During the Graduate Students and Employees Organization’s 1996 strike, teaching assistants withheld undergraduates’ grades for two weeks as part of a repeated attempt to gain official recognition as a union by the University administration. In response, Thomas Appelquist, the Graduate School dean at the time, convened a committee of faculty and students charged with figuring out how to give graduate students a more audible voice in administrative and student life policy. Later that year, after a 417 to 404 student vote, the Graduate Student Assembly was created.
A decade later — on the week the GSA officially celebrates its 10th anniversary — the organization still serves as the most prominent liaison between graduate students and the administration.
Members of the GSA said the body has grown significantly in the past 10 years — both in size as well as budget — and that the organization manages to effect real change in the Graduate School by being involved in every discussion the administration has about student policy. But students and GSA leaders said the inherently fragmented nature of the Graduate School — vastly different from the cohesive nature of Yale College — brings about unique challenges, specifically the question of how to represent the maximum number of students possible.
Ian Simon GRD ’08, the GSA’s current chair, said the GSA was first created “almost as an experiment” to see what forms of student representation, aside from unionization, could be effective in communicating student opinion. Now, he said, the body is an essential tool in facilitating back-and-forth discussion between students and administrators as well as students and faculty. He said the organization has demonstrated numerous times in the past several years that it can create change in a variety of ways — from helping international students obtain and renew their visas to influencing the administration in matters of academic policy.
“It’s important to have an organization of graduate students who can synthesize the views and perspectives of students who compose a large population of the University, and who perform one of the essential functions of a large research university — which is the research and a large part of the teaching,” Simon said.
But former GSA members said the organization has not always been so successful in accomplishing its goals.
Christopher Mason GRD ’06, who served as GSA chair from 2003 to 2005, said he ran for the position because he felt as though the organization was not functioning effectively. There was an opportunity to do something powerful with the organization by first addressing the minor concerns that students had, he said, such as the abolishment of the summer gym fee.
Mason said that under Simon, the GSA has provided an effective balance to the administration. He cited the recent proposal to change the Graduate School’s grading system, when the GSA conducted a survey of student opinion and presented them to the faculty prior to the vote on the issue.
Mason hopes such widespread campaigns will raise more awareness of the organization among the graduate students, he said, and encourage more students to participate in the GSA’s projects.
Simon said communication across the entire student body is often difficult because the graduate school is broken into individual areas, and each department has its own culture. But the GSA has attempted to address that challenge this year by publicizing its projects in campus publications and having discussions with individual departments, he said. Historically, Simon said, it has always been difficult to get a representative number of students from the humanities and social sciences to run for seats, as GESO has consistently had a larger presence in those departments.
“You’re saying you’re doing the research and you’re doing the teaching and you’re trying to have a social life … now do it with two separate organizations,” Simon said. “Time is such a factor that if students have to choose from one organization or another, they have gone with the organization that has a stronger presence in their immediate surroundings.”
The History Department, for example, has the lowest representation in the GSA, he said, even though it is the largest department in the graduate school, because many of its studets are GESO members.
Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said he thinks the GSA is very effective. During his bi-weekly meeting with the organization’s steering committee, he said, GSA representatives have contributed to numerous initiatives, including this year’s review of graduate program, discussions of stipend increases and the push for a more extensive mentoring system for students. Most importantly, Butler said, the GSA is successful because it directs its own agenda and determines itself what its priorities are.
“The GSA has evolved over the years, and the really excellent part of the evolution is that it’s been directed by graduate students themselves,” Butler said. “They are the ones that determine what kind of an organization they are.”
But Evan Cobb GRD ’07, GESO’s spokesman and the German department’s GSA representative, said the GSA’s major constraint as a powerful student voice stems from its characterization as a purely advisory body. In 1996, the original proposal for the GSA granted the assembly veto power over policies affecting graduate students, but Appelquist later decided that the GSA should be advisory in nature. Its current charter states that the organization’s members are limited to the right to “discuss and comment” on issues, not to actively vote.
Simon said GSA influence could be enhanced in ways other than reinstating veto power, such as allowing graduate students to vote on individual committees that contribute to policy making.
At the time of the GSA’ founding, political science professor David Cameron — who chaired the committee that proposed the assembly — told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the goal was to compromise between full unionization and complete lack of student participation.
“We were trying to find a middle ground between the faculty who were opposed to any kind of student participation and the students who felt there should be a union,” Cameron said to the Chronicle.
But Cobb said the existing GSA is not what students voted for in 1996 and that even now, it often struggles to make quorum and to reach out to some departments. He said the impact of the GSA’s policies varies from department to department based on a number of factors, including the degree to which the department’s representative is active in the organization. This makes it difficult to gauge how much of a presence the assembly has in the context of the entire graduate school, he said. Still, there is room for both GESO and GSA in the graduate school, because each body fills a particular niche. While the assembly is student-life and academics-oriented, he said, GESO focuses primarily on benefits and salary for graduate school teachers.
“They speak to different needs, and I think in most cases, they fit quite productively together,” Cobb said.
Mason said one way for students have a more audible voice on campus matters would be to allow the chairs of the GSA and the Yale College Council to be present at meetings of the Yale Corporation. He said the idea has been brought up in the past by administrators and students, and that it works well at many other universities, but is still viewed as untenable by many at the University.
Still, in the past several years the GSA has enacted change in many areas of graduate student life. Aside from this year’s Grading Proposal Survey, the GSA has successfully worked to guarantee medical insurance coverage during a leave of absence. It also helped craft a maternity leave policy that guarantees insurance coverage, a policy of enforcing a 20-student limit in sections, and a Conference Travel Fund of $30,000 per year to aid research trips. Simon said the assembly plans to continue working on providing affordable childcare for graduate parents and improving the quality of faculty mentoring.
Simon said he hopes the GSA can continue to take on a greater role in making of University-wide policy.
“I think graduate students have a rather unique niche in our community,” he said. “And I think those voices would be very valuable in University-wide programs.”