Opinion guest column

Graduate student-leaders: only a union can secure real change at MIT

MIT graduate student-leaders from the GSC, the BGSA, the RISE campaign, and EECS call for a union in the face of institutional inaction

As graduate student-advocates, we know the needs of our community and the harm that happens when student voices are not part of the conversation. We know that graduate student-workers need stronger protections against harassment and discrimination, robust investment in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, affordable housing, and a living wage. To this end, we joined committees, councils, task forces, and advisory boards, determined to positively impact the experience of MIT graduate workers. Instead of making progress, we witnessed the MIT administration unilaterally ignore inconvenient recommendations, dismiss and exploit the service of graduate student-workers, and resist the changes we urgently need. 

MIT’s existing advocacy channels undermine graduate student power

The administration claims that existing channels for dialogue between MIT graduate student-workers and the administration are sufficient, but our experience proves otherwise. As leaders of the Graduate Student Council (GSC), Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE), and departmental DEI efforts, we know the limits of current advocacy channels. The only way to secure transformative change at MIT is for graduate student-workers to unionize and fight for a strong contract.

Our support of the MIT GSU is not a critique of the GSC or student advocacy, but rather a critique of the system in which they are forced to operate. The power imbalance between the GSC and the administration requires GSC members to expend tremendous energy arguing about things that should be common sense. We had to explain that our colleagues couldn’t be expected to make academic progress without knowing if they’d be paid during a global pandemic, that allowing MIT housing to fall below Massachusetts’s minimum conditions for habitability was unacceptable, and that letting a private corporation propose rents in a new building where the cheapest rent was over half the average stipend was absurd and violated the spirit of MIT’s 2017 agreement with Cambridge. We regularly found ourselves in meetings with administrators fighting for basic tenant rights or for funding guarantees of individual graduate student-workers — a few people doing the work of a whole union. 

The MIT administration has made it explicitly clear to the GSC External Affairs Board that they oppose graduate student-worker interests. They lobbied directly counter to the GSC on multiple occasions: aligning themselves with the Trump administration to claim graduate student-workers are not employees, actively advocating to deny our right to unionize, and fighting against  monitoring and transparency legislation protecting graduate students at both the federal and state levels

Institutional inaction obstructs student advocacy at all levels

When obstacles to advocacy through official/established routes such as the GSC seem insurmountable, we have turned to other potential vehicles of change: advocating at the department level, working with established and respected organizations like the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), and forming new coalitions like RISE. However, the MIT administration has continued to respond to these attempts with intransigence, enabled by decentralized structures that diffuse responsibility and limit accountability.

In June 2020, in light of the national reckoning sparked by the wrongful killings of Black Americans and drawing on MIT student grievances about racism and police bias on campus, the BGSA drafted the Petition to Support Black Lives. It quickly received over 5,000 signatures. We then engaged in over 60 hours of meetings with Academic Council members, the Strategic Plan Steering Committee, and the Working Group on Public Safety. In every conversation, we spent more time rediscovering blatant systemic bias and rehashing points obvious to every BIPOC than we did working towards tangible progress. Student-workers, in particular those with marginalized identities, have been communicating our needs for years if not decades, through various avenues such as the BGSA 2015 Recommendations and the multiple focus groups on policing and well-being held in the last year. The bottleneck at MIT is not a lack of knowledge or resources — it is the administration’s resistance to change.

Seventeen months later, MIT still refuses to commit to any meaningful progress, acquiescing only on symbolic issues like making Juneteenth an Institute Holiday. Even simple improvements, like removing GRE requirements, remain unimplemented at the Institute level. While we remain confident that the Strategic Plan Committee and the Working Group on Public Safety will eventually produce plans, we remain deeply uncertain whether those guidelines will tangibly improve Black lives at MIT, or will even be implemented at all. 

