VSG endorses Graduate Workers United List of Demands for the Spring 2021 Semester

The resolution passed 15 to three, against the counsel of Dean of Students Mark Bandas and without endorsement from the Graduate Student Council.

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Alexandra Venero

Photo of flowers outside of Furman Hall. (Hustler Multimedia/Alexandra Venero)

By Emma Mattson, Vanderbilt University

In a 15-3 vote on Wednesday, Feb. 3, Vanderbilt Student Government (VSG) Senate called on Vanderbilt administration to implement a petition from Vanderbilt Graduate Workers United (VGWU) regarding working conditions for the Spring 2021 semester. 

Co-proposed by VGWU and VSG deputy speaker Syed Rahman, Resolution S: 20-21-16 endorsed the Jan. 19 VGWU petition, urging the university to either fulfill the petition’s demands or negotiate with VGWU. 

VGWU, which is not officially recognized by the university as a representative body for graduate students, submitted the petition to the Provost’s Office on Jan. 19 with 156 signatures. The university has made no official response to the petition. Prior to the Feb. 3 Senate assembly, Dean of Students Mark Bandas counseled VSG to reconsider the measure, and the Graduate Student Council (GSC) declined to endorse the resolution. 

The Jan. 19 Petition

To assess graduate needs overall, VGWU’s organizing committee held a town hall and sent out a survey in the Fall 2020 semester. Per Ph.D. fellow and VGWU organizing committee member Nick Goodell, the organizing committee had input from around 80 graduate workers, whose comments they used to draft a statement of demands.

“Really, what it is is a plan for how to make this semester safe,” Goodell said. “We feel that the administration has not put out a very clear, concise and detailed plan for how they attempt to do this across all departments. They didn’t really do this in the fall; they didn’t really do it in the spring, in terms of working conditions, so we were happy to create one for them and distribute it.”

Among other things, the VGWU List of Demands for the Spring 2021 Semester calls for transparency surrounding university COVID-19 policy, funding extensions for all graduates and $500 subsidies for remote technology.

On Jan. 19, VGWU submitted the petition to the provost, chancellor and Board of Trust with 156 signatures, Goodell said. A week later, having received no formal response, between 10 and 20 VGWU members called the Provost’s Office directly, voicing support for the petition, Goodell said. 

As of publication, the petition has 179 signatures. 

“We understand the petition is a long and complicated document,” Ph.D. candidate and VGWU organizing committee member Holly Longair said. “By no means are any of us necessarily expecting (while it would be great) the administration to adopt all these ideas overnight.”

Instead, VGWU hopes to collaborate with the university to develop a plan to implement as many of the demands as sensibly as possible, Longair said. 

“In a lot of ways, we’ve done some of the administration’s hard work for them of canvassing graduate workers, of seeing what the issues really are, and writing good policy solutions to affect them,” Longair said.

Counsel from Dean Bandas

Per Goodell, Rahman reached out to GWU on Friday, Jan. 29 to float the idea of a resolution to endorse the petition. GWU fact-checked the resolution that Rahman wrote and helped gather co-sponsors, including the Vanderbilt chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the graduate student associations from the anthropology, history and biomedical engineering departments, Goodell said. 

Dean of Students Mark Bandas, who serves as one of VSG’s advisers, said he typically receives copies of proposed resolutions. 

“When I read the resolution citing ‘Graduate Workers United,’ which is not a recognized student organization, I was concerned that VSG, our undergraduate student government, was deliberating and making recommendations to the university about matters that were outside their legislative purview,” Bandas wrote in an email to The Hustler. 

Bandas said that he asked VSG and Senate leadership to consider the importance of respecting governance boundaries and recommended that the sponsoring senators consult with the Graduate Student Council about the resolution.  

Rahman, the co-proposer of the resolution, reached out to GSC regarding the resolution. 

“They agreed with some points of the resolution but could not endorse the resolution as written,” Rahman said in an email to The Hustler. “Therefore, we motioned to table the resolution so that we could collaborate with the GSC on it, but the majority of Senators voted against tabling it.”

Price and Goodell expressed surprise that VSG had received pushback on the resolution. 

“That’s what was also surprising: to hear that the administration might have been talking to some undergrads about this, or allusions to that, because they have still given us no direct response,” Goodell said. “So the fact that the only way they weighed in on this was to perhaps encourage them to table the bill, or something to that effect, was surprising.” 

VSG Endorses the Petition

Rahman presented the resolution at the Feb. 3 VSG Senate meeting. Graduate students and VGWU members Derek Price and Raunak Pillai were present at the meeting to answer questions regarding the petition. Per Price, the Senate spent approximately an hour discussing the resolution. 

“There were a lot of senators that were sharing different viewpoints but in a fully good faith way,” Price said. “That was really cool. It felt like real debate about something that was a real political issue that they cared deeply about.”

Per Price, the debate centered on whether to endorse the resolution or table it. Price said he felt most people who had concerns about the language or the timing decided to abstain, rather than vote nay. 

In the end, the motion carried by a roll call vote. The bill passed 15 to three, with seven senators abstaining or absent. 

Senators Kenny Hill, Jenny Liu, Angela Yan, Virali Patel, Shery Girgis, Rahan Arasteh, Emily Hugan, Mustafa Najeed, Olivia Sinrich, Aaron Hunt, Syed Rahman, Ian Jenson, Carlissa Arrow, Yihan Li and Kayla Prowell voted in favor of the resolution, while senators Katey Parham, Livvy Whitmore and Chris Marcus voted against it. 

