Marsha Jean-Charles grad garnered a flood of support this Wednesday afternoon, with dozens of her fellow graduate students cheering support outside of Caldwell Hall as she made her way to a final meeting with the Graduate Grievance Review Board.
Jean-Charles’ grievance with her graduate studies department is the first case to make it to the third and final step of the graduate grievance process in over 19 years, according to Cornell Graduate Students United.
Jean-Charles filed a formal grievance while working as a research assistant last spring, when she received a negative evaluation by a faculty member and her department’s doctoral graduate studies chair chose to revoke her funding, CGSU said.
Students admitted to the Ph.D. program receive a promise of guaranteed housing and funding in fellowships available to those teaching and conducting research, according to a CGSU statement. The group pointed out that the immediate revocation of these provisions would jeopardize Jean-Charles’ ability to continue at Cornell.
Jean-Charles is pursuing a P.h.D. in Africana Studies and is a member of CGSU, whose members rallied behind her, seeking to reform a grievance process nearly all group members categorically declared “broken.”
Left without funding and in precarious academic standing from a single chair’s decision, which CGSU said was made without input from student or committee, Jean-Charles was left no other option than to confront the grievance process head-on, according to a CGSU statement.
A ‘Broken’ Grievance Process
The grievance process for Cornell graduate students has long been controversial. According the University website, when graduate students must navigate issues with a department member or advisor, they begin the four step process.
First, a student contacts the faculty member with whom they have a grievance. Next, they reach out to the director of graduate studies for their specific program. Third, a student may bring the case to the dean of the graduate school. Finally, the grievance can be referred to be heard before a graduate review board. Charles’ grievance has become the first filed since the late 1990’s to make it to the final stage of the process.
Fellow graduate students created a Facebook event in support of Jean-Charles, claiming that her work was evaluated “unfairly,” and that the professor “failed to provide clear guidelines” for her research. The professor has remained unnamed due to the confidential process, and no advisor or graduate studies faculty were available for comment.
Anxiously awaiting Jean-Charles’ arrival, students stood near the review board hearing at Caldwell Hall minutes before it began, holding up signs in the heat.
Graduate student Alex Brown grad, a member of GCSU focusing on German studies, described the general sentiment shared by the 60 other graduate students taking a stand with Jean-Charles against the grievance process.
Within the grievance process, “more people are silenced than are given a chance,” Brown said.
“Someone not on her committee had the power to take away her funding,” Brown said. “We’re gathered as CGSU members, to stand in solidarity with Marsha, who had a grievance with the graduate school due to an unfair evaluation as a graduate research assist. This grievance process is broken.”
‘This Could Have Happened to Me’
CGSU, which will be celebrating its third anniversary in 2017, has been a leading voice for graduate students by employing a bottom up organizational strategy, according to Brown.
Union members and graduate students gathered with signs shaming “19 Years of Silence” and advocating for “Justice for Marsha.” Many, taken aback by the entire situation, said aloud and held up signs with the same message, “This could have happened to me.”
“This is just an atrocity,” one GCSU member pleaded to a nodding crowd. “Without a union, there is no hope for us,” another declared, fighting back tears as many listeners grew emotional. Their words were met with applause and agreement from those in the crowd as the dissent continued, later including other Ph.D. students, faculty members and adults from the greater Ithaca community.
Other speakers stated outright their aims to amend the grievance process and assure a desirable outcome for Jean-Charles. A culmination of disparate degrees and separate interests came together during the four hours of Jean-Charles’ hearing, as a diverse array of minds fought for the same cause.
Hannah Bahnmiller, secretary and head of legal counsel for CGSU and one of the 11 members on the steering committee, elected by the union’s general membership, called the process Jean-Charles is undergoing “extremely stressful,” addressing the growing crowd.
“The grievance process is obviously not done in a timely, efficient or fair manner,” she said. “The university channels obviously aren’t working. The situation is very scary because graduate students empathize with Marsha and her situation. As a union, our goal is to develop alternative channels for graduate students to receive due process in their grievance claim.”
‘Pattern’ of Silencing Students
Some spoke of the disappointment that students felt in the days leading up to the hearing, as CGSU members were met by members of the police who sought to deter them from entering the building.
Many CGSU members claimed that the case has reverberations of instances from previous years that involved police intervention with campus protest. “There is a pattern of having police interfere with student dissent,” Brown said.
Intervention did little to quell their protests, however. The gathered students spoke openly about how they believe the grievance process forces students to conform, suggesting the possibility of taping their mouths shut to symbolize the silencing process.
Several in the crowd chanted “union power,” as their slogans echoed the sentiment of an old Industrial Workers of the World claim that “an injury to one is an injury to all,” present in oft-read labor history textbooks studied by many students. Their slogans were met with understanding nods by many passing by on their daily commutes.
A Mysterious Process
Still, the general agreement pervading the afternoon was not immune to questions. As union members and graduate students spoke out in support of Jean-Charles, a question came from a passer-by which highlighted the intrigue of many, demonstrating the ambiguity surrounding the case.
“Can you provide more information on what’s going on?” a student asked, prompting the answer that “Marsha is meeting with the review board,” but little other information.
Further questions — attempting to uncover what specific claims the professor made against Jean-Charles and how much merit the claims had considering the single negative evaluation threw her standing in jeopardy — were met with the response clarifying that the grievance process is confidential, and that supporters were there only to provide inspiration for Jean-Charles.
Desire for more information about the case was the primary sentiment of many Cornell undergraduate students as the story began to ripple through the community, after a letter to the editor by CGSU members was published in The Sun, describing the process as “particularly daunting to those marginalized by oppressive cultural and institutional biases.”
“I definitely need to know more before I can come to a conclusion. I’m really curious,” said Valene Tjong ’19 after hearing about the case.
At the organized dissent Wednesday, a woman who told the crowd her name was Ellen, and identified as a community and lifelong labor supporter from Ithaca, claimed that Jean-Charles may have “been treated differently because she’s a woman, and a black woman.”
Brown maintains that CGSU’s outreach and success in spreading Jean-Charles’ message has helped the case reach a larger following. Above all, he maintained, as did all CGSU members present, that the essence of Jean-Charles’ case, and achieving true victory in it, will result from changing the grievance process in general.
“It’s about recognizing that the grievance process isn’t working, and creating a process that works for all graduate student,” Brown said.
The organized dissent lasted approximately four hours, settling as Jean-Charles’ meeting came to a close. As Jean-Charles made her way back outside the hall, walking out encircled by support, a bystander said, “the Marsha case will be heard on this campus forever.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that a day before the protest, advocates were escorted away by the police. In fact, while members did interact with police members about the protest, they were never asked to leave their location.
A previous version of this story also misstated the number of steps involved in the grievance process. In fact there are four, rather than three steps.