurses, library staff, administrative and custodial workers, and other members of the UChicago Labor Council to stage a march and rally in the quad in honor of International Workers Day. This year, the pandemic and social distancing measures have made such actions impossible—but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to advocate for our rights as grad workers. On Friday, May 1, 2020, we have submitted an online version of our funding overhaul petition to the Provost’s office (Note: you can still sign this petition after 5/1).

GSU in the News!

On campus and nationally, GSU’s organizing is earning media attention. Late last week, the Chicago Maroon reported on our calls for relief during the current crisis, as research is halted, teaching and parenting work increases, and we all deal with the anxiety and stress—and for some of us, grief and loss—of a global pandemic.

That was followed by an article this week in Vox. While focused largely on campaigns for tuition relief (including here at UChicago), this piece also highlighted GSU’s calls for extended funding and deadline flexibility. A GSU representative particularly pointed to the impact on grad workers supporting families, as well as international students facing costs and uncertainty around visas.

Both articles centered on the demands in our Covid-19 relief petition, which you can sign today, and share with colleagues! It’s easy to find at http://bit.ly/GSUcovid.

Mutual Aid Open House

In this moment of crisis, precarity, overwork, and deep, deep uncertainty, it is crucial to build practices of solidarity and care in our community. To this end, the GSU Mutual Aid Committee is hosting a Zoom Open House next Thursday, May 7th, at 5:30pm. At this event, members of the committee will briefly introduce the history and basics of mutual aid, present on what they believe are the immediate needs of GSU members (gleaned from our last two member surveys and their experiences) and will facilitate break-out groups to start coordinating mutual aid actions. These actions can include mental health support, Covid support-check-ins, grocery deliveries, childcare support, peer support and peer mentoring, food delivery and food solidarity actions, mutual aid relief funds, and many, many more.

If you have felt alone and would like some support, please attend and tell us about what you need and we will do what we can to get it to you. You are not alone. If you have felt restless and have been looking for concrete ways to get involved in helping others in our community, please attend and join us!

Join us on the call next Thursday, and write to us at gsu@riseup.net to find out more and get involved!

Zoom Info:
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Meeting ID: 852 1790 0932

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Housing, UCSC Strike, and More!

Housing

We’re continuing last week’s discussion on housing this week by focusing on the ways that the neighborhoods around the University are changing, and what the University’s role is in this transformation.

As we discussed previously, over the past several years, the University has been selling off its own affordable housing occupied by graduate workers, leaving us to compete for rentals going for higher rates from private companies—sometimes the same exact units that UChicago just sold off. This, of course, affects the overall cost of housing in the area: as rents for grads increase, we can’t forget that rents for all of our neighbors are also increasing.

Of course, there’s been new housing being built over the past few years—but it hasn’t been affordable. Luxury apartment buildings have dominated: since 2015, we’ve seen Vue53 and three new towers from MAC properties: Solstice on the Park, City Hyde Park, and the new 5252 South Cornell. There’s no doubt that these apartments are not geared towards the typical grad student or renter already living in Hyde Park. Rents for a one-bedroom at City Hyde Park are over $1,800/month; over $2,000/month at Solstice on the Park; and over $2,100 at 5252.

Vue53, however, does market itself towards both grads and undergrads. Its rents are cheaper—in the range of $1,500-$1,700 per month—but still significantly above the average rental price in the neighborhood, and undoubtedly unaffordable on a grad stipend. But curiously, the University has subsidized housing at Vue53 for two years in a row, using it as overflow housing for undergrads and offering $1,500 directly to students to opt to live in the off-campus building.

It’s unclear why the University has sold off its own affordable housing only to actively promote and subsidize luxury housing that costs well above market price. But one thing is for sure: the University’s actions are contributing to increasing rents in Hyde Park, not only making housing unaffordable for grads, but also changing the neighborhood and pushing our neighbors out.

Later this week, we’ll be talking more about the University’s role in gentrification, particularly in Woodlawn around the Obama Center, and how the community has been organizing to keep housing affordable in the neighborhood.

Have a story about your experience accessing housing while at UChicago? Weigh in on the conversation on social media, or get in touch to share your story!

