Despite the initial thrill of obtaining paid student diversity labor positions after a contentious bargaining process, University of Michigan students and faculty alike believe administrators continue to fall short in expressing support for graduate students working to implement the initiatives listed in the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion plan.
In April 2017, over 250 Graduate Employees’ Organization members and their allies staged a sit-in to protest their unpaid work in promoting diversity initiatives — the capstone of a year of negotiations, beginning in fall 2016, where members began advocating for graduate student workers’ pay and benefits. This September, six Rackham-funded DEI graduate student staff assistant positions, as well as two in the School of Nursing, were created to reward student labor with full tuition waivers, living stipends and health insurance benefits.
Rackham student Jamie Tam, former chair of the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s DEI committee, said there is no way in which six GSSA positions can meet the monumental demand for graduate student labor and expertise on campus. She acknowledged the steps taken by the University to foster a more inclusive campus environment, but said she believes much more could have been done.
“The reality is that six positions can’t meet the needs of the entire campus community, and even 23 positions would have been too few to meet the incredible need for leadership and expertise from graduate student leaders on DEI,” she said. “When we realized we were going to become the first University to ever offer union benefits to students doing diversity work, we felt like we were doing something truly historic. That was an incredible high. At the same time, we knew that this was only a small step forward, and that a lot more work needs to be done on this campus before it actually achieves its mission of a truly inclusive climate. So, yes, we celebrated this victory, but we were also critical because the University could have done so much more. This was not a lot. It was an important step, but a small one.”
Information graduate student Vidhya Aravind spent the majority of last year campaigning tirelessly in conjunction with the GEO for paid positions for students performing diversity labor. This year, she serves as a DEI GSSA for the School of Nursing — one of the six University-funded positions — after the GEO campaign and months of advocacy work by students such as herself.
“I was on the team that led the campaign for this,” she said. “I think I was a big part of getting more students of color on board with the contract campaign in general, and then getting a lot of the white students who were already on board with the contract campaign on board with the DEI portion of it. I gave a few speeches and stood up on stage a few times to try to build solidarity around this one issue, and I think that the contract campaign was such a success because everyone was ready to walk out just over DEI stuff — even if we got other things.”
Though she is excited about the position and the opportunities it offers — such as free tuition and health care benefits — Aravind noted there are fundamental problems within the structure of the DEI plan that prevent the GSSAs from fully being able implement their ideas within their respective programs.
“I’m really glad I get to do this work. If I wasn’t doing this I would be teaching a class I don’t care about. Instead, I’m doing work I’m passionate about, and have health insurance and don’t have to pay tuition — which is a lot. However, DEI feels like an afterthought. DEI feels like it’s glued onto every program instead of being a central mission, and I think that reorganizing the office of DEI and reorganizing the way DEI works is the only way to fix that.”
Aravind further emphasized the need for the University to create more GSSA positions to divide the amount of labor more evenly among students. With the current number of GSSAs, Aravind said immense amounts of work often fall upon a small number of people — rather than pushing the entire campus community to foster a more inclusive climate.
“Every time there’s any kind of inclusion work it gets put to the GSSAs or to our bosses. There’s too much work for the number of people doing DEI work, and I think that may be true across academic units — it’s certainly true in the units I know about. I wish they would hire more of us. I think that there’s more demand, and there’s more students like me who need funding and aren’t getting it who are really, really capable of this, and I think figuring out how to reorganize labor should be an eventual solution, reorganizing labor so everyone is contributing to inclusion. But, a stop gap would be hiring more of us so less of us are key people for huge piles of labor.”
Despite student calls for the creation of more GSSA positions, Chief Diversity Officer Rob Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion, said the University is waiting to create more positions until there is proof the GSSAs are able to successfully carry out specific initiatives within the DEI plan.
“The decision was made as a pilot project to see whether or not we could provide support for GSSAs who are interested in DEI work and whose efforts fit within different schools and college’s DEI plans. It was important that the positions link up with the needs articulated in the specific DEI plans. We also wanted to make sure that the positions provide some educational value to the graduate students who were in the position,” Sellers wrote in an email interview. “As always, the university strives to be leaders and best. We believe that our DEI plan is unique and innovative. In a similar manner, we hope that the GSSA positions will be successful and thus become a model for other universities to follow.”
He further explained the importance of evaluating units at the end of the semester and using these evaluations to reforms the program before hiring more graduate students.
