IV. Graduate student union will make our institution less equitable.

They assure you that the union will not seek a “one-size-fits-all” approach that would tend to help certain students at the expense of others. Some union supporters opined an article to argue that the union could “fix disparities” across different Schools and programs, which would make our community more equitable. These are all dubious claims.

  • Fixing disparities, administrative homogenization, and equity: HGSU-UAW supporters say that the collective bargaining agreement contract “would be extensive and include provisions for different departments.” It would be helpful to see a few examples of real graduate student union contracts that do just this. In the absence of concrete examples, it is understandable that some students in more well-resourced departments (usually departments in the Sciences and related fields) would be concerned about too much administrative homogenization across different programs.

    As I discussed in one of the previous articles, the University is financially constrained. This means that in order to improve compensations for students in programs that have fewer resources, either the University would have to seek other sources of revenue or students in more well-resourced departments would be forced to take cuts in their salaries and/or benefits. In the former case, the University may decide to increase tuition charged and reduce financial aid provided to students in non-doctoral programs such as various Masters programs and undergraduate college. In the latter case, students in more well-off departments may no longer enjoy the same high annual pay increase or perks like free gym membership.

    In either case, this kind of administrative homogenization is inequitable on three grounds: personal responsibility, societal valuation, and administrative accountability. First, prior to enrolling in any particular program at Harvard, students receive a note that summarizes the financial support package they will receive during the course of their study. Every student who comes to Harvard had accepted the terms and conditions specified therein. To decry the terms and conditions one voluntarily accepted is to dodge the responsibility that comes with the choice one made. One could have chosen not to come to Harvard or to leave at any time. Furthermore, students who chose to go into less lucrative fields should embrace the consequences of their choice. It is unfair to expect students in more well-resourced departments to carry the burden of the choices made by students in more financially constrained departments.

    Second, the society values different intellectual enterprises differentially, resulting in varied amounts of support available to different programs. This is one reason why in general there is more financial support and aid available to students in the Sciences compared to, say, in the Humanities. Lowering support to students in more well-resourced departments to help those in others would mean disrespecting the wills of donors and tax payers who granted differential support in the first place.

    Third, administrative homogenization may have an undesirable effect of decreased administrative accountability. If people (the faculty, students, and administrators) in Program A did a superior job at managing its program than those in Program B and as a result had more resources (such as more financial support available to its students), then why should the fruits of the labor of the people in Program A go to help those in B? If there were significant amount of surpluses, then sharing resources would be considered a kind act but there would be no obligation in any case. In constrained times, sharing could be justified only on the grounds that it benefits all. Here are three examples that illustrate the last point.

    • Students in non-doctoral PhD programs such as Doctors of Theology (ThDs) at the Divinity School, Doctors of Education (EdDs) at the School of Education, and Doctors of Science (ScDs) at the T. H. Chan School of Public Health, do not receive the same generous financial aid as the students in the GSAS do. According to a Crimson article, “the inequity arises because schools with joint Ph.D. programs are expected to financially support their students.” If students in these programs feel that the lack of sufficient financial support has a significant negative impact on their study, then isn’t it only fair to expect the programs’ managers (i.e., the programs’ faculty and administrators) to address the problem themselves? These programs could either decrease the number of students they admit or in extreme cases decide to cease to exist. Financially constrained programs should consider these options first before looking for help from others. It is fiscally irresponsible to create and maintain programs that are too expensive (to meet the demands of students) and expect others to provide resources necessary to uphold their spending habits.
    • John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) is struggling financially despite the $400 million donation it received from a billionaire hedge fund manager because of its ambitious expansion program that includes new faculty hires and move to Allston. Recently, the School put into place a hiring freeze in order to be more conservative about spending. Still, it is unclear how the School’s finance will keep pace with its continued large spending. Unless new sources of revenue are found, the School’s future students could expect lower financial aid.
    • Students in certain programs (often in the Humanities) take more years on average to graduate than students in others. Many of these longer-time-to-graduation programs require their students to start paying tuition beyond certain G-years. Furthermore, these students may lose various benefits such as health insurance and guaranteed teaching positions. These financial restrictions are likely the result of constrained resources in those programs. Many people seem to think this policy is unfair and Harvard University as a whole should take better care of older students. Although I do agree with the sentiment of providing good support to all students, I disagree on the level of granularity. It is individual programs, not the University as a whole, that should take the lion’s share of the responsibility for their students’ well-being. For example, let’s say students in Anthropology or History take longer time to graduate on average due to reasons like insufficient mentoring by their faculty and ineffective early years curriculum. If as results many of them stay in school longer and struggle financially in the later years of their study, then it is the programs’ faculty that are at fault. The affected students should direct their frustration to their faculty, not the University as a whole.

Disparities are fair as long as they can be justified. “Fixing disparities” in a financially constrained environment regardless of merit would render our community less equitable. To ask for more equal treatment across different programs, students—union supporter and otherwise—should provide arguments either based on value or practical reasons that explain why the sharing of resources would benefit all.