Michigan graduate workers halt bargaining after university refuses to negotiate sexual harassment protections
Members of the GEO protest the University of Michigan's continued inaction on harassment on June 27. | @geo3550 via Twitter

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—On Friday, June 23, members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan voted to walk out of a bargaining session with the university’s human resources department. The decision to walk came after HR refused to discuss the GEO’s proposal for advanced sexual harassment protections.

The GEO’s proposal includes a Transitional Funding Program for graduate workers facing abuse or harassment. The fund would allow them to get out of a dangerous situation without worry of immediate financial hardship. In short, this would reduce the power differential that financial dependence—on another person or a job—ensures.

Such a fund is not unheard of, either. Graduate student workers at Wayne State University started a similar fund to support survivors of sexual and domestic violence. GEO’s fund at the University of Michigan would cover emergency situations for graduate students to leave abusive situations. The two take a similar, trauma-informed approach to survivor support: no questions asked.

The core of these forms of abuse are control and violation of autonomy, and survivors are too often disbelieved. So, believing survivors without question in emergent situations can be seen as a radical act of empowerment. University HR wants a review committee to determine whether those requesting the fund are deserving of it.

The GEO’s proposal is comprehensive, covering abuse in relationships beyond the standard supervisor-worker and those between graduate students—which, incidentally, are the only two relationships HR is willing to cover. The proposal goes a step further and includes the mentor-mentee relationship as well.

Although the difference between GEO’s proposal and what HR is willing to cover seems trivial—namely, the distinction between who is a supervisor and who is a mentor—there is an important reason GEO is demanding more.

The bargaining plank came about after a sexual harassment case at U of M that many felt was mishandled. Professor Robert Stephenson, a nursing school faculty member, was alleged to have sexually harassed two graduate students. One of the students was a research assistant, and the other was a lab assistant.

To fully comprehend the problem, it helps to understand how the difference between the two most common types of work open to graduate students—research and teaching—plays into the relationship of graduate students to those above them. With limited research funding for programs not related to the health or “hard” sciences, the vast majority of graduate workers are funded through teaching.

On top of this, because research is considered part of the academic curriculum rather than as labor that advances knowledge—or university reputation and attractiveness—in certain states, like Michigan, graduate research assistants are barred from classification as public employees.

Due to their research-based positions, neither research nor lab assistants are considered state employees—and thus not covered by the graduate students’ union—and neither are covered by HR’s counter proposal, which excludes protections for graduate students facing sexual harassment from mentors.

This mentor-mentee apprenticeship model comes with a culture wrought with exposure to conditions that enable sexual harassment. A mentor, like Stephenson in the case above, goes by a lot of names in academia and can be a researcher or graduate advisor in title. These positions come with a lot of power over their students and assistants.

Faculty members who advise graduate students, for example, sign off on all paperwork; have access to and control grades; edit thesis and dissertation drafts; approve advising committees for dissertation defenses; provide opportunities for authorship on research papers; and assist in networking with other scholars—thus helping students transition from being mentees to mentors themselves and build their reputations.

Faculty advisors are the “face” of the research and the program; they’re what draws students to the university itself. When applying to graduate programs, typically graduate students are primarily applying to a research advisor and considering the university’s or program’s prestige secondarily. These programs are about “fit” with an advisor just as much as any other qualification.

A graduate student’s success depends on a functioning relationship with their faculty advisor; but, due to the dependency these students have on their advisors, there is an extreme power imbalance. Under this apprentice model, a graduate student’s entire academic success and reputation lie in the hands of one person.

Anti-sexual harassment advocates have pressed for alternative mentorship models like advising committees, in which a committee of advisors shares in mentorship responsibilities, rather than one faculty member holding all power over a graduate student. While this would be a major push toward preventative action, the unfortunate truth is that higher education has a longstanding culture of sexual harassment. As such, graduate workers are in need of financial flexibility to be able to leave such abusive situations.

Furthermore, Title IX—the federal law which bans unequal treatment on the basis of sex in education— is extremely limited in the kinds of support it can provide to survivors because of Trump-era regulations. While the Biden administration is still months behind in releasing any updates to the law, it’s clear that Title IX is not enough to protect people. Rather, some argue it actually continues to act as an impediment to resolving the kind of discrimination it aims to alleviate.

People’s safety from sexual harassment and violence cannot be a matter subject to change every time a new administration takes over the White House or while awaiting one or another to catch back up to what was already lost. A strong bargaining contract that provides protections for all graduate students is a necessary step toward survivor protection.

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M. Colleen McDaniel
M. Colleen McDaniel

Dr. M. Colleen McDaniel is an award-winning anti-violence advocate.

Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.