Graduate students study in a highly individualized environment: advisors work with few students on unique research projects. When things go badly, what was once individualized can become isolating. Your continued employment and graduation depend on your advisor’s discretion. In disputes, that employment rests on your word against theirs and is usually adjudicated by a dean or graduate director whose interest is to keep problems quiet and protect tenured positions.
This imbalance is particularly troubling given the national mood. With looming threats to anti-discrimination law, Title IX Enforcement and religious freedom, and with emboldened acts of bigotry on the rise, minority and underrepresented graduate students are extremely vulnerable. Who is to say Cornell won’t have a Jordan Peterson or Christian Ott? How will already epidemic sexual harassment of graduate women by their advisors respond to a president-elect who brags about sexual assault?
Claims of casual racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia are all too easily dismissed as in one’s head. Universities are all too ready to hide problems and protect faculty. We don’t have to accept this. Together, we can demand accountability and support where even the law may fail us. Interruption or termination of research is interruption or termination of employment. Together, we can demand it be treated as such. Unionization can help protect the jobs and careers of the most vulnerable among us. The closer we are, the stronger we are.