Rights Of Graduate Students In Regard To Departmental Matters


Departmental decisions—including hiring, budgeting and funding, curricular requirements, departmental policies, use of space, event planning—affect graduate students. What say do graduate students have in these decisions? What say should they have?

Appearing in the Daily Nous inbox recently was a query from a graduate student about these matters. Graduate students are not just recipients of educational services from their departments. Even when they are not functioning as instructors, teaching assistants, and research assistants, their mere enrollment makes the current structure of research-oriented departments—which benefits faculty with low teaching loads, the chance to teach advanced seminars, and the power to influence the future of the discipline—possible.

Given that they’re affected by departmental decisions, that they contribute positively to their departments, and that they are generally thoughtful persons, it would not be unreasonable to ask about their departmental rights.

My graduate student correspondent stressed the distinction between graduate students having rights that grant them a formal vote or say in departmental decisions that must be counted alongside the say of other departmental stakeholders, like faculty, and them having a merely advisory capacity, such that they are consulted and heard out, but have no formal power.

These matters might make a difference to where students decide to pursue their studies. The graduate student writes:

It would have been great, back then when I had to decide between departments for my PhD, if there had been any information about what the status of grad students’ democratic rights are in the respective departments. I knew about placement records, funding, ranking, all kinds of things. But what I realized over the years is that having some formal authority within the department makes a huge difference, and that different departments widely differ in this. But even now, having done a new Google search and peek into Grad Student Cafe, there is no information about this at all out there.

So let’s do two things here. First, let’s gather information. Answer as many of these questions as you can:

  1. What rights do graduate students in your department have over departmental decisions?
  2. Are any of these rights on a par with the say or vote that faculty members have in regards to similar matters? Or are they merely advisory?
  3. Are these rights written down somewