After a protest last Thursday on Abele Quad and a petition circulated by the Duke Graduate Student Union, both of which were incited by Duke’s revocation of complimentary gym access privileges for fourth and fifth-year graduate students, the Duke University administration has recently reinstated free gym access for doctoral students in their first five years. Separately, the administration also announced a package of other benefits: a lengthening of the accommodation period for primary and non-primary caregivers following birth and adoption and the opening of supplementary TA and RA roles to the graduate student population. The Editorial Board applauds this positive development and looks forward to seeing the University further expand benefits for graduate students.
Above all, it is important to recognize that Duke graduate students—which made up 56 percent of University in Fall 2016—truly deserve the privileges they were just awarded. Access to safe, comprehensive gym and exercise facilities is an integral keystone to human health alongside nourishing food and care for illnesses. Preventing access to such facilities broadens a strange cultural rift on campus where graduate and professional students, who make up more than half of the student body, are visible in the classroom but nowhere else.
Moreover, the lengthening of paid break following a birth or adoption is extremely beneficial and represents a direct response to the concerns of graduate students. The newly announced nine weeks paid leave for primary caregivers is comparable to the policies of Stanford, Harvard and Yale, and two weeks for non-primary caregivers outdoes our peer institutions. Along with recently announced opportunities for graduate students to take on TA and RA positions to supplement their incomes, these reforms will undoubtedly attract more high-caliber graduate students to Duke.
A cynical person might argue that these decisions by Duke are simply a ruse to cover up and provide some consolation for the university’s fierce (and expensive) anti-unionization efforts against graduate students earlier this year. However, a more positive explanation is that graduate students' efforts to effect change were successful. Along with their prior discussions with the administration on the issue of gym access, the protest—a yoga class on Abele Quadrangle—was direct and visible without being obtrusive. And most importantly, the graduate students' goals during their process of working with the administration were effectively articulated. They gave the University easily actionable demands and couched them in terms of quality of life. The administration was ultimately faced with two options—to give students access to benefits to which they previously had access or deprive them of something that would materially benefit them and which would require almost no effort or cost on the part of the University. This was not a difficult nor financially burdensome choice by the University, and putting the emphasis on basic, visible needs rather than abstract ideals proved to be an effective tactic.
Taking this victory forward, it may be beneficial to put more graduate student struggles within the language of material security and basic quality of life. Duke has tasked itself with providing for both its undergraduate and graduate students. Thus, imparting to the administration demands in terms of real everyday needs is an effective tool to gain sympathy for student struggles. In fact, this lesson can be expanded to the non-tenure-track and worker struggles also taking place on campus. In any case, the administration was notably responsive to its constituents, and that, in and of itself, is a positive development.
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