Senators Macy Su, Joseph Humphries, Joshua Kayiwa, Ellie Ward, Bryce Collings, Matt Geleta and Monica Baldwin abstained from voting. Two senators, Tyger Quarles and Zev Sernik, were absent and thus did not vote. 

“Personally, I am just so excited to know that there are so many Vanderbilt Student Government people who are willing to put their name on something in support of us,” Price said. “I see nothing but exciting potential for more collaborations with them and on issues that they care about, too.”

The Petition: Pandemic-Related Concerns

VGWU had criticized the university’s case-by-case approach to graduate students’ concerns during the past year through an open letter addressed to Interim Chancellor Susan Wente and released on April 8, 2020. The administration made no formal response to the letter. Continued pandemic-related concerns this semester prompted the organizing committee to reach out again to administration, Goodell said. 

After hosting a fall open house for graduate students, VGWU identified insecure research funding, remote teaching conditions and exemptions from in-person teaching as a few of graduate workers’ top concerns, Longair said. 

At the open house, graduate students reported spending hundreds of dollars on technology to transition to remote teaching, Goodell said. According to Longair, others found their research restricted by the pandemic but received no guaranteed funding extension to complete their degree even while faculty received extensions for markers for promotion.

The university’s case-by-case strategy resulted in inconsistencies across departments, especially when it came to in-person vs. remote learning, Longair said. 

“In some departments, they were following the push for more in-person classes, and it was defaulted as being an in-person or primarily hybrid course,” Longair said. “If you could get an exemption and had a specific reason, then you would have to apply for that.” 

If a student received an exemption from teaching in person, they were also barred from any in-person campus activities, such as research, despite the difference in relative COVID-19 risks, Longair said. 

“Graduate workers are adults,” Goodell said. “We know our own healthcare conditions; we know what risks we’re comfortable with. It should be a simple matter of we state our preferences, and that’s what happens.”

The Petition: Response from Graduate Student Council 

Per Rahman, VSG reached out for counsel about Resolution S: 20-21-16 to the Graduate Student Council, but the group declined to endorse the resolution.  

“The GSC felt that the resolution was not focused on the petition itself,” Ph.D. candidate and GSC president Joshua Passantino said in an email to The Hustler. “Additionally, we do not want the graduate student body to seem divided when working with the administration by having multiple groups trying to negotiate at the same time.” 

GSC consists of graduate students who have been elected to advocate for graduate students and serves as the officially recognized representative governance body for Vanderbilt graduate students. 

Per Passantino, GSC has scheduled a meeting with VGWU to discuss the petition in more detail and bring any further issues to GSC’s next bi-weekly meeting with university administration. 

Contrary to VGWU’s concerns, Passantino said he felt the university’s case-by-base approach had responded effectively to COVID-19-related issues for graduate students. 

According to Passantino, due to the graduate school’s decentralized structure, GSC has typically asked graduate students to negotiate issues first with their department’s director of graduate studies. The differing sizes and policies of each department make releasing a blanket statement to address COVID-19 concerns untenable, Passantino said. 

“From our perspective, we feel that a lot of students have really gotten the care and attention that they needed during COVID,” Passantino said. 

Per Passantino, listening sessions held by GSC last semester brought to light the needs of international graduate students and the need for more detailed communication. As a result, Mark Wallace, the then dean of the graduate school, worked personally with any international student who had legal or immigration issues. Additionally, GSC passed along to Wallace the questions they heard at the listening sessions, which ultimately turned into a Frequently Asked Questions page for the graduate school, Passantinto said. 

Per Ph.D. candidate and GSC student life liaison Annika Faucon, the graduate school also provided hardship relief funding for “edge cases” where graduate students had health or technology issues come up. 

“I’ve been consistently impressed with how responsive they are to our needs and our questions and our concerns,” Faucon said. 

Since the listening sessions, Passantino and Faucon have continued to meet with the dean of the graduate school (Wallace, then André Christie-Mizell) every two weeks, Passantino said. 

Per Longair, GSC canvasses grad student issues well, but the issues VGWU addresses are different. 

“The Grad Student Council does a great job representing us and supporting us as students,” Longair said. “But there’s so much less emphasis on us as employees of the university, to the point where I feel like sometimes the university forgets.”

Passantino disagreed. 

“We are students, that is in our name, and we advocate for all of the needs that our students have,” Passantino said. “That includes a lot of things that people consider workers to have.”

Prospects for future unionization

Per Goodell, the transition to the Biden administration has made conditions more favorable for union-hopefuls at universities around the country, since the composition of the NLRB, which reviews union cases, is changing. 

Goodell also sees hope in the increasing support for VGWU across Vanderbilt’s campus, starting with undergraduate organizations like VSG. 

The VSG resolution called VGWU “an organization committed to advocating for the rights and well beings of graduate workers on campus” and described “a long history of peaceably and in good faith advocating for solutions to the issues faced by graduate workers.”

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s a lot of this campus that is waiting for some type of response from the administration,” Goodell said. 

Per Goodell, VGWU will focus this spring on creating a constitution, elected officer positions and estimating membership all tasks that prepare them to take on a unionization campaign in earnest. 

“I can’t say too many details, but we definitely have plans for unionizing this campus and getting ourselves recognized within the next year or two,” Goodell said.

This story was originally published on The Vanderbilt Hustler on February 13, 2021.