“At this point, we want to make sure that the program is working most effectively and that there is a demand from the units that is being met, before we consider expanding the program,” he wrote. “We will be collecting some evaluation data from both GSSA’s and the units at the end of the semester to help us assess the success of the program. In particular, we plan to identify those aspects of the program that are most successful as well as those aspects of the program that are in need of reform.”
However, despite Sellers’s decision to address the student demands head-on, Tam said she thinks the University is being publicly scrutinized for its response to bias incidents due to delayed administrative response. As student groups have been calling for paid diversity labor for quite some time, she believes administrators should act sooner rather than later in responding to such student concerns.
“There are reasons why the University has come under public scrutiny, and why Teen Vogue and other news outlets have been covering not only the racist incidents but the poor administrative response. We need to recognize that there are some really fantastic activists on campus who have been highlighting these issues and doing the work,” Tam said. “Organizers — including Students4Justice, the 4%, Collective Against White Supremacy — have been consistently raising these issues to University leadership and to the broader public for a while.”
Tam emphasized the need for more paid student labor and leadership, especially in the wake of the past year’s bias incidents.
“What we realized from these racist incidents and the administration’s low capacity to effectively address them, is that there’s even more need for student leadership and expertise than we thought,” she said. “Student leadership and expertise is so necessary, and recent events have shown how much more effective student leaders are at making the community feel safe than administrators. But student leadership needs to be valued through compensation.”
Tam also expressed disappointment in the failure of the DEI Task Force, which she served on this summer, to issue recommendations regarding how to address potential areas for diversity labor on campus. This task force, comprising graduate students and DEI strategic plan implementation professionals, was initially created by the administration to increase graduate student engagement in implementing DEI initiatives.
“To date, that task force has not issued any recommendation, and that’s been really disappointing because that task force, which I worked on over the summer and which was part of the original deal back in the spring during negotiations — the University wanted to address this question of uncompensated graduate student diversity labor by convening a task force that would issue recommendation,” she said. “It’s well into November, and those recommendations still have not been pushed forward.”
In an email interview with The Daily, Rackham student Jennifer Piemonte, the current GEO DEI committee chair, reiterated Tam’s argument and further explained the need for the University to demonstrate a renewed commitment to the DEI plan.
“I would encourage the administration to consider how DEI is a unique arena of service and labor, especially given the recent climate on campus,” she wrote. “The administration should prioritize it in ways that directly benefit people at the Department level: the level where climate is most tangible for individuals in a community.”
She affirmed many graduate students willing to do diversity work currently exist, yet do not have the energy or resources to fully immerse themselves without compensation from the University.
“For example, graduate students want to commit significant time and energy to DEI initiatives, but cannot afford to do so on top of classes, research, and teaching,” Piemonte wrote. “If the administration wants that labor (and they should, as the Graduate Student position and perspective are unique and valuable) then we would expect institutionalized policies or positions that serve to free up one area of the Graduate Student’s responsibilities in exchange for DEI labor.”
Despite pushback from University administration, Aravind said she believes a substantial amount of support exists among students and faculty for the University to create more paid GSSA positions. During the negotiations last year, 42 organizations and over 1,100 students, faculty and staff signed a petition calling for paid diversity labor on campus.
“I think less conversations are happening upstairs about it,” she said. “GSSAs are expensive because tuition and health care are expensive, which is unfortunate, but I think that a lot of ground level support exists and I think that the more and more we can demonstrate our value, the more and more we’ll see slowly more departments hire graduate students for this and realize that these GSSA positions contribute as much to learning environments as GSIs do.”
She explained the diverse projects various DEI GSSAs are working on this semester and said she enjoys hanging out with a group of women as passionate about diversity labor as she is.
“I’m really excited about the work I’m doing. I’m working on a professional development certificate for the School of Nursing, and developing curriculum, things like that — that’s a lot of fun. I’m really excited there’s a cohort of us, we all hang out together pretty regularly,” Aravind said. “It’s mostly women of color, which is really exciting, that got these positions. We get to hang out, talk about our work together, everyone is doing really cool things.”
Ultimately, Aravind emphasized how diversity labor is integrated throughout her everyday life, and she is skilled at this work because of her own lived experiences. Due to this intersection, she believes it is only natural that the University compensates students for their work.
“I want to mention there are a lot of us who are very good at this work because of our lived experiences, and that need the help because of our lived experiences, we need the support of these benefits — who also love doing this work and are doing it constantly all the time for free, like teaching people in lounges and in our classes that we’re taking and in every space we occupy. A lot of us just do social justice education, so I think it makes sense to pay for it.”