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Letter to the editor

As an alum of the Graduate School, I am writing to express my support for graduate students coming together to form a union. A graduate student union has the potential to positively impact the experience of many students because it can counterbalance structures that can oftentimes create unhealthy or abusive environments for students by establishing an effective system for accountability. While this will most greatly benefit the most vulnerable, I believe that every graduate student stands to gain in terms of his or her power, protection, and experience at Duke. Unfortunately, some graduate students falsely worry that unionization will cause them to lose out, feeling that they currently possess more privileges than their peers.

Because of my experience as a PhD student in Cell Biology, I understand where such feelings come from. Although few students in the sciences would brag that their situations are cushy, my situation was fairly comfortable. I worked in a well-funded lab of a well-funded department. Compared with many of my non-biomedical counterparts, I had several advantages, including higher annual funding, more guaranteed years of funding, and fewer TA and RA obligations that drew me away from my dissertation project. Moreover, I was not required to write a single grant during graduate school (although grant writing was certainly encouraged, it was presented more as an extra credit procedure).

Despite these distinct advantages, however, the truth is that all graduate students at Duke are vulnerable, including those in the biomedical sciences. Because graduate students have virtually no bargaining power in direct one-to-one negotiations with Duke University, students are powerless when they find themselves in unhealthy situations. A significant power imbalance exists between the student and their advisor and committee members. Those in authority hold the key to every graduate student’s ultimate goal: those three letters to add to the end of your name. If there is conflict between student and advisor or if abuse occurs in that relationship, there are limited avenues of recourse available to the student.

Addressing that power imbalance is a crucial change that I believe is in every graduate student's individual self-interest. Yet forming a union is not just about individual self-interest; it is about acting for the good of all. As a follower of Christ, the issue of unionization brings to mind the question, “Am I my brother’s (or sister’s) keeper?” I have to say yes. I believe we have a moral responsibility to advocate not only for our own wellbeing but also for that of others. The power to improve the situation of others comes with a responsibility to use that power. Forming the Duke Graduate Student Union through SEIU offers that power.

On a personal note, when I consider the possibility of a grad student union at Duke, I am most hopeful about the potential for improved advisor-student relationships as reported by Paula Voos at Rutgers. During my years as a PhD student, I saw many unhealthy advisor-student dynamics throughout the various science departments. The advice I was given for dealing with such situations was to keep my head down and get out as fast as I could with my degree. Unfortunately, this same advice is too often given to targets of sexual harassment and assault. Considering that almost 50 percent of graduate student women experience sexual harassment and that universities have broadly failed at protecting these women and delivering justice, the protection offered by a graduate student union is critical to making Duke a safer, healthier, and more just place for all students.

Assuming that Duke’s costly lawsuit against the unionization efforts does not succeed, whether in court or through the preferred tactics of stalling and intimidation, current graduate students at Duke will soon have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they want to form a union with SEIU. For their sake and that of others, I hope they will.  

- Stephanie Holmer, PhD '13


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