During the fifth day of the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers strike on Friday, March 19, a crowd gathered around the sundial to rally in support of the union’s demands for a fair contract. Lindsey Boylan, Business ’12, a candidate for Manhattan Borough President, spoke at the rally, not about the alleged sexual harassment she faced as a staffer for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but instead about her experiences of harassment while she was a student at Columbia.
“I thought I would tell a brief story about sexual harassment and institutional failure,” Boylan said in her speech. “Not the one you think I’m going to tell.”
After two years of unsuccessful negotiations, the GWC-UAW declared a strike that began on March 15. Union members have stopped conducting research and teaching classes until they successfully negotiate their first labor contract with the University. One of the most pertinent issues the union hopes to include in its contract is a provision giving graduate workers the right to neutral, third-party arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination in situations where the outcomes that are determined by the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action are inadequate or unjust.
Although the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers-United Auto Workers won a similar article in their contract last year, the University continues to assert that the right to third-party arbitration is unnecessary for student-workers. The GWC-UAW bargaining committee has maintained that the current provision is inadequate because in its failure to provide external arbiters, the University still fundamentally defines union members as students instead of workers.
“Graduate workers are the only workers on campus who don’t have third-party arbitration when it comes to discrimination and harassment, which means that if we have a hostile work environment because an advisor or someone who has control over the amount of work we are able to do [or] our future career prospects is responsible, we have no way of guaranteeing fair treatment,” said Christine Prevas, GSAS, a second-year Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant in the department of English and comparative literature.
Last week during bargaining discussions, the University suggested an internal appellate review panel made up of faculty members to reevaluate harassment and discrimination cases. The GWC-UAW bargaining committee and its supporters believe that this proposal is inadequate because faculty members, as agents of the University, could have an incentive not to defend student-workers.
“It has a chilling effect on more people coming forward if the same people that are going to investigate claims are the people that they’re accusing of doing something wrong,” Boylan said.
On Wednesday, interim Provost Ira Katznelson revealed a revised plan which he believes “would establish Columbia as a leader in this evolving area of workplace protections” in an email to the entire University. According to his plan, Columbia would move to create a neutral and independent appellate review panel made up of “individuals with experience in higher education and/or employment law” who are not faculty or administrators. The proposal would also increase the grounds for appeal from two—new evidence or a procedural mistake—to four, including prosecutorial bias and policy misinterpretation. The University hopes this will help streamline the review process, unlike third-party arbitration, which Columbia claims can be drawn-out and difficult for survivors.
The GWC-UAW bargaining committee is still arguing for third-party arbitration. It contends that the University proposal provides too few grounds for appeal and criticizes that the appellate board would not be available for cases the EOAA dismisses before review. Furthermore, the GWC-UAW bargaining committee believes internally-decided consequences are typically inadequate or not communicated to the complainant, and does not want to be the only union on campus without third-party arbitration.
These negotiations are taking place in the aftermath of intense inspection of systemic gender-based misconduct, harassment, and violence, both within and outside the University. In 2017, William Harris, a former professor of history, stepped down from his position after being accused of sexually assaulting a doctoral student. In 2018, Thomas Jessell, a professor who helped found Columbia’s Mind Brain Behavior Institute on the Manhattanville campus, was found guilty of sexual misconduct when it was discovered that he was engaged in a years-long sexual relationship with a laboratory employee under his supervision. That same year, the EOAA found English professor Michael Golston guilty of sexually assaulting and harassing a student, though his punishment remains unclear.
Ludda Ludwig, GSAS ’24, a member of the bargaining committee and a Ph.D. candidate in the department of earth and environmental science, believes the third-party arbitration article will solve issues related to the underreporting of incidents, a prevalent problem on campuses nationwide. She hopes the additional option of third-party arbitration will inspire survivors, who may fear retaliation from the institution, to report cases of sexual misconduct or harassment. The University, on the other hand, does not believe the addition of third-party arbitration will help with underreporting.
“There’s a strong sentiment among Columbia students, graduate workers or not, that they don’t trust EOAA,” Ludwig said. “Either that it’s very burdensome to go through and it’s not worth it because it’s going to be ineffective in the end, or that it’s actually problematic to go through, and people don’t want to report which is a big problem. Underreporting is a big problem at every university; it’s a problem at Columbia. And in order to make that better, you have to have a system that you can trust.”
However, the question remains: What does the University have to lose from allowing external arbiters to appeal EOAA decisions? Lillian Coie, CUIMC ’18, CUIMC ’19, GSAS and VP&S ’22, a member of the GWC-UAW bargaining committee and a Ph.D. candidate in neurobiology and behavior, believes Columbia’s chief concern is ensuring that resolutions shield the University, often at the complainant’s expense.
