Pay Students for Diversity Labor

We are a coalition of organizations committed to transforming the University of Michigan campus climate through policy change. We believe that the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic planning initiative will fail without financial investments into the infrastructure for DEI work: The current policy of expecting free labor from marginalized people undermines the integrity of the entire DEI campus enterprise.

Since the DEI strategic plans were released last fall, the University has repeatedly declared its aspirations for a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive campus environment. However, a recent decision by the University conflicts with this vision.

In December 2016, the Graduate Employees’ Organization, the labor union representing Graduate Student Instructors and Graduate Student Staff Assistants, put forth a proposal to the University to create paid DEI positions for graduate students within each school unit. As part of negotiations for its labor contract, GEO proposed hiring at least one DEI GSSA per school unit at a 20-hours-a-week appointment, with additional positions at larger schools such as LSA and Engineering. These GSSA roles would substantially increase the capacity of each school unit to implement their DEI plans, and officially place value on the diversity labor and expertise contributed by graduate students. Moreover, GSSA positions dedicated to DEI work would lift much of the labor burden off of students, faculty and staff who have historically done this work on a voluntary basis. Paid GSSA positions would make it possible for the University to be proactive on campus climate issues, rather than reactive, and institutionalize DEI labor as core to campus operations.

In February, the University rejected that proposal. As part of negotiation proceedings between GEO and Academic Human Resources, HR flatly rejected GEO’s proposal to fund GSSA positions for DEI labor in each campus unit. This concerns undergraduate students, graduate students, staff and faculty alike. It sends a message to our communities that the University does not place a high value on DEI labor if it is unwilling to pay for it.

Recent campus events ranging from racist and anti-Semitic emails to white supremacist fliers have made it abundantly clear that now more than ever the University needs to take proactive measures and ensure that each school unit has the capacity to respond to acts of hate efficiently and effectively. Without paid DEI positions as part of the University infrastructure, school units will continue to struggle when responding to such incidents as they arise.

We call on the University to meaningfully integrate DEI labor into the structure of our institution by hiring and paying students to support the implementation of DEI plans. We specifically declare our endorsement of GEO’s proposal to create paid DEI graduate student staff positions. In doing so, we join the more than 900 students, faculty and staff who have signed a petition in support of the proposal. Several of our organizations have previously described the need for fair compensation for diversity labor and the importance of investing in human resources in order to address inequalities in the distribution of diversity labor on campus. There is clear and broad support for the creation of paid DEI positions.

Hiring GSSAs across school units would substantially increase staff capacity to implement DEI strategic plans. Most campus units have formed working groups and committees to begin the work of developing and implementing such plans. These advisory committees serve an important role in overseeing progress, but they are not equipped to carry out the day-to-day tasks involved in actual implementation. Those who serve on the committees do so voluntarily, and on top of their existing job duties, academic workload or both. Meetings held once a month or once a semester are not enough to promote systemic change within any campus unit. These facts coupled with the high turnover rate most committees experience, as students and faculty move on to serve other needs, can make DEI committees ineffective. Expecting school units to adhere to aggressive implementation timelines in the absence of paid staff dedicated to doing this work is both unrealistic and unsustainable. By hiring graduate students to support implementation activities, GEO’s proposal addresses the widespread capacity issues faced by diversity initiatives across campus.

Creating paid DEI positions would also harness valuable student expertise that has yet to be utilized through formal mechanisms. Students at the University have been successfully organizing around issues of race, gender and class for a long time. Leaders from across our organizations are routinely tapped as “on-the-ground” experts by administrators and asked to engage in diversity labor because of their knowledge of power dynamics and systems of oppression as they apply to University settings. In fact, many school-specific DEI plans tout the successes of student-led DEI efforts as their own. However, these students have largely engaged in diversity labor through informal channels, providing their recommendations on an unpaid basis to school officials who have limited expertise on issues related to race and inequality. Deans and chairs overwhelmingly hail from socially privileged groups and have not been tested on their qualifications to implement DEI plans effectively. Their lack of both lived and professional experience in this domain means that they rely heavily on students to engage in diversity labor for them. By screening and hiring for the most qualified applicants, GEO’s DEI GSSA proposal would create official, recognized roles dedicated to diversity labor. Graduate students with DEI expertise are uniquely positioned to assist with the effective implementation of strategic plans, because they know how to effectively engage with and gather information from students, faculty and staff constituencies, including those from marginalized communities.

Most importantly, GEO’s proposal promotes social equity by lifting the diversity labor burden off of minority and underrepresented faculty, students, and staff who engage in this work on an unpaid basis. DEI work continues to fall disproportionately on people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and religious/cultural minorities. Because this work is almost always voluntary, it means that folks from marginalized backgrounds end up assuming the costs themselves. Scholars have documented the ways that diversity labor diverts attention away from activities that promote professional success and harms the mental well-being of women and minorities. When engagement with DEI initiatives is strictly voluntary, this reproduces the very inequalities they are supposed to eliminate. Students from marginalized backgrounds are especially vulnerable to this type of labor exploitation from the University.

People engaging in diversity labor must be adequately compensated and protected from potential retaliation by those in positions of power. It is not enough to hire individuals as hourly employees and pay them at minimum wage. DEI work is intense and difficult work because topics like race and gender can be seen as controversial. The challenging nature of the work mandates union protection to guard against retaliation and ensure an independent procedure for resolving grievances. No one engaging in diversity work should be subject to negative professional or personal consequences for doing so. By incorporating DEI GSSAs into the graduate employee union, GEO confers the same benefits and protections owed to graduate student laborers who keep this university running.

At its core, diversity work is a labor issue. Unpaid labor should be a concern to everyone in our community, particularly because it disproportionately affects people who are now under attack by hate groups here in Michigan and across the nation. Until our concerns about how diversity labor is uncompensated and unfairly distributed are addressed, statements from University administrators about the importance of DEI work will continue to ring hollow. Join us in telling University of Michigan that Diversity Labor is Not for Free. Sign the petition at and tell your communities what is at stake.


The Multicultural Leadership Council

The Network for SPhDiversity at the School of Public Health

Students of Color of Rackham

The Coalition for Queer and Trans People of Color

Multi-Ethnic Information Exchange

Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers at UM – Undergraduate Committee

Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers at UM – Graduate Committee

United Students Against Sweatshops

Coalition for Tuition Equality

Students4Justice at the University of Michigan

Collective Against White Supremacy

Out in Public

Aspiring Allies 4 Racial Justice

Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science

Society of Minority Engineers and Scientists – Graduate Component

National Lawyers Guild, University of Michigan Chapter

Planners Network at the University of Michigan

Multi-Ethnic Student Society

Epidemiology Doctoral Student Organization

Health Behavior Health Education PhD Students

Iranian Graduate Students Association

Muslim Graduate Students Association

Vietnamese Student Association

South Asian Awareness Network

Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

Asian/Asian American Psychology Student Association

African Students Association

The Graduate Society of Women Engineers

Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering, and the Sciences

Progressives at the University of Michigan

La Salud

School of Social Work People of Color Collective

The Association of Multicultural Scientists

Society for Women in Physics

Lecturers’ Employee Organization, AFT Michigan Local 6244, AFL-CIO

Graduates Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

Rackham Student Government

Graduate Employees’ Organization, AFT-MI Local 3550, AFL-CIO

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