UCSC on strike

If you’re keeping up with graduate labor in the news, you might already know that graduate workers at UC Santa Cruz remain on strike this semester. Facing a crisis in housing costs, the union began the action in December by withholding grades in pursuit of a cost of living adjustment. In Santa Cruz, workers face an incredibly expensive housing market that they simply cannot afford on their current pay. In the past few days, the movement for a cost of living adjustment has spread to other University of California campuses as well. Picketers at UC Santa Cruz have faced threats from the administration and even violence from campus police.

As we know quite well, prestige doesn’t pay rent! Keep up with what’s going on in California through the website https://payusmoreucsc.com/ or the Twitter account @cola4all, and be sure to express your support for our colleagues in the University of California system.

Nominations

As we announced yesterday, nominations are now open for 2020–2021 Stewards and Steering officers. Visit bit.ly/GSUnoms2020 to read more about the roles of the Stewards Council and Steering Committee, and nominate yourself or a colleague by March 9.

GMM next week

The next General Members Meeting will be held next Wednesday, February 19, in the third floor lecture room of Swift Hall. This is an important meeting, as we will continue to discuss our future affiliation options.

The meeting location is wheel-chair accessible and childcare will be available. If there’s anything else we can do to help make the meeting more accessible, please let us know. In particular, if you need ASL interpretation, please contact us at gsu@riseup.net in advance of the meeting so we can hire interpreters.

NLRB

Anti-union comments submitted to the NLRB are still open for rebuttal. As we initially reported a few weeks ago, the NLRB has extended the initial rebuttal period “in order to allow sufficient time for responses to the large number of initial comments received.” We now have until February 28th!

You can set the record straight on some of these comments through AFT’s new portal at https://aftacademics.org/weareworkers/. Once again, the more unique comments we submit, the more work we create for the Board, so take just a few minutes to respond to one or two and remind them that We Are Workers!

NLRB Rebuttals, Faculty Responses to Funding Changes, and More!

NLRB Rebuttal Period Extended

“The collective bargaining process would necessarily insert third parties, whose priorities are economic, not educational, into the learning process. This would have a potentially profound, deleterious impact on the educational relationship among the students, the faculty, and their college or university.” — American Council on Education

“The teaching is part of the training to be a professional, and is compensated as financial aid — the aid is offered to students in recruitment as financial aid, not an offer of employment.” — Anonymous (NLRB-2019-0002-0172)

These are excerpts from some anti-union comments that were submitted during the NLRB comment period that ended two weeks ago. Fortunately, there’s still time to rebut them! Earlier this week, the deadline was extended through February 28th. You can set the record straight on these comments and others through AFT’s new portal at https://aftacademics.org/weareworkers/. Once again, the more unique comments we submit, the more work we create for the Board, so take just a few minutes to respond to one or two and remind them that We Are Workers!

Faculty Also Concerned by Funding Overhaul

Last Thursday GSU hosted a funding town hall to discuss the broad changes that were made to PhD program structures in four divisions last quarter. Members got together to discuss the different ways these changes have affected them, highlighting concerns about how cap sizes would affect their department, changes in their time to degree, and more.

And it turns out we’re not the only ones who are concerned. According to a recent article in the Maroon, over 100 UChicago faculty recently signed on to a letter sent to President Zimmer and outgoing Provost Diermeier, expressing their worries about the effect of the new funding model on the University, and their concern at how it was implemented. The letter calls the new model “a purely top-down, non-consultative imposition of a comprehensive transformation of the structure and substance of academic life in this university.” It also raises concerns about how graduate programs will be able to comply with the new size caps that are being put in place: “Only by pressuring our graduate students to finish or leave in far fewer than 9 years will we be able to preserve the possibility of admitting new students, and thereby preserve the viability of our graduate programs as wholes.” The whole article and letter are worth a read and echo many of the concerns we’ve been discussing among members and on social media since October.

And as we were preparing to send this newsletter today, the Maroon published another article about the University’s response to GSU, with details from minutes of Faculty Senate meetings going back to 2017. Keep an eye out for more articles in this series, and expect a recap in next week’s newsletter.

Revisiting the Issues: Healthcare and Housing

Since we began revisiting some of the major issues identified by our bargaining survey two years ago, we’ve received many messages from members describing how they’ve been personally affected by these problems. Sadly, it seems like everyone knows someone with a negative story connected with our insurance or the Student Health Center. We’ve extended our discussion of healthcare into week four in order to give these members’ stories adequate attention.

We’d like to draw particular attention to problems with mental health services. Several studies have identified that graduate students are disproportionately faced with mental health issues. It’s self-evident that the University must prioritize mental healthcare, providing appropriate funding and resources to support our physical, intellectual, and emotional well-being.

