As Yale police manned the entrances to the Yale University Art Gallery lecture hall, nearly 400 graduate students poured into the tension-ridden room for Wednesday night’s “Town Meeting on Graduate Student Unionization at Yale.”
An overwhelmingly majority of the students were wearing stickers and pins supporting the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, as were many of the 100-plus people who were turned away and sent to watch a simulcast in the Hall of Graduate Studies.
The Graduate Student Assembly-sponsored forum featured three panelists on each side of the graduate student unionization debate. Local 35 President Bob Proto, American studies professor Michael Denning and GESO chairwoman Anita Seth GRD ’05 spoke in favor of unionization, while Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield, Political Science chairman Ian Shapiro and Colleen Shogan GRD ’03, a member of anti-GESO group GASO, spoke against unionization.
While Seth, Proto and Denning were greeted with standing ovations and enthusiastic chants, much of the crowd was openly hostile toward Hockfield, Shapiro and Shogan, responding with hisses and snickers.
Hockfield said she was slightly embarrassed by the crowd’s behavior and said the contentious atmosphere was not conducive to an open or fair discussion.
“I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed,” Hockfield said. “[The discussion] wasn’t as effective as I would have liked it to be.”
But Seth said the crowd’s response was a reflection of the students’ overwhelming support for GESO and their frustration with the administration.
Although the Graduate Student Assembly, a neutral student government body, attempted to hold the discussion last February, its plans unraveled after GESO withdrew from the discussion, citing the exclusion of a representative from locals 34 or 35. Provost Alison Richard, Yale’s chief academic and financial officer, was invited to last year’s forum but said she would not be able to participate if a member of a local union was present.
This year, Hockfield said she decided to participate despite Proto’s presence because she is not directly involved in negotiations with the local unions.
With the 389-seat lecture hall filled, some students stood outside the art gallery in protest of the decision not to move the meeting to a larger venue.
Uttering the first words of the meeting, Denning proposed moving the meeting to Center Church on the New Haven Green — a request that Tyler Radniecki GRD ’05, the Graduate Student Assembly president and the event’s moderator, denied. The refusal prompted frustrated shouts of “Can we vote?” and “It’s a democracy!” from the audience.
Both Radniecki and Hockfield said they wanted to hold the event in the art gallery in order to make use of the University’s equipment and security.
In the first segment of the forum, the six panelists each gave a short speech. Seth, Proto and Denning all emphasized the importance of union solidarity and democratic decision-making.
Decrying the University’s movement toward “dollar-driven decision-making,” Seth said GESO has and will continue to fight for “the idea of a truly democratic university.”
Hockfield and Shapiro emphasized the importance of Yale’s role as an academic institution whose primary concern is to maintain the Graduate School’s excellence and provide the best possible experience for its students.
“Graduate students are a hybrid between students and employees,” Shapiro said. “My worry is that if students are unionized they’ll be pressed more in the direction of employees, while I think they should be pressed more in the direction of students.”
During the next segment, where both sides were given the opportunity to respond to questions submitted by students before the forum, Seth posed two questions to Hockfield. She first asked if the administration would recognize a union if a majority of graduate students signed union cards, and then asked if the administration would meet with GESO.
The lack of an immediate response from Hockfield prompted several repetitions of the questions by members of the audience and pro-GESO panelists.
During the final segment of the meeting, Hockfield responded to the earlier questions.
“There are established procedures by which unions come into existence,” Hockfield said. “And we will follow those procedures.”
Hockfield later said she did not have the opportunity to answer the two questions at the time they were asked and that she was merely following the format of the discussion.
Every audience member who asked questions during the third and final portion of the discussion spoke in support of GESO.
Despite the tense atmosphere, Radniecki said he felt the forum achieved its goal of relaying important information to students.
“It was an overwhelming success,” Radniecki said.