Grad Student Union Effort Rallies Outside Mass Hall

To demand a fix for the “leaky pipeline,” members of the graduate student unionization effort, along with undergraduates and university employees, rallied just steps away from University President Drew G. Faust’s office for the formation of a collective bargaining unit on Friday.

The event, organized by the Civil Rights Committee of the unionization effort, brought together speakers from a broad spectrum of racial, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds outside of Massachusetts Hall. Organizers demanded that administrators address pipeline issues, which are obstacles that lead to higher attrition rates for underrepresented minorities in doctoral programs.

Felix Owusu, a graduate student and a member of the Civil Rights Committee who emceed the protest to the crowd of roughly 60 people, spoke about the issues minorities face in graduate education, including academic isolation, lack of a support system, and relatively few minority faculty who can serve as mentors to minority students.

“They told me that I would face isolation here. They told me that well-meaning institutions, even ones that meant the best, would be woefully unprepared in supporting me,” Owusu said, referring to cautionary warnings other minority students gave him about pursuing a Ph.D.

Owusu added, “I would not be up here, where I am today or at this institution, if it were not for a supportive group of graduate student workers who showed me solidarity and prepared me for what I was going to be facing.”


While several students touched on their personal experiences as minorities, graduate student David Nee spoke of his experience coming from a background of “privilege.” Nee said he personally believes that one cause of the leaky pipeline is “the failure of privileged students to be more active in demanding institutional change.”

Nee said being a “mixed-race man who passes for white” and coming from an upper-middle class family where both of his parents received Ph.D.s from Harvard “cushioned” him against the issues that minority students face.

“We talk a lot about white privilege. I think we need to talk more about white complicity,” Nee said. “If I’m not oppositional, I am complicit.”

Owusu said a collective bargaining unit provides a “clear vehicle for change.” In late February, members of the union effort announced that a majority of graduate students employed by the university supported unionization.

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences administration has sought to increase diversity within the school. In the 2014-2015 school year, eight percent of enrolled students were underrepresented minorities. The GSAS Office of Diversity and Minority Affairs “is committed to expanding the pool of talented students who apply to graduate school,” according to its website.

Undergraduate student Brianna Suslovic ’16, a member of the Student Labor Action Movement, said visibility is important to show students of color that a doctoral education is possible.

“How am I supposed to feel about a career in academia when there are so few TFs of color, when there are so few graduate students of color who are visible to me?” Suslovic said.

GSAS has created several summer outreach programs in effort to help fix the pipeline, such as the Summer Honors Undergraduate Research Program, which places minority undergraduates in research labs and matches them with graduate students for informal mentoring.

With regard to the speaker lineup, Owusu said there was no shortage of supporters from diverse backgrounds who wanted to share their experiences. Graduate student unionization members were joined by dining hall workers, women in STEM, and a member of Reclaim Harvard Law.

The rally was punctuated by high-energy chants, such as “Harvard fix your leaky pipes, support grad workers of all stripes.” A few freshmen living in Matthews were brought outside by the noise.

At the end of the rally, Owusu and others attendants said “we’ll be back.”

—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Yared