Graduate Students United: A Guide to the Faculty Senate Minutes, 2017–19

Taken together, faculty deliberations add color to GSU’s long, contentious relationship with University leaders. Here’s an annotated guide.

By Deepti Sailappan

Jeremy Lindenfeld / The Chicago Maroon

NEWS

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January 30, 2020

Below are the portions of minutes from the Council of the University Senate, as well as the Committee of the Council, dealing with Graduate Students United (GSU). Taken together, the faculty deliberations add color to GSU’s long, contentious relationship with University leaders. 

More information about the minutes and Council can be found here.

The minutes span from October 3, 2017—two weeks before graduate students voted to authorize a union—until October 15, 2019. They reflect several overarching themes.

One is administrators’ oft-expressed belief that collective bargaining is, fundamentally, “a bad process” for handling concerns across widely varying Ph.D. programs.

Other recurring motifs are disputes due to funding differences across the University, particularly between STEM and non–STEM departments; professors’ worries about administrators’ “tone and appearance” in communications with graduate students; and, finally, unresolved debate about what the purpose of Ph.D. training should be.

Here’s a guide to the 67-page document, with excerpts and annotations putting the faculty senate’s discussions in context.


Highlights and annotations by The Maroon appear in yellow, via Genius.

The full document with GSU-related minutes can be read as a PDF at the bottom of the article. Page numbers in the article and in the Genius annotations refer to the pages in the PDF.


Spokesperson’s Report, Committee of the Council, October 3, 2017 (page 1)


Then-spokesperson Clifford Ando, a classicist, led this meeting of the Committee of the Council—the Council subcommittee tasked with additional deliberations.

Discussion centered on GSU’s upcoming unionization vote, specifically how the University should communicate publicly and with students about the election. The minutes say “numerous parties” acknowledged that “communication from the administration is distrusted as agenda-driven” (page 2).                                             

Special guests who attended included Ted Stamatakos, the University’s senior associate general counsel since 2004.


Council of the University Senate minutes, October 31, 2017 (page 3)


Provost Daniel Diermeier opened this meeting, held less than two weeks after GSU’s unionization vote, with a summary of the election results. He also described messages from across the country that he had received in the poll’s aftermath—many of which, Diermeier said, had argued that “since graduate students work, they are therefore workers”—before launching into his concerns about a potential union.

A recurring topic was what unionization might mean for STEM students, a question the University had already stressed publicly prior to the poll.

Diermeier discussed uncertainty surrounding compensation for graduate research in STEM (page 6). Erin Adams, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, argued at length that students in her division, who are largely supported by National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, “had fallen into the polarization that GSU promoted, causing them to believe that they needed to support students in other areas of the University who were feeling mistreated.”

She added that GSU “had done a good job of casting the administration as being ‘Trumpian.’ ”            

Adams was not the only one to describe unionization as polarizing. Whereas she placed the responsibility for exacerbating campus conflict with GSU, however, English professor Elaine Hadley saw it differently. Hadley mentioned knowing some students who had decided to vote for GSU only after being “taken aback by the administration’s hardline positions” (page 8)—a characterization Nirenberg refuted.

Diermeier and Stamatakos also explained the partisan nature of federal rulings on unionization—relevant given the NLRB’s new Republican majority under President Trump.

The Maroon reported on this meeting the next day, based on talks with two professors who attended but spoke on the condition of anonymity. That prompted spokesperson Ando to email Council members, encouraging them not to publicly discuss meetings. Ando also spoke with The Maroon, voicing frustration that Council members had violated a confidentiality rule.


Spokesperson’s Report, Committee of the Council, November 14, 2017 (page 11)


The faculty present continued previous discussions about GSU.


Council of the University Senate minutes, November 28, 2017 (page 13)


Discussion was lengthy. Administrators reiterated the difficulty of regulating varied Ph.D. programs under a union, and both Diermeier and Stamatakos stressed the unique uncertainties posed by graduate research.

They also discussed the NLRB’s Republican majority (pages 16-17), as well as how negotiations might work if the University recognized GSU. As an example, Stamatakos described UChicago’s existing relationships with lecturers and Harper-Schmidt Fellows represented by the Service Employees International Union (page 18).

Administrators and faculty spoke broadly about student unhappiness. Philosophy professor Michael Kremer said “having the University refuse to bargain with a legally certified union” would damage student morale—including among those who had voted against GSU. Hadley argued that reducing unionization to students’ expression of their unhappiness “sentimentalizes” their position (page 20), an idea she would return to later on.

Biology professor Elizabeth Grove, meanwhile, wondered at length whether GSU supporters knew the basics about a union: “Ms. Grove asked whether students have any idea of the specifics and difficulties of these procedures, as well as the fact that they will have to pay dues.”

She also suggested creating student and faculty boards to address problems without the union’s involvement.

Diermeier and Stamatakos said it “was now too late” to implement that idea: “Mr. Stamatakos explained that the University was essentially foreclosed from dealing directly with students, who are now exclusively represented by the union for purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of employment. To do so would recognize the union” (page 19).

School of Social Service Administration (SSA) professor Harold Pollack voiced concerns about unionization, like the possible shrinkage of some Ph.D. programs. Pollack stated, however, that “he did not believe that the University could oppose the union and command a widespread sense of process legitimacy at this point”—particularly under the auspices of the Trump administration and the newly Republican-dominated NLRB.


Council of the University Senate minutes, February 20, 2018 (page 22)


On February 13, a week before this meeting, GSU withdrew its certification of representation before the NLRB. A few days earlier, GSU had hosted a rally on campus urging the administration to bargain. At roughly the same time as the rally, a student hand-delivered a letter to Zimmer—who was onstage at Barnard College in New York, giving a talk—that made the same demand.

GSU withdrew alongside graduate student unions at Yale University and Boston College, saying the move aimed to deny the NLRB the chance to reverse itself on graduate students’ right to unionize. The same day GSU withdrew, the University filed a letter with the NLRB reaffirming its efforts to overturn the Columbia precedent.

At this meeting, Diermeier said GSU’s withdrawal had put a University-led approach to reforming graduate education back on the table: “as long as the legal process had been open, the University had been at a standstill…. Now, however, because of these recent legal developments, it is now possible to start this conversation” (page 23).                                               

Faculty then debated how this approach, to be led by Nirenberg, would unfold. English professor Ken Warren wanted to know if the administration would consider dealing with GSU directly, without external representation. Some professors asked about offering a sixth year of funding under the Graduate Aid Initiative (GAI), a possibility that had previously been talked about in the Humanities Division and parts of the Social Sciences Division (page 25).

A few professors raised the question of how the University should shift its “tone and appearance” in communicating with graduate students, given that—as Law School professor Lisa Bernstein put it—“some graduate students had developed a view of some University administrators as the devil.” Anthropology professor John Kelly proposed what he termed a “both/and” framework going forward, “in which GSU would be invited to various venues, but not exclusively."

The next day, more than 100 professors from across the University signed a public letter denouncing the administration’s opposition to GSU. The professors’ criticisms included what they called the “careful reputation management” and “flattering self-portrait” in Diermeier’s earlier email announcing the withdrawal.                                               


Spokesperson’s Report, Committee of the Council, April 3, 2018 (page 27)


Spokesperson Ando led this committee meeting, which focused on big-picture questions about Ph.D. programs’ purpose, prestige, and size.

Concerns included “how might one assess the relationship between investment in graduate education and the outcomes that we expect or tolerate…. If programs are esteemed according to where they place their students, would it be better to reconfigure funding so as to have smaller cohorts of the best students?”

Later that month, Diermeier announced the Committee on Graduate Education (CGE), to be chaired by Nirenberg. Appointed by Diermeier, the CGE included eight faculty members—including Ando and Adams—and six graduate students. The CGE would research graduate student dissatisfaction on campus, as well as nationwide and University-specific trends in Ph.D. programs, and issue a report with recommendations.


Council of the University Senate minutes, December 6, 2018 (page 29)


This meeting, which focused almost entirely on the CGE, followed a busy quarter for GSU organizers. Over 350 members of the union, which had been considering a work stoppage since early fall, participated in a planned walkout on October 18.

The CGE also faced controversy. In response to a demand to bargain sent by GSU to Diermeier in early October, the University’s Director of Employee and Labor Relations, Brett Leibsker, wrote a letter encouraging graduate students to instead become involved with the CGE.

Later in the fall, the CGE sent out surveys to graduate students and faculty aimed at evaluating students’ academic experience, funding and benefits, and professional development. Statistics professor Yali Amit urged faculty not to fill out the survey in a Maroon op-ed, calling the CGE “paternalistic” and part of the administration’s “anti-union game.” In response, CGE member and mathematician Kevin Corlette penned a letter advocating for the CGE’s necessity. Corlette said CGE members had all been “dismayed” at Leibsker’s response to GSU’s demand to bargain, but that both Leibsker and Amit were mischaracterizing the CGE as an alternative to GSU.

GSU supporters walked out of a CGE town hall on November 14 held to discuss survey results.

GSU largely went unaddressed at this Council meeting, which was devoted to hashing out the CGE’s plans for research over the next several months. Victoria Prince, CGE co-chair and a professor of organismal biology and anatomy, noted that 40 percent of the University’s Ph.D. students, as well as 36 percent of faculty, had filled out a survey.

In discussing the survey results, Ando elaborated on academic concerns, such as attrition in Ph.D. programs, as well as funding issues: “student anxieties about personal finances and also around food,” and a lack of opportunities for students to earn required but teaching-dependent funding.

Also discussed was funding for STEM graduate students, who do not receive GAI funding. Prince said that in mathematics and some biology departments, which see less NIH and National Science Foundation (NSF) money than other STEM departments, graduate students face “unusual” and “problematic” teaching burdens.                                                                        


Spokesperson’s Report, Committee of the Council, April 3, 2019 (page 38)


Spokesperson Gabriel Lear, a philosophy professor, led this committee meeting, which had the CGE present their findings. The CGE’s final report would be publicly released a week later.


Council of the University Senate minutes, April 30, 2019 (page 40)


Diermeier opened by praising the CGE report. He also mentioned two committees launched that day in response to the report, which were tasked with investigating University grievance procedures and housing and transportation, respectively (page 41).

Prince presented on some national trends discussed in the CGE report: dwindling tenure-track jobs and “a credentialing arms race” between Ph.D. programs in order to produce better-qualified graduates. She also noted that the GAI, which she described as “an educational and moral imperative,” had led to decreased enrollment in the humanities and social sciences.

Also discussed was attrition, and how to evaluate students’ potential as researchers earlier on in their programs. President Zimmer interjected here, saying “that students who attrit out of Ph.D. programs should be given an honorable and graceful exit.… He spoke of the need to figure out how, as an institution, these students can be respected as they move on to other good and honorable positions, without a hovering sense of failure." This led Prince to suggest one-year professional master’s degree programs as a potential “positive exit route” for students who attrit (page 47).

Warren complimented the presentation, then asked about the administration’s position toward GSU, saying he “did not feel that anything in the report obviates a discussion” about unionization. This prompted a response from Diermeier.


Council of the University Senate minutes, Special Meeting, June 11, 2019 (page 50)


Zimmer was absent from this special session, which was convened in the wake of GSU’s three-day labor action. That spring saw a ramping up of activity by graduate student unions across Chicago, including a GSU rally held in conjunction with the newly formed University of Chicago Labor Council on May 1.

On May 10, Diermeier announced an internal audit of graduate student pay to be undertaken in the summer. GSU objected to the phrasing of the Provost’s email announcing the audit, accusing him of understating long-term issues with late or inaccurate pay.

