November 20, 2016

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Justice for Marsha Jean-Charles and for All Grad Workers

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To the Editor:

On September 21, at 4 p.m., Marsha Jean-Charles walked out of Caldwell Hall into the afternoon sun, surrounded by friends and greeted by supporters. She’d just finished presenting her case clearly and calmly to her appointed Graduate Grievance Review Board, after nearly four months of navigating Cornell’s grievance process. A hearing with a GGRB, composed of a board chair plus two anonymous faculty members and two anonymous grads, is the fourth and final step of this process. One way or another, Marsha felt ready for a decision — for closure.

Six weeks later, Marsha was still in limbo. Incomprehensibly (and as the policy listed on the Graduate School website fails to make clear), a grievant is not entitled to access the recommendation of the GGRB. This document is sent directly to the Provost, who is singly responsible for the final decision. There is no prescribed timeline for the Provost’s decision.  At six weeks, Marsha had heard nothing about her future here at Cornell: not from the Provost, and not from the Graduate School, even in response to her inquiries.

At a subsequent Union-Management Committee meeting, Maggie Gustafson, CGSU’s Grievance Chair, pushed Barbara Knuth, the Dean of the Graduate School, for any information on the decision. Dean Knuth replied that she had nothing to do with the Provost’s decision and refused to give an update. The next morning, Marsha, with no explanation for the delay or sudden break in silence, received a copy of her GGRB recommendation and a projected timeline from the Provost’s office. She would learn the outcome of her case by November 18.  On November 18, having heard nothing, Marsha reached out to the Provost’s office and was informed that she would instead hear the decision after Thanksgiving — once more, with no explanation. She’s been left waiting again, powerless.  According to University policy, there is no further action she can take.

In the six long months since Marsha filed her grievance, she has been given little reason to think the University’s grievance procedure is fairly administered or designed for her benefit. In several rounds of phone calls and emails, she was discouraged by Graduate School officials from pursuing the grievance. Arbitrary deadlines were set for meetings or phone calls, even though those setting the deadlines knew that Marsha was out of the country and would be unreachable. When it came time to hold a GGRB hearing, the members of the board were chosen secretly, and unilaterally, by the Graduate School. Every step of the way, Marsha has been treated as the villain, rather than the victim, by administrators — she felt like she was on trial.

That Marsha has put herself through all of this is itself an achievement, of sorts. No grad has made it all the way through the process in nineteen years — a fact that speaks less to the lack of grievances among Cornell grads and more to the incredible hardship the process itself entails for a solitary grad. Grads are expected to put their heads down, do their work and avoid disrupting business as usual by doing something as audacious as filing a grievance against their employer. If they do, they can expect a war of attrition.

This case is unique in its publicity, but not in what it reveals about the reality of the power dynamic and the oppressive culture of bureaucracy here at Cornell. Among other things, departmental politics may have contributed to the extreme unfairness of Marsha’s case. That provides an even better argument that we need real change in the policies that dictate the terms of justice for grads.

There will always be departmental politics in academia. But we can level the balance of power through improving the advocacy and processes which are supposedly here to help grads. In Marsha’s case, her chair and her special committee were not consulted, or even notified, before she was defunded. Even they could not protect her from the unfair treatment she has received. The current system only works when nothing goes wrong. The minute there is an issue, it leaves grads vulnerable to the whims of individual faculty and administrators who would prefer not to disturb the status quo. The interpersonal relationships, personalities and egos of faculty or administrators should not make or break a graduate student’s success, happiness and future at this university.

If Marsha were in a union at a grad local elsewhere, she would have access to a collectively bargained grievance procedure. (See, for example, the contracts from the Graduate Assistants United at University of Florida, Article 22, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation at the University of Oregon, Articles 13 and 15, and the Coalition of Graduate Employees at Oregon State University, Article 18.) There would be a clear, binding timeline for advancing the grievance process. She could have a union representative with her at every step. The administration would submit its proposed resolution in writing at every stage, which Marsha could appeal. And most importantly, she could call on a third-party, neutral arbitrator to make the final decision. In short, if Marsha had a union, she would already know the fate of her graduate career. More importantly, that fate would have been decided by a fair, transparent and timely process in which she had a voice.

In the meantime, Marsha waits. We call on the Provost to reinstate Marsha’s funding and to guarantee that her progress toward degree be judged only by her chair and her special committee, as it should be. We call on the Graduate School to stop bullying and silencing grads who come to them for help. And we call on Cornell grads everywhere to join us, as we fight for our voice and our rights. Become a member of Cornell Graduate Students United. Sign CGSU’s Statement of Solidarity, and talk to your colleagues about what needs to change and how we can accomplish it. Vote “yes” to be recognized by Cornell in the coming election. Then work to help craft a contract that benefits us all and build a culture of advocacy at Cornell that ensures justice for those who need it, when they need it.

Daniel Rosenberg Daneri grad
Vera Khovanskaya grad
Anil Akturk grad
Rose Agger grad