University graduate students seek compensation for diversity labor

Thursday, February 23, 2017 - 2:48pm

The University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan — a five-year effort to create a more diverse and inclusive campus — is comprised of 49 unique unit plans for this purpose, though does not include a provision that designates paid DEI positions within any of the University’s colleges or departments. This semester, University of Michigan graduate students have been taking action against carrying out diversity education and labor without compensation. However, many believe their plans are running into an administrative wall. 

Last December, the Graduate Employees' Organization, the labor union representing graduate student instructors and staff assistants, submitted a proposal to Academic Human Resources calling for unionized DEI positions for graduate students. The proposal was rejected this month.

In response, GEO launched an online petition, advocating for paid diversity labor in 19 colleges on campus, so students, faculty and staff will be better equipped to mold the University into an institution that values diversity labor. As of Wednesday evening, 600 University affiliates have signed the petition.

GEO is currently bargaining for a new contract with the University, as its old agreement expires this May. University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email statement the University regards the request to create new DEI positions for graduate students to be inappropriate for the current contract negotiations, as the process only affects GEO members.

"The negotiations now under way are focused on the contract for the current membership of GEO, which is mostly GSIs who teach," he wrote. "We are happy to discuss these types of positions, but it would need to be outside of the GEO contract talks."

Student activists working to promote DEI on campus have responded to a tense campus climate by advocating for change through protests and organizing resources. A number of inflammatory incidents have rocked campus this academic year, including multiple discoveries of posters promoting white supremacy and urging individuals to report undocumented immigrants in October and November and racist and anti-Semitic emails sent to engineering students and computer science students earlier this month.

Public Health student Jamie Tam, a GEO campaign committee specialist, argued the controversies made the University’s rejection of GEO’s proposal an even greater disappointment.

“For the University to say no to the proposal at a time when the groups that are under attack are the ones who are being asked to do this work for free, I think it’s unfair,” Tam said.

The DEI plan does require deans and department heads to report on diversity metrics and progress, and sets aside $85 million to carry out the plan over the next five years. As of yet, though, University president Mark Schlissel has designated Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers as the only senior administrator to focus solely on the plan. In accepting the position, Sellers referenced a network of “diversity professionals” that would facilitate departmental collaboration and best practices.

“I accept this position, but in no way does this fall on me alone,” he said at the DEI launch in October. “It takes a village to raise a plan.”

Other instructional positions dedicated to DEI education, including those of graduate students, were not included in the plan.

Rackham student Teona Williams, a supporter of GEO’s petition, led a day-long training on activism last Saturday, along with Students of Color of Rackham, Rackham Student Government and Students4Justice. Williams aimed to provide the campus community with resources to advance social and environmental justice in light of the election. According to Williams, being a proponent of the DEI wasn’t much of a choice.

“Someone once told me that just because I’m Black doesn’t mean I have to advocate for DEI,” she said. “But to me, as at the only Black student who matriculated in my department that year, I did.”

Tam said she, along with other graduate students, are tired of bearing the burden of diversity labor without compensation.

“There is a social inequality on this campus in that communities that are most affected by climate issues are asked to do most of the work to address those issues,” Tam said.

GEO President John Ware, a Rackham student, said the 49 unit plans established by the DEI plan have not been effective, as the plans, their implementations and their resource allocations vary widely across departments and colleges. Tam agreed and said the reason some unit plans are less robust is because there aren’t paid DEI staff to ensure work is seen through.

“Faculty and staff who get asked to do DEI work weren’t hired to do DEI work,” Tam said. “Students who are asked to do this give up time that could go towards their own academic progress in order to further diversity.”

Williams said the DEI plan fails to include strategies to respond to hate on campus.

“As we saw from the wave of racist attacks against people of color, there was nothing in the plans that could counteract that,” Williams said. “I feel very strongly that if you have paid DEI positions, then you will have people who have time to strategize beyond writing letters of solidarity that do not protect students from violence.”

Along with GEO’s proposal for DEI positions in February, GEO submitted 13 other proposals, including expanded health benefits for transgender individuals, expanded parental leave and added protections against academic retaliation. Some of the proposals were accepted under certain conditions during the bargaining meeting on Feb. 20, but the majority of the proposals, including the one for paid DEI positions, were not open to bargaining. To Ware, the University’s unwillingness to discuss funding for DEI labor is sending a clear message.

“Whatever the University's intention may be, the clear message it sends by refusing to bargain on diversity work is that it reserves the right to underpay the people doing that work or to deny them the benefits and workplace protections that come standard for other graduate student employees,” Ware said.

The petition is still gaining signatures. GEO has collaborated with Students of Color at Rackham, Rackham Student Government and the Multicultural Leadership Council, and is receiving support from undergraduate students, faculty and staff. Tam said the issue of supporting the proposal is simple and that it all comes down to the answer of one question.

“Is it fair to ask members of predominantly minority groups to do this work and not compensate them for it?” she asked.

Despite its initial delay, the University is gradually signaling its willingness to accommodate the proposal.

"I believe a meeting — outside of contract talks — is being set up to pursue this idea for the week following spring break," Fitzgerald wrote.