However, as undergraduate student groups have been signalling for quite some time, the University is sorely lacking on providing those services for its students and workers. Long wait times and inaccessibility of services, including the limited hours of the Student Counseling Center, are major issues in the face of high demand. Although undergraduate groups have been leading the fight for improvements, these issues don’t just affect undergrads: graduates also depend on SCS for mental healthcare and face the same problems that impede us from receiving the care we need.

Additionally, for long-term care, SCS often relies on referrals to outside practitioners who, for graduate workers with USHIP, are paid by our insurance. It’s not unusual for graduate workers—who, again, are disproportionately faced with mental health issues due to living in precarity and the stressful nature of PhD programs—to need ongoing therapy or other services. Unfortunately, in the face of this dire need and already inadequate on-campus services, students have also reported problems with the referral process and getting insurance to pay for mental health care.

Mental healthcare, like all other forms of healthcare, isn’t a luxury; it’s an essential, and we need the University to treat it that way.

We’ll be discussing issues with housing next, so be sure to stay tuned and get in touch if you have a story you’d like to share about challenges with finding affordable housing as a graduate worker.

End of Quarter, Email from the Provost and More!

Want to know if we’re workers? Ask a grad instructor at the end of the quarter.

Week 11 is one of the busiest times for grad instructors. Whether as TAs, lecturers, or tutors, this is often when we’re supporting students through stress and self-doubt, talking through drafts, running exam review sessions, and answering a wide range of questions—and then grading for hours on end. This is work, and while we pour effort and enthusiasm into it, no mental contortions from administrators or anyone else can deny that fact.

We’re sending love to all of our members getting through the end of the term, and particularly to those teaching this quarter. When someone tries to say that we aren’t workers, your sweat and tears this week tell a different story.

More emails from the Provost, more questions

On Monday, outgoing Provost Diermeier sent another email to faculty and grads about recent “efforts to strengthen doctoral education at the University.” The message opened with an update on the unilateral revamp of doctoral programs that he announced in October (to the surprise of students and faculty alike). In that paragraph, the Provost claimed that by the 2022-23 academic year, “we will have increased the number of funded PhD students in those schools and divisions by 15 percent over last year.” But how is this possible when the overhaul involves deep cuts to the number of doctoral students, with at least one division proposed to shrink by 25%? Is this an acknowledgement of how many of us currently work without funding, in programs designed to take well over the 5 years covered by GAI? Or is it another case of the Provost using misleading statistics?

The Provost’s email also included some nice words about issues that GSU and our allies have been raising for years. We were glad to see it, but we had serious questions about the substance. For instance:

  • Diversity: The Provost made it a point to claim that the new approach “maintains and strengthens our commitment to recruiting, supporting, and graduating diverse students.” However, this explicitly ignores the structural problems that the new framework will certainly create. By capping the number of students in programs and making admissions a “one in, one out” system, these changes incentivize departments to admit students that are a sure bet to finish their programs quickly. This will inevitably lead to a preference for students who already have Master’s degrees from familiar and highly ranked institutions. And who becomes less like to receive admission offers? Students who cannot afford to fund their own Master’s degree or go into further debt and those with degrees from less recognizable or non-U.S. institutions. Admitted students will likely become whiter and from higher-income backgrounds under this new framework, as departments play it safe to ensure their students move through their programs quickly.
  • Food “Access”: Do we even have to say that there’s something wrong at a university where any worker is paid so little that they have to rely on vouchers to local grocery stores to put food on the table? This issue arose in the Provost’s own survey over a year ago, and we’ve been highlighting it. The Provost’s email claimed that they’ve made efforts to respond to reports of food scarcity, but included no links or specific program eligibility info. for those needing help, simply telling students to write to the general email address of a university department. As our members in SSA point out, this is what some call system-level rationing: setting up hurdles to accessing a program. Is the Provost interested in addressing food insecurity among UChicago grad workers, or simply being able to say that he did something?
  • Space: The Provost reiterated that the fourth floor of the bookstore would be converted into “a dedicated graduate student space for meeting, studying, socializing, and other needs.” He wrote that the design team had “the goal of opening the space by the end of Winter Quarter.” But back on May 16, when the Provost announced this initiative, he wrote of “the changes we anticipate for the fall.” With Fall Quarter ending, it seems that the goalposts have moved, reminding us that even on an issue that the Provost chose to highlight, his commitments aren’t binding without a contract.