In late May, GSU voted overwhelmingly to strike. The strike began on Monday, June 3, and finished Wednesday evening.

The Thursday before the strike, Boyer sent an email to graduate students, titled “Commitment to Undergraduates.” He also sent an email to undergrads asking them to notify their College adviser in the case of unresponsiveness from a graduate instructor, or if they were blocked from an academic building during the strike. The night before the strike, Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen sent a mass email to campus, stressing that UChicago's free speech policy doesn't tolerate "threatening and harassing behavior” and asking students to report such incidents by calling the UCPD’s number.

On Thursday morning after the strike, Diermeier sent an all-campus email upholding the administration’s stance against graduate unionization.

Discussion at this special session was wide-ranging. Notably, the meeting concluded with tense disagreements between professors and top administrators over the relationship between faculty control and GSU's recognition.

See The Maroon’s related story, from this series, on GSU and eroding faculty trust in administration.

At the meeting’s start, University counsel Stamatakos described the strike as mostly “peaceful,” but he offered a point-by-point summary of incidents that had provoked complaints (pages 52–53). Diermeier “shared his view that this constituted an appropriate time to send out a reminder about the types of actions that were and were not acceptable.” 

Diermeier also “clarified that the University had never received a strike notification or demand, and that the only known fact was that there had been a vote for the industrial action. He confirmed that the administration did not know what was going to happen until the Friday before the Monday initiation of the industrial action.”

The Provost repeatedly asserted his stance on GSU: “the administration believes, as a foundational matter, that graduate student unionization is a bad idea” (page 58).

Conversation during the meeting also drifted to broader, unresolved issues with graduate education at UChicago. In diagnosing these problems, Diermeier defined three categories of programs, each facing distinct sets of concerns.

The first category—consisting of programs in the Biological Sciences Division and some departments in Physical Sciences, like chemistry and computer science—are largely funded externally, via NIH and NSF grants. Their issues, according to Diermeier, are “fixable."

The second category—mathematics, economics, and linguistics programs—receives “little to no grant funding,” but students typically complete their programs within six years. These programs’ problems, Diermeier said, “could be fixed by looking at them one at a time."

The thorniest issues, then, lay with other social sciences departments, the Humanities Division, and the Divinity School. Diermeier discussed “the need to reconsider the current structure of GAI funding”—which the University would, ultimately, do that summer, though most faculty were unaware.


Spokesperson’s Report, Committee of the Council, October 8, 2019 (page 64)


This committee meeting, led by spokesperson and professor of Hebrew literature Na’ama Rokem, was held the same day Diermeier announced a new funding model for graduate programs in the Humanities, Social Sciences, SSA, and Divinity School. The new model, completely unannounced to many professors before the mass email to campus, placed new caps on Ph.D. programs. Professors reacted with concerns about how teaching and admissions in the humanities would change.

At the meeting, Diermeier said his next goal was to look into restructuring funding in the physical sciences.

The Provost also discussed late pay, lab injuries, and food insecurity. Professors had several questions, including on how to better fundraise for graduate students.


Spokesperson’s Report, Committee of the Council, October 15, 2019 (page 66)


This committee meeting saw conflict between administrators and faculty attendees, largely over the Ph.D. caps and new funding model. As the minutes state: “Several committee members had comments and questions, having had a week to absorb the information and think about it, as well as collect responses from colleagues.” Professors expressed disapproval “about the rollout of the plan and how well it was explained to faculty,” as well as about “the potential increasing adjunctification of the University” (page 67).

They also asked about GSU. Diermeier restated his opposition to collective bargaining, and “lamented the fact that GSU did not receive the plan favorably. Since ‘recognition has become a moral good in itself’ some students are not able to see the benefits of the new plan” (page 67).

Shortly after this meeting, professors began drafting a letter to Zimmer and Diermeier expressing “grave concerns” about the funding model and the way it was unveiled to faculty. More than 100 professors would sign it.


Faculty Senate Minutes Discussing Graduate Student Unionization by The Chicago Maroon on Scribd