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Letter to the editor

On Tuesday morning, I went to the Durham County Courthouse to testify in the hearing between Duke and the Services Employees International Union regarding the eligibility of a union election for graduate students. Even though the Duke administration has couched their opposition to unionization in the language of neutrality, their current stance is anything but neutral. 

Duke could have demonstrated neutrality and allowed the election to proceed; instead, they have engaged in the lengthy legal process of attempting to prove that graduate students are not workers. Duke claims that our positions as Instructors of Record, TAs and RAs—for which we are given compensatory pay—do not contribute to departmental research and teaching activities. Rather, they argue that these positions are solely for the benefit of graduate students’ own training.

By the time I finish my Ph.D., I will have spent more than a decade at Duke. In the years since I finished my undergraduate degree, I have interviewed prospective Duke students as a volunteer with the Alumni Association; I have donated every year to need-based financial aid at Trinity College. I enthusiastically cheer on the basketball team during March Madness. I returned to Duke for my graduate degree because I thought so highly of this institution and the intellectual community here. 

At the courthouse, I did not see the Duke I know or love. I saw a university that insists it is my mentor, yet hires lawyers to tell me that my research and teaching at this institution have no value.

Early last Tuesday, I signed a FERPA release which allowed opposing counsel to access my academic records. My transcript, undergraduate and graduate, submitted into evidence. My statement of purpose from my application to the Graduate School, submitted into evidence. My admittance letter and stipend information, submitted into evidence. While the lawyers questioned me about the minute details of these documents, their true purpose was obvious: to ensure I did not forget the power of this institution and the control it has over my future. 

During the next hour, opposing counsel disputed foreign language pedagogy with me, tried to lure me into saying teaching is an “academic” requirement, and, in a particularly baffling moment, suggested that by proctoring an exam when a professor was out of town, I gained skills necessary to being an academic.

I am pro-union. However, that’s not the only reason I testified at the hearing. I respect that there are ideologies that don’t support unionization. I stand by my friends and colleagues who hold principled beliefs either way. But I testified because the university I knew as an undergraduate has morphed into an institution I no longer recognize. It does not value the students and employees who add to the university’s teaching and research mission. It does not express interest in protecting the specific needs of the most vulnerable populations of its graduate students. It does not care that we may be crippled with debt beyond our fifth year of study.

Duke taught me to be critical of the world around me and to speak up for what I believe in. So I am not afraid to say this: our work is valuable. Our labor matters. And we cannot be intimidated into silence.

Alyssa Granacki

Trinity ‘11

Ph.D. Student, Romance Studies


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