During contract negotiations this year, the Graduate Employees’ Organization issued a proposal to create 23 paid, unionized graduate student positions dedicated to implementing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plans at the University of Michigan. This plan to create DEI Graduate Student Staff Assistants was developed by campus leaders involved in DEI organizing and represented a grassroots, bottom-up, initiative to align the University’s DEI values with real-world practice. GEO is committed to seeing the proposal’s acceptance because it directly contributes to equity on campus in a systematic way.
Last month, Academic Human Resources rejected the proposal during bargaining sessions with GEO, and our communities have responded: So far, 42 organizations and more than 1,100 students, faculty and staff have expressed their endorsement of our campaign to Pay Students for Diversity Labor.
Despite broad support for the creation of DEI GSSAs, many UM administrators are still unwilling to discuss the merits of the proposal with us. We believe this may be because of confusion about the specifics of our proposal. Here we respond to 20 frequently asked questions and common misperceptions regarding the creation of DEI GSSAs, some of which were generated through conversations with the administrators who were willing to speak with us. We invite anyone in the community, especially administrators, to reach out to us directly if you would like to see additional questions answered. Please share this with faculty, staff and student leaders engaged in DEI work. Our objective is to work with administrators to fairly compensate graduate student DEI labor, but without your help, UM leadership will not seriously consider our proposal.
1. How do we know that unpaid student diversity labor actually exists?
We believe the University’s priority should be to create paid student positions, and not to collect more data on whether this is an issue. Student-led organizations from across the campus community have endorsed our campaign because their membership is aware of unpaid diversity labor as a problem in their schools. We have also collected anonymous stories and examples from graduate students who have engaged in diversity labor by helping their schools or departments implement DEI strategic plans. Members of our organizing coalition know from experience that students are routinely asked by administrators to help with DEI planning and implementation. This labor tends to be informal, ad-hoc and uncompensated.
2. The University already provides space for student input in the form of town halls and the DEI student advisory boards. Why is it necessary to create formal positions for students when an existing mechanism for feedback exists?
Our petition, and our statement we published in The Michigan Daily, are also a source of student feedback; graduate students see the value of officially recognized and compensated roles within the DEI implementation infrastructure that adequately value their time and expertise. Hiring GSSAs to play a key role in implementation would integrate student voices into strategic planning at a level equal to that of faculty and staff.
3. Why should students carry the burden of doing DEI labor at all? Faculty and staff should be implementing these strategic plans, not students.
In order for the strategic planning process itself to be both equitable and inclusive, students must be part of the DEI implementation infrastructure. Students deserve an opportunity to be involved in a greater capacity than simply sharing feedback in town hall settings. The real value of DEI planning lay in the details — details that students need to understand intimately. When student engagement is absent from the implementation process, mistakes are made that force students to respond reactively. By allowing students to help execute programs, DEI GSSAs would serve a proactive role in ensuring policies and programs address students’ needs.
4. Students’ role is to receive services from the University, not provide them. It is not their responsibility to do DEI work. Shouldn’t we reduce or eliminate the student diversity labor burden altogether instead of paying for it?
Students are already providing DEI labor. This work should be recognized, valued and formalized. Students often find themselves doing DEI labor because it contributes to their survival, and because they (and their departments) know they are the best-equipped people to address ongoing climate concerns. As long as climate issues persist, students will be contributing to DEI labor out of necessity. Because it is not feasible to completely eliminate this burden, creating formally recognized and compensated roles would substantially reduce the unpaid diversity labor burden.
5. Why do these positions need to be unionized? Why not hire students as temporary workers to do a specific activity and pay them at an hourly rate?
DEI work is politically sensitive, and students engaging in it have been subject to threats of professional retaliation for doing so. These student laborers deserve union protection. Unionizing the positions would ensure fair compensation and give them access to the GEO grievance process, which provides legal protection against discrimination and retaliation, and recourse for action.
When students are hired as temporary employees, low hourly rates undervalue the importance and difficulty of DEI implementation work. The nature of this work should be viewed as completely integral to University operations. Hiring graduate students as DEI GSSAs would ensure that these laborers would be paid fairly, at the same rate as GSIs who keep the University running. This level of compensation would guarantee that the positions are competitive, attracting the most qualified and experienced applicants. Furthermore, keeping students strictly as temporary workers strips them of agency and the opportunity to be involved in implementation at a structural level.
There is also concern that allowing administrators complete discretion over who to hire and what to hire them for would give some students advantages over others. To avoid the risk of unfair hiring practices, part of our proposal calls for the creation of an independent committee comprised of student leaders and UM representatives, who would help screen candidates for these roles.
6. What exactly could DEI GSSAs do that existing faculty and staff cannot?
DEI GSSAs would be more accessible to the student population; graduate students are far more approachable to the student body than faculty administrators who hold positions of power and have limited scheduling availability. When it comes to challenging topics such as DEI, students are much more willing to discuss their concerns with peers who share their experiences.
Students have unique and valuable expertise that is distinct from what faculty and staff can offer. Graduate student leaders have a long track record of organizing around DEI issues, power dynamics and structures that perpetuate oppression in academic settings. Their added value is clear based on the variety of student-driven diversity initatives throughout the University’s history. This knowledge base is exactly the reason why so many students are called upon by faculty and staff administrators to weigh in as “experts” on DEI activities.
Finally, having GSSAs serve these roles would increase the level of transparency and accountability to students. To date, most DEI activities happen behind-the-scenes, and students have limited routes to access information about the process and to find out if their feedback has actually been incorporated in a meaningful way. With GSSAs intimately involved in the implementation of plans, a student presence would be guaranteed at all levels of DEI planning.
7. DEI work is not relevant to academic or professional development. Shouldn’t students focus on their academic workloads, not on implementing DEI activities?
In today’s rapidly evolving job market, diversity leadership is an important aspect of professional development. Employers, including research and academic institutions such as ours, are increasingly seeking to hire candidates with experience in DEI domains. Diversity work requires skills in leadership and communication, the ability to work across multiple constituencies and facilitate challenging conversations, and expertise in executing programs that exemplify values of equity and inclusion. Often, this work requires collecting and analyzing hard-to-find data, then translating these findings into specific policy recommendations. These are highly sought-after skills in both the private and public sectors. Many employers and grant agencies now ask candidates to describe their DEI leadership and involvement. Some students plan to specifically pursue DEI work professionally.
The University should offer formally recognized roles to students that equip them with the training they need to succeed after graduation. The creation of DEI GSSA positions would accomplish that. We view DEI work as academic, professional and legitimate work — work that should be highlighted on CVs and resumes as more than just a voluntary activity, but as job duties that were valued with compensation.
Marginalized students, who are typically asked to do voluntary DEI work, are already splitting time between their academics and other jobs to support themselves financially. Because the struggle to find alternative sources of income can actually harm academic performance, paid DEI positions would facilitate student progress professionally and academically.
8. Are these positions being created out of thin air? And —
9. Aren’t some graduate students already being paid to do DEI work?
A small number of DEI GSSA positions already exist or have existed in non-school units, including Rackham Graduate Schools. Even though paid DEI roles for students exist in specific parts of campus, they are uncommon within school units. The few temporary roles that exist also tend to be low-wage positions that undervalue the importance DEI labor.
There is wide variation across school units with respect to how student diversity labor is being integrated or compensated. By having at least one DEI GSSA in every school unit, this would set a floor and ensure that every unit has a base level of infrastructure and student involvement in DEI implementation.
10. Every campus unit is so unique, how could a single standardized job description be applied to such different schools?
Each school unit has its own DEI plan, and since DEI GSSAs would be tasked with implementing their unit’s specific plan, each job description should be tailored to that plan. However, we imagine that several activities would be shared by all GSSAs. For example, we would like to see every DEI GSSA hold open office hours for anyone in their school unit to discuss ongoing concerns or issues regarding DEI, providing further accountability, as has been demanded by student organizers on campus.
DEI GSSAs could also perform an important coordinating and synthesizing function, meeting one another regularly to share and compare ideas and develop best practices that could be standardized across all school units.
11. Why can’t we trust faculty and staff leading DEI planning to make the right decisions for students?
We question the inclusiveness of a DEI planning infrastructure that excludes students from contributing to decision-making that directly affects them. Some faculty are competent in this work and others are less so; the same is true with students. Our intent is to make the entire system more trustworthy and reliable by ensuring student perspectives are integrated into the implementation process. The GSSA positions would provide both labor and an accountability structure that increases the trustworthiness of the entire process, independent of the particular employees involved.
12. Faculty and staff are often not compensated for this work, so why should students be? Shouldn’t the institution work first to compensate faculty and staff for this labor? And —
13. What about undergraduates?
Because GEO is the union representing graduate student employees, we are unable to negotiate on behalf of those outside our bargaining unit. We hope that with this campaign, we can set the precedent that DEI implementation work should be rewarded and valued everywhere, including for faculty, staff and undergraduate students. In fact, many faculty, staff and undergraduates have also signed the petition endorsing our proposal. We believe that faculty and staff — including current DEI unit leads — are being overburdened by the work of strategic planning, and that with the help of student employees, this would substantially alleviate their existing labor burden.
14. Wouldn’t this “snowball” and lead to compensating virtually anyone doing DEI-related work? What distinguishes these DEI GSSA positions from other types of unpaid DEI student labor, such as serving on a department or school committee?
The proposal explicitly states that DEI GSSA tasks would be specific to implementing the activities outlined in their unit’s strategic plan. We view these implementation duties as distinct from other types of DEI-related work, which are often done in more limited, advisory capacities. Individuals serving on committees and making recommendations often do not have the bandwidth to directly take on the task of implementing the activities outlined in strategic plans. Hiring DEI GSSAs would facilitate the implementation of ideas generated through department and school committees. We encourage any unit that wants to value the other types of DEI labor to consider compensating students directly.
15. Is GEO proposing an entirely separate DEI initiative outside the University’s existing DEI strategic plan?
No, the positions would be explicitly tasked with supporting staff and faculty with the implementation of the existing DEI strategic plans. The proposal aims to improve the overall DEI initiative’s chances of success by ensuring that graduate students, one of the core constituencies served by the initiative, would be integrated into the implementation process.
16. Would these DEI GSSAs report directly to GEO?
No, they would not report to GEO. DEI GSSAs would work with DEI unit leads and existing leadership to implement the strategic plan at each school unit. GEO would simply provide union representation, as with all other GSSA and GSI positions.
17. Will these positions be created just for the period of the University’s DEI strategic plan or as permanent positions?
We remain flexible and open to discussing the terms of these positions. We anticipate that, as long as there are DEI strategic plans in need of implementation, there would be a need for student laborers to facilitate this work.
18. How much would this cost and where would this money come from?
We estimate that this would cost approximately $1 million per year, and we hope that administrators would be open to discussing options for how this could be funded. The University has already made an $85 million commitment to DEI initiatives, and the cost of this proposal would represent a mere fraction of that. Though this would be a small financial investment, the added value of these paid positions would be substantial.
19. Would this proposal increase the administrative burden to existing staff?
This proposal would reduce the administrative burden by adding student employees to support existing staff performing DEI implementation duties. The proposal would also facilitate the hiring process and reduce the burden that comes with recruiting for new positions; part of it calls for the creation of a committee, composed of student leaders and representatives from the University, that would be responsible for screening DEI GSSA applications and recommending top candidates to school units. Schools would then be responsible for choosing their DEI GSSAs.
20. The DEI strategic plans require more student roles than what GEO is proposing. Will one DEI GSSA per school unit be enough?
We welcome the idea of creating multiple paid student positions for each school unit to support the implementation of DEI plans. GEO’s proposal recommends hiring a minimum of at least one DEI GSSA per school unit, with additional roles for larger units such as LSA and the College of Engineering. Campus units absolutely can and should consider hiring multiple students to assist with DEI strategic planning. The capacity to effectively carry out strategic plans only increases with greater investment of human and monetary resources.