There was more in the email, and we could go on. But overall, it’s hard to see how the Provost believes he is strengthening graduate education when the new framework imposes completely unnecessary austerity measures. Since the Chicago Maroon reported in October that the number of graduate students in the Humanities Division was to be reduced by 25%, reports have been trickling in from departments indicating that they’ll have to significantly reduce their populations in the next three years in order to comply with the newly imposed caps. Meanwhile, UChicago’s endowment has hit $8.5 billion. Departments faced with these cuts will have to make hard choices about what kind of courses and areas of specialization they’ll be able to continue offering, and may force students at advanced stages of their degrees to finish abruptly or leave the program. Undoubtedly, important spaces of academic inquiry and the quality of departments will suffer.

We don’t need more committees that demand grad workers’ time and labor for “input” that the administration can easily sweep aside. We need a collectively bargained contract.

NLRB Comments

With slightly less than a month before the January 15th deadline, we have a lot of work to do to flood the NLRB with unique comments opposing their proposed rule that would define us as non-workers. So once you’re through the quarter—or better yet, if you want to take a ten-minute break right now—please go to http://aftacademics.org/weareworkers and submit yours. And then urge colleagues, friends, and family to do the same!

Comments can be in any (currently spoken) language, of any length, on any aspect of the proposed rule. One important note, though, is that the comments have to be unique. There’s boilerplate text on the website, but it may be best to delete that and write in your own voice. If the NLRB gets 2 or 20 or 200 comments saying the same thing, they can count it as one comment. It’s not like contacting a legislator, where, they simply count the number of calls. As little as one or two sentences in the commenter’s own voice will go far further than clicking the send button on the pre-populated text.

We have less than a month. Let’s get the comments pouring in!

Response to Trigger Warning and Safe Spaces Letter

To the University of Chicago Community:

Two weeks ago, University administration issued a letter to the incoming class of 2020. This letter, written ostensibly in order to reassert the institution’s commitment to the values of academic freedom and diversity, explicitly states that the University does not support the use of “trigger warnings,” nor the creation of “safe spaces” on campus. The administration superficially justifies their opposition to such ideas by claiming they are at odds with free and open academic discourse. The letter, in fact, warns incoming students to prepare to be confronted by sensitive topics without prior warning and not to look for safe spaces. However, what may seem a defense of freedom of expression is, in fact, a deeply disturbing attempt on behalf of the administration to curtail not only the ability of students to speak and behave freely, but the introduction, however incidental, of hate speech, ideological violence, and entrenched power into academic discourse.

Unequivocally, free and open discourse is crucial to the flourishing of a healthy and productive academic community. And it is  precisely on the grounds  of ‘free and open discourse’ that one can reproach the University’s arrogant and intimidating message delivered to the mailboxes of its incoming students, thinly veiled as expressing its commitment to intellectual rigor. In the name of diversity and freedom of thought, the University dissuades students from shying away from debates or engaging in forms of dissent (like asking to “cancel invited visitors because of their topics might prove controversial”), but this is a biased and narrow characterization of the value of free and open discourse; one that overlooks its importance beyond the strictly defined academic space. Free and open discourse is in fact key to ensuring a dialectic exchange between the university and its surrounding community. This is particularly relevant in the context of southside Chicago and the Black Lives Matter movement. It took years of battles, in the form of petitions, sit-ins, and protests, before the University heeded the demands of the Trauma Center Coalition and pledged to open a trauma center at Holy Cross Hospital (here you can read the TCC statement). Before conceding the opening of a trauma center, the University responded to TCC’s actions by banning eight protests from speaking on campus. The “no-trespass warning” is one of the many instances that testify to the administration resistance to freedom of speech and expression.

Academic freedom is a complex issue, one that should be treated with due finesse and specificity. So, let us be clear: supporters of safe spaces and trigger warnings are not against difficult, dangerous, or emotionally troubling ideas being discussed, taught, and written about. This is not an attack on free speech; this is an issue of creating, sometimes quite literally, spaces in which those who have experienced personal or collective trauma may feel that their voices are being treated with the seriousness and sensitivity often perfunctorily granted to (and perfunctorily assumed by) others who have not undergone or been societally boxed into such troubling conditions. These ideas are, contrary to the claims of the letter, absolutely about protecting freedom and equality of expression and identity for everyone on campus, AS OPPOSED TO those whose protection is granted merely by their identity conforming to some imagined sense of what is normal. In short, this is about making sure that those who have not been treated with respect and dignity by virtue of their societal privilege are given equal footing. A university is a collaborative project: everyone has a right to be listened to and taken seriously.

