The Student Union of Michigan recently published an interview with a group of Duke graduate students that contained the unthinkable in a capitalist system, collectivization of wages. The Duke Collective, as they are known, was dissatisfied with the way that the university handled stipends and so decided to take matters into their own hands.
” And so it initially began as a kind of emergency fund, where we didn’t put our entire wage in but only some of our stipend for collective use, mostly as a substitution for a lack of summer funding opportunities to friends who were on international visas, and therefore weren’t allowed to work, at least not legally. “
Graduate students, as it should surprise nobody, are paid little and sporadically for the labor they provide to a university. Funding is contingent on fickle fellowships, teaching assistantships and research assistantships (which are often linked to the grants that a lead researcher pulls into a given university lab). All of these things are doled out competitively which puts graduate students in the awkward position of competition with their colleagues for access to the money that makes being a student possible. Furthermore, full-time graduate students are prohibited or strongly discouraged from pursuing outside jobs. As you can imagine the combination of these factors makes the life of a graduate student fraught with financial woes. The Duke Collective’s solution to this problem was to cut the university out of the process entirely.
” We then decided to try and extend this relation beyond our small circle of friends and into, first, our graduate department as a whole, to see who would be on board– this was after a series of confrontations with our department over funding and financial transparency issues, and the culture of professionalism that came with it. So we decided that, since at Duke our funding is fairly sizable ($21,000) a year, if we pooled our wages amongst the entire graduate student body, we can begin to distribute our funds more equitably, and initiate a culture of collective wealth and intellectual collaboration, rather than individual poverty and scholarly competition, all the while not even having to deal with the bureaucratic side of university departments since they would never agree to such a proposition, and the power was essentially in our own hands.”
The Duke collective illustrates one of the problems with the way that higher education is structured. Graduate students are essential to the function of universities, teaching classes, performing research, doing laboratory work, grading papers and holding office hours for undergrads but they are not compensated well enough to make a living for the 5-7 years it takes to get a Ph.D, nor are they considered employees. The workload has driven graduate students to unionize at public universities. Such efforts have been stymied at private institutions with the notable exception of NYU who’s student union joined the United Auto Workers in 2013. Professors, for their part, have looked upon these efforts with privilege-based derision.
As a graduate student who does not receive a stipend myself the problem is even more dire. It’s, needless to say, difficult to try to work a full-time research commitment without financial support. I have to devote myself full-time to an institution that will not give me money to eat or obtain shelter while not seeking outside work. Other students are in the same position as me, likely relying on the grace of their families to get by. It’s humiliating and dehumanizing to be put in a position in which your employer says “I don’t care if you can live”, especially when you’re doing the same work that you see others being compensated for. I don’t know if the Duke Collective’s way is the best solution but I’m not sure that it matters. The Duke Collective has managed to carve out some safety, dignity and egalitie from an otherwise isolating and dehumanizing situation.
Why does this matter to you, the Skepchick audience? Why should this matter to the skeptical community in general? Simply put, if we care about the state of science, science education and critical thinking, if we care about skepticism, if we care about ethics and social justice we need to care about this issue. If our future scientists and scholars struggle to make a living we cannot expect them to thrive. We can’t expect more people to take up the cause of science, or scholarship in general, if they know that they’ll be exploited by the academic labor market. We cannot expect young scientists to grow in a labor market that doesn’t support them. Are you, the skeptical community, comfortable with a world that forces students at a top-tier research university to form a wage-sharing collective to subsist?