In February, we were dismayed but unsurprised to learn that Harvard allowed a professor in its government department to sexually harass over a dozen of his female graduate students and colleagues, for over thirty years. The university’s own investigation found that Dominguez had committed “serious misconduct” as early as 1983 — but they kept him on staff, leaving students at risk, until intense media pressure forced him to resign.
The Dominguez reports prove that students can’t just rely on Harvard to follow Title IX and fight sexual harassment on campus (in case the three separate federal Title IX investigations faced by the University aren’t proof enough). Instead, graduate workers need the power of a union that can push Harvard to adopt best practices and end pervasive gender discrimination in academia.
In a 2015 survey by the Association of American Universities, 44% of female graduate students reported being sexually harassed in ways that disrupted their academic or professional performance. In 2017, the Social Science Research Network found that one in 10 female graduate students at major research universities reported having been sexually harassed by a faculty member. Clearly, Harvard is no exception.
Sexual harassment disrupts our educations and careers. We each know too many peers — overwhelmingly women and LGBTQ students — who were forced to take leaves of absence from school, transfer, or drop out of classes or other educational opportunities to avoid harassment. We deserve safe, equitable schools and workplaces, and Harvard has simply failed to provide it.
A graduate student union would provide an important independent mechanism for addressing harassment and discrimination when university fails to. Unions could push the school to write best practices for addressing sexual harassment — like issuing a regular campus climate survey measuring harassment on campus, and publishing the results — into a binding contract. It could provide survivors with another reporting option for sexual harassment, a union grievance procedure. If Harvard will value a powerful professor over the student he harasses, a union grievance procedure can help put a student reporting harassment on an equal playing field.
A union process would not replace the University’s Title IX system, but it could supplement it. For example, at the University of California, graduate student workers included in their contract the option to supplement university-run sexual harassment proceedings with the option to instead seek accomodations through a union grievance procedure in which student workers are guaranteed representation every step of the way.
Not even two months after the University of Connecticut’s graduate student union signed its contract, a graduate worker was sexually harassed by a professor. She first sought accommodations through UConn’s university-run process, which provided no remedy. Frustrated, she asked the union for help using the grievance procedure included in the graduate employee union’s contract, and she won.
No workplace is immune from sexual harassment, including Ivy League campuses and in fact unions themselves. A union would not fix our society-wide problem of sexual harassment. And that’s exactly why we value our union’s democratic process: we can hold our union representatives here at Harvard accountable on critical issues like sexual harassment by voting them in and voting them out. We don’t have that power to hold university administrators accountable.
With the Trump administration waging war on protections against sexual harassment in schools and the workplace, we need ways to hold employers accountable is more important than ever. We are still fighting for gender parity in many academic and professional fields, and we cannot allow sexual harassment to contribute to the “pipeline problem” any longer.
This is why it’s especially disheartening that Harvard has fought our graduate student union every step of the way, from illegally excluding over 500 graduate student workers from the voter rolls in our first union election to using our tuition money to hire expensive union-busting law firms to blasting our mailboxes with anti-union emails and mailings. Next week’s election has been delayed over and over again because of their actions, and every day we don’t have a union contract is another day we don’t have adequate protections for sexual harassment.
Next week, as law students who are graduate student workers head to the polls, we hope you remember your classmates and colleagues who have suffered in silence for too long—and vote #UnionYes on April 18th and 19th.