“They want to keep it internal. They want to make sure that the person making the call at the end of the day has Columbia’s best interest at heart, and this, of course, isn’t something that they’ll admit to at the table because the deans at the table do understand that harassment of student-workers is a big issue, but their hands are tied,” Coie said. “This is obviously a decision that’s being made at the higher levels of the University. … It might actually cost some faculty their jobs if there were legally binding settlements in some of these cases.”
Mistrust of the University’s internal mechanisms stems from institutional failures to adequately defend survivors. A professor in Columbia’s English department, who has chosen to remain anonymous, believes “the system just isn’t set up to protect students or faculty who are vulnerable to abuse.” When she heard about a colleague in her department who had engaged in sexual misconduct, she worked with the survivor to bring the case to the EOAA.
“There was ridiculously strong evidence of how badly and inappropriately and, in many cases, illegal he had been behaving. I worked really closely with a graduate student who most recently and immediately had been sexually assaulted by him, and I didn’t want to pressure her, but I did want her to go on the record if she could possibly bring herself to it,” the professor said. “I saw, through her eyes or approximate to her, just how hard it was for her to do that, how her reluctance to do that was well-grounded in reality because, in fact, once she did start making a complaint, the deck is brutally stacked against the complainant, the University is just covering their ass.”
According to the 2019-2020 EOAA Annual Report, of the 23 reports of gender-based misconduct the EOAA reviewed last year, only four resulted in a finding of policy violation. According to the University’s research, of those 23 reports, only one was dismissed because of lack of evidence. If the office determines that a case does violate their policy, the “EOAA communicates that finding to the Respondent’s supervisor or to the appropriate sanctioning officer,” meaning that the respondent’s punishment is dealt with by a faculty supervisor rather than the EOAA itself. The GWC-UAW bargaining committee believes these sanctions tend to be inordinately light.
“There’s no option to appeal the decision of the investigation, so if they decided that there wasn’t a policy violation, there’s nothing you can do to follow up. And if they do decide there was a policy violation, and there’s a sanction that’s implemented, you don’t have any say over what that is, as the complainant, and in most cases, you probably won’t be informed either,” Ludwig said. “That [sanction] is often a one-on-one conversation or training or something like that. You might feel that that’s not actually the steps that can get you a safe workplace … and there’s nothing you can do as a complainant to have a say in that or to appeal it.”
For complainants, these light sanctions can fail to provide a safe post-harassment working environment. The English professor spoke about another instance of misconduct in which a male faculty member was protected above the complainant, leading the graduate student to “switch fields and switch advisors, and also leave academia.” In this instance, the male faculty member asked a graduate student to have dinner with him. She refused, and when they later saw each other at a party, it “ended up with the student basically running away down the stairwell with this male professor screaming after her, abusively, to come back and talk to him.” The student subsequently reported the case to the EOAA.
“The investigation found that the charge was warranted [and] that it had happened. But as far as we know, absolutely nothing ever happened about that,” the professor said. “This was part of a broader picture for this faculty member in question. … [He spoke] in a way to women faculty and women students that was well beyond the bounds of appropriate workplace behavior. … But as far as I know, the University just did absolutely nothing. It’s not paranoia for graduate students and indeed, female faculty, to believe that the University isn’t helping them.”
Even with Katznelson’s proposed appeals panel compromise, many graduate student-workers do not trust the EOAA. Evelyn MacPherson, GSAS ’20, GSAS ’25, a second-year doctoral student and teaching assistant, believes the University holds too much power over graduate student-workers for any internal mechanisms to be considered fair and impartial.
“One thing that has become abundantly clear throughout all of this is that Columbia does not always place the graduate students’ best interest at heart,” MacPherson said. “Columbia is very much a company town when it comes to graduate students. They’re my employer, they’re my landlord, they’re in control of my future––not just in terms of education, but also career.”
For some, the University’s refusal to provide the union’s demanded third-party arbitration for graduate workers, despite its position in the postdoctoral trainee union contract, is indicative of a deeper institutional issue.
“Students and other trainees are very similar. Postdoctoral trainees have this in their contract, and I work right alongside postdoctoral trainees. What we do day-to-day is almost indistinguishable. … It just makes us beg the question, what kind of relationships are you having with your students that are different from a relationship that you have with your trainees? And why do you not want anyone looking into this or looking into why you might have different relationships?” Coie said.
Amid a national examination and redefinition of established power structures, GWC-UAW affiliates hope for change within the University. As the strike surges on, student-workers say they will continue to fight for the right to neutral, third-party arbitration.
“Thinking about all of these little ways that harassment affects everything that we try to achieve in this world, I couldn’t be more proud to stand for you,” Boylan said in her speech. “We’re not going to see change in this world until the face of harassment changes.”