What, me care? Rejuvenating graduate student governance at Yale

Graduate governance at Yale is in crisis and has been for at least the past decade. There is no way for graduate students to formulate common positions on issues and then work within existing institutions to see the resulting policies implemented.

The issue of graduate governance will once again make headlines over the coming year for two reasons. First, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization is poised to sign up more than half of all grad students and then file for certification as a union. Second, if Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield, the grad students and the faculty do not agree on a new charter by the end of this academic year, the Graduate Student Assembly will cease to exist.

The demise of the assembly in its current form may not be bad. The faculty-student committee which designed it in 1996 stipulated that the assembly should have co-decision power: essentially, a veto over any changes to a range of policies affecting grad students.

The co-decision model thus departed from the old paternalistic idea that grad students aren’t true members of the grad school and shouldn’t play any role in helping run it. Unfortunately, the then-Graduate School Dean Thomas Appelquist stuck to paternalism by watering down the proposal so that the assembly’s only power would be to “discuss and comment” on proposed changes to grad school policy.

Despite a new administration, the assembly has remained toothless. For example, the assembly has never seen, let alone helped decide, the grad school budget. And the administration adamantly denied that GESO’s years of activism had anything to do with changes in health funding without consulting the assembly. This should have been a no-brainer: We would have said “great.” So much for even the minimal power of being allowed to discuss and comment before policy changes are made.

Under Hockfield, grad students have enjoyed unprecedented growth in benefits. But the process by which decisions are reached matters just as much as their content.

Sensing that administrators seek assembly input only when convenient, grad students have stopped attending assembly meetings. This disaffection is mirrored in participation in the referendums that established and continued the assembly — the 1996 vote passed 422 in favor versus 405 against creation.

In the 1999 referendum — which operated under procedural questions that led many to boycott the vote — only 196 grad students thought the assembly should continue to represent them while 154 did not out of 3,170 eligible voters. Not a ringing endorsement.

The charter review that must end in a new referendum by the end of the year gives grad students, faculty and administrators a chance to fundamentally improve the dynamics between the three constituencies. Giving stakeholders co-decision power, rather than simply consulting them when convenient, tends to result in better policies and more legitimate decisions.

Including grad students in real decision-making helps us see the complexities of the process and the trade-offs necessary for the formulation of good policies. When grad students become faculty members, we’re increasingly asked to take on administrative roles to which we’re largely unaccustomed.

What better way to train faculty competent at administration and committee work than to give those of us interested in developing our administrative skills the opportunity to do so? In addition to the obvious benefits for those leaving academia, Yale grad students seeking to become junior faculty will have an edge on the job market.

Of course, there’s no panacea to the range of tensions which characterize the grad school; many conflicts can never be permanently resolved. The “good governance” perspective can be extended to other parts of the University, and the same considerations certainly extend to faculty. The rhetoric is that everyone is included in decisions, but the reality is often different.

Universities cannot be fully democratic, and administrators wield legitimate authority. But their power needs to be tempered lest they become excessively centralized. Knowing that conflict can’t be eliminated, good governance is about managing conflict effectively. Hopefully over the course of this new academic year, we’ll develop a model of pragmatic, consensual decision-making.

Willem Maas GRD ’03 has been involved with the Graduate Student Assembly since its inception and served two terms as its vice chair.