MIT’s institutional inaction on DEI goals also plagues student-advocates working for change at the department level. In July 2020, EECS graduate student-workers delivered a petition to EECS administration calling for the hiring of a DEI Officer within six months. The department leadership agreed that hiring an officer in a timely manner was a priority. Sixteen months later, despite monthly advisory meetings with the leads of the hiring committee, students are still waiting. Originally, EECS administration stated that they hoped the DEI Officer would start in March 2021, but that date slipped to summer 2021, then early fall. At the time of writing, no DEI Officer has been hired in EECS.

Wins from student advocacy efforts are insufficient and vulnerable

The RISE campaign utilized a collective, public, and confrontational approach to win improvements to the grad student experience. Our major win with this approach was guaranteed transitional funding: any student-worker who wants to leave an unhealthy advising situation is now entitled to at least one semester of funding to facilitate the transition.

Despite the administration’s claims, the process of achieving these wins was far from “...a perfect template for how the students and administration could work together.” Rather, we repeatedly witnessed the administration’s familiar tactics of co-optation, lack of transparency, and exploitation of the power imbalance between graduate student-workers and the administration. As a result, the funding program itself fails to hold problematic advisors accountable and forces departments to fund commitments individually, resulting in inequitable treatment across the Institute and incentivizing departments with poor funding to make these funds difficult to access. Most critically, nothing codifies this guarantee other than the words of the MIT administration — only a contract can guarantee that this program continues.

Regardless which channel of advocacy is pursued, we have found that our voices are ignored, and the actions taken by MIT administration to meet graduate students’ needs are inadequate at best. We have devoted vast amounts of unpaid labor to MIT, yet the administration refuses to make substantive policy changes that would meaningfully improve student-worker lives. Ultimately, our advocacy channels — the GSC, BGSA, RISE, and individual departmental efforts — suffer from a key limitation: they only wield the power which the MIT administration cedes to them. As graduate student-advocates, we know that the only viable path for lasting change at MIT is for graduate student-workers to form a union. With our union, we will finally have a voice at the bargaining table backed by thousands of graduate student-workers standing with their colleagues. With our union, we will finally have the collective power to bargain for a strong contract that reflects student priorities, codifies hard-fought wins, and ensures that we make progress towards a better MIT.

We ask you to stand with us by signing your union card at mitgsu.org/sign

We, the authors, are graduate student-leaders who have served on the Graduate Student Council (GSC), the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE) and departmental student advocacy groups in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), MIT’s largest department.

Madeleine Sutherland is a fifth-year graduate student-worker in Chemistry and was the GSC President for the 2020–2021 term.

Seamus Lombardo is a fourth-year graduate student-worker in AeroAstro and is the current co-chair of the Federal Affairs subcommittee of the GSC External Affairs Board.

Jack Reid is a sixth-year graduate student-worker in Media Arts and Sciences and was previously chair of the GSC External Affairs Board, as well as having served on the Open Access Task Force, the Committee on the Library System, and the Media Lab Governance Working Group.

Caris Moses is a sixth-year graduate student-worker in EECS and is on the EECS CDEI Student Advisory Board and head of Black in EECS.

Willie Boag is a sixth-year graduate student-worker in EECS and currently serves as the President of the CSAIL Student Social Committee (2018, 2019, 2021), member of the CSAIL Postdoc and Graduate Student Council (2020, 2021), and EECS representative to the GSC (2021).

Ufuoma Ovienmhada is a fourth-year graduate student-worker in AeroAstro and has served as a Co-President of the Black Graduate Student Association since 2019.

Chelsea Onyeador is a third-year graduate student-worker in AeroAstro and has served as the Black Graduate Student Association Co-President (2019–2020) and Political Action Chair (2020–present).

Ki-Jana Carter is a fifth-year graduate student-worker in Material Sciences and Engineering and served on the DMSE DEI Collaborative Graduate Students Working Group.

Kara Rodby is a fifth-year graduate student-worker in Chemical Engineering and was a leader of the RISE campaign and is the Co-founder of Graduate Womxn in Chemical Engineering (GWiChE). 

All of the authors are members of the MIT Graduate Student Union.