It is also important to note that these ideas are new. Trigger warnings originally emerged as flags for trauma-related content that might “trigger” post-traumatic symptoms in victims of trauma. At the discretion of the lecturer, their use has been extended to other sensitive topics, such as politics, religion, racism, and sexuality. To warn students about potentially sensitive topics, however, does not amount to allowing students to “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” as the letter claims. Trigger warnings are a sign of consideration. They can be used to support more rigorous engagement with challenging material, giving students the ability to prepare to grapple with difficult topics, thus enhancing discussion and learning opportunities. As didactic and pedagogical tools, trigger warnings might contribute to create “enabling classroom environments.” In this respect, the workshop Creating an Enabling Classroom Environment” –  initially set up by Graduate Students United’s Women in Academia group in collaboration with the Organization of Students with Disabilities, and now run as a funded programme by the Center for Teaching – is worthy of note. The event constitutes a unique opportunity to discuss tactics that help create enabling learning spaces. It should therefore be at the discretion of the lecturer and educator to adopt trigger warnings when necessary. To impede the usage of trigger warnings a priori is a manifestation of constraint – an imposition – rather than an expression of freedom.

What, then, are “safe spaces?” We define a safe space as a place where students can go to find a group of supportive allies that will ensure they are able to practice the mental and emotional self-care they need to be able to rigorously engage with the wider university community. Safe spaces do not denote spaces where individuals can retreat to avoid dialogue. They are spaces where certain groups can go to to hang out, temporarily, with their peers and develop strategies to make their voices heard. Within this context, protests should not be condemned as actions that jeopardize academic freedom. To the contrary, they are legitimate tools to express disagreement and, therefore, exercise freedom of speech.

It is important to observe that the university already operates safe spaces such as the LGBTQ safe space, making the letter’s dismissive attitude toward them all the more puzzling. The administration’s systematic attempts to curb criticism on campus and adopt punitive measures to suppress those forces that might challenge the status quo testify to its unwillingness to practice what it preaches. Only a few months ago, former president of student government, Tyler Kissinger, was threatened with expulsion by the administration a few days before graduation for having facilitated a sit-in and for having encouraged students to raise questions during a supposed open discussion with the Provost. The administrators’ regular dismissal of the request for more transparency in the way the UCPD operates or more protection for victims of sexual assaults indexes their reluctance to heed the needs of the community and engage in truly open dialogue.

Safe spaces and trigger warnings are new technologies of collective and self, new methodologies of organizing agitations for justice and group identity. To ignore them is tantamount to condoning racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, redpill-thinking, and all the other attendant forms of hatred and bigotry. If the University is truly a collective project, as we firmly believe, we therefore have an obligation to make our community as just, equal, distributive, weird, supportive, and intersectional as possible. Only through solidarity can real intellectual rigor emerge. For this reason, the recent NLRB ruling that recognizes graduate students the right to unionize acquires even a deeper significance. It is a historic moment for graduate employees. The recognition of bargaining rights opens up new possibilities for dialogue between different constituencies on campus. In contrast to the administration’s anti-union rhetoric, we believe that the right to organize will provide the basis for the creation of a truly democratic academic environment.

The shallowness of the language in the University’s welcome letter reflects an institutional history of dismissing the demands of students and community members asking for a higher quality of life coupled with a fierce unwillingness to recognize the nature of inequality and the presence of hate speech on campus. To suggest that students must sit quietly, must behave in only one way, and speak in only one way, goes against the most fundamental ideals of the University of Chicago. The demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings amounts to demanding that power does not curb open discourse and that those that are invited to be part of our community be given the right to actively alter, improve, and develop the community so that everyone, not simply a select few, feel healthy, safe and, possibly, even happy.

 

Solidarity Statement: We Stand Together With University of Missouri-Columbia Graduate Employees

Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago stands in solidarity with University of Missouri-Columbia graduate employees who have stated their intention to unionize.

The struggle came on the heels of a battle over healthcare access earlier this year. Citing changes in federal law related to the Affordable Care Act, the university abruptly ended its practice of providing graduate students with stipends to buy health insurance. Although the university knew as of July 21 that the system of subsidies for graduate employees who enrolled in the student insurance plan no longer met legal requirements, affected graduate employees were not notified until August 14, just 13 hours before many graduate employees’ coverage expired. The university announced that all graduate employees would receive a one-time stipend that would cover one semester of health insurance at the rate of the current plan offered to University of Missouri students in order to make up for the short notice.

The university claimed to have the best interests of graduate employees at heart, stating that they had “been working very hard to try and create the best possible alternative for those students to whom we have made a commitment.” However, at no point were graduate employees consulted over what they considered to be the best possible alternative. And at no point, it seems, did the university consider enrolling graduate employees in the employer-sponsored plan available to faculty and other staff and allowed under IRS rules, nor did they consider a permanent increase in graduate employee pay to accommodate for the loss of the subsidy. In addition, other universities, such as Washington University, do provide subsidized health care assistance and have not elected to remove those benefits. Therefore, it is hard to see this move by the University of Missouri as anything except an attempt to use federal law to justify a cut to graduate employee benefits.

In response to the university’s attack, more than 1,200 university workers, including teaching and research assistants, faculty and alumni, organized by the Forum on Graduate Rights, walked out on August 26 with the following demands:

  • the restoration of health insurance subsidies by the spring semester, when the currently allotted funding runs out,
  • the provision of more affordable housing and childcare facilities, and
  • a guarantee that no graduate student will earn below the federal poverty line.

They declined to call off the walkout following a call for dialogue from the university administration, and in the process galvanized graduate workers and spurred a union drive. This is the kind of action that will be necessary if we are to defend our desperately needed benefits that allow us to carry out our day-to-day work that makes our universities run, and if we are to make full use of the professional development which graduate school programs are supposed to provide.

Beyond our general mutual interest as workers in higher education, our struggles are linked together. Earlier this year, we too were informed of changes to our health insurance plan that would increase out-of-pocket costs by 150 percent, at the same time that student fees used to pay health insurance premiums increased as well. With no inclusion of graduate employees in the process, the administration has both increased cost and decreased coverage, and has put the burden to cover the difference onto us. While insurance is still available to us, deductibles of $500 to $1,500 will put needed health care out of reach for many graduate employees, and will especially burden graduate parents. Your struggle inspires us to make similar demands and to organize to improve our standard of living.

Self-organization and collective action remain the best, indeed only, way to defend our basic standard of living, which is already precarious. Therefore, we, the members of Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago (AFT-AAUP) stand in solidarity with graduate workers at the University of Missouri as they form their union.

The Institution is the Problem: Graduate Students Respond to Racism on Campus

The recent post on a student’s Facebook page the week of November 17 frightened and disgusted graduate students across campus. We were horrified by the acts of overt racism and worried about the risk that such threats posed to students. But we want to clarify to the administration that the problem of racism on campus is institutional, not incidental. This event reminded us of the many other acts of discrimination and intolerance that have taken place on campus and in the South Side again and again:

As graduate students who study and work at this university, we stand in solidarity with the students and faculty who have publicly demanded that the university work to change the climate of hostility created as a result of acts of violence, intolerance and exclusion. Administrative equivocation and delay are inexcusable. This is not an isolated act, and it should not be treated as such.

Continue reading “The Institution is the Problem: Graduate Students Respond to Racism on Campus”

Trauma Care Statement

On Monday 19th May, a group of protestors associated with the Trauma Care Coalition [1], including two members of Graduate Students United, chained themselves to the construction site of the new University of Chicago Medical Center Emergency Room. The action was meant to highlight that all was not business as usual. Seven protesters were forcefully dragged off the site, though no arrests were made. One was taken to the ER for injuries sustained during removal by police [2]. The police aggression they faced [3] only made dramatically explicit, once again [4], the administration’s lack of willingness to engage the views of community groups and student organizations in deciding its priorities.

As Graduate Students United itself attempts to organize for a process of collective bargaining – demanding that university administration recognize the union and negotiate over wages, benefits and working conditions – we call upon administration to participate in meaningful conversations with students and community members associated with the Trauma Care Coalition. They have been highlighting a matter of serious concern. We firmly oppose this practice of sending the police to do the talking. We are also aware that some of those involved in the protests have received emails from administration, and we call on them to refrain from taking any “disciplinary measures.”

Continue reading “Trauma Care Statement”