Opinion guest column

Why I’m voting ‘no’ to the graduate student union

I care deeply about improving the MIT graduate experience, but UE is not the right path

In recent years, many problems with MIT’s graduate programs have come to light. We need solutions, but I believe that unionization is not the right path. In writing this op-ed, it is my hope that students do not feel ostracized if they choose to vote “no.” My “no” vote does not mean I’m invalidating the need for change or the presence of major issues. Rather, voting “no” means I believe unionization, as it is proposed today, is not suitable for MIT or its graduate students.

Representatives from the Graduate Student Union (GSU) have claimed that graduate workers at MIT “currently lack a well-defined job description, leaving the boundaries of our responsibilities extremely ambiguous.” Instead of viewing the ambiguity of research as a freedom, the GSU claims that in the face of “an inappropriate lack of investment in support staff and research infrastructure, [graduate students] are forced to pick up the slack.” They list a number of tasks they think graduate researchers should not do, including scheduling visitor agendas, manufacturing testing apparatuses, ordering supplies, and maintaining equipment.

To me, these tasks can be key elements of a graduate student’s research process. For example, I’ve learned a lot from maintaining the laser cutter I need to build my experimental setups. Some students may consider these tasks grunt work, but in fact, menial tasks provide a critical aspect of learning in academia and industry, especially for students who have chosen a school with a “mens et manus” motto. It is immensely helpful when staff are available to offer assistance, but as graduate students, we should feel ownership over our own work and learning. To become more effective researchers, we must want to do what we need to do to answer our individual questions. Learning to balance all of this will make us better researchers, engineers, and scientists.

The ambiguity and flexibility of academia is its appeal. It is why many of us chose a graduate education at MIT over other opportunities. As students conducting research, we answer questions that no one has answered before, meaning that one cannot possibly foresee all the tasks that may be involved. Furthermore, our questions vary greatly across departments, labs, and even within advisor groups. Each individual graduate student’s journey requires a unique set of steps to create new knowledge.

How do the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) and GSU imagine they will write a singular representative contract that accounts for the thousands of possible and unpredictable paths that might be taken to solve the tough problems we tackle at MIT? (Remember, the UE’s experience comes primarily from working with very predictable labor roles, not academic research roles.)

I am concerned that a union contract will greatly reduce the flexibility MIT currently affords students and their advisors as they collaborate to answer novel research questions. This rigidity would ultimately reduce the quality of research MIT graduate students are able to conduct. Isn’t this quality of research and the freedom to work hard to solve unanswered questions what drew us all to MIT in the first place?

The GSU has also claimed that a union would improve education at MIT through better-defined expectations of teaching assistants (TAs) and professors. I have been a TA, lab instructor, or team mentor for several classes, including 2.009, 2.007, and 2.00b, during my six years as a graduate student. Through these experiences, I developed a strong sense of what it takes to run a great class at MIT. Sometimes it requires thoughtful, teaching-focused work like developing assignments and grading criteria; other times, it requires less exciting tasks, like updating a class’s Canvas page. However, all of these experiences served to make me a more involved and engaged instructor who better understands my students’ learning needs.

If UE defines a TA role, it could overconstrain MIT courses and diminish their quality. For example, if 2.009 were obligated to observe UE-defined, UE-limited TA responsibilities, many iconic elements of the course (such as Build Challenge and the Final Presentations) would not be possible. These course activities require flexibility and devotion from all course staff, including TAs, and they make for some of the best learning experiences one can find on a college campus. Many other courses could suffer similarly. Like research, teaching responsibilities vary from department to department, course to course, and year to year. Each year, MIT is rated one of the top schools for undergraduate and graduate education. I foresee that over time, this quality will diminish due to UE’s overconstrained definition of a TA’s role.

Additionally, the GSU has failed to mention the potential immediate harm of potential TA strikes on undergraduate education. I personally care too much about the students in my classes to strike and leave them stranded. A strike could also have lasting harm on graduate students and their degree timelines. Because I care about my thesis, I could not support a strike that would slow my research progress. I imagine many graduate students feel the same.

I believe that generalizing graduate students’ diverse experiences in a union contract has the potential to disrupt the many, many students who have found demanding yet healthy situations at MIT. The GSU has identified several problems in the graduate community, but I believe many are specific to certain departments, communities (e.g., graduate students with families), or advisor-advisee relationships. Instead of a generalized graduate student union that has the potential for harm, I would rather see solutions that focus specifically on those situations that need more scrutiny or these students who would benefit from increased university support.

It worries me deeply that choosing UE to represent MIT graduate students is a legally binding and permanent decision that will impact the Institute for decades to come. As an engineer and designer, I only know how to solve problems through iteration. MIT is a community unlike any other. We haven’t tested a graduate student union at MIT or any kind of partnership with UE, so we have no way to evaluate their effectiveness.

Many holes have already been poked in some of the GSU’s claims, so I am skeptical of the rest. I realize MIT students have been attempting to address the issues we face for years and that many are frustrated to have seen few results. I have been one of them. Even so, I favor a methodical, collaborative, and iterative process with the Graduate Student Council and departmental advocacy groups over a permanent, legally-binding fix with UE.

Georgia Van de Zande ’15, SM ’18 is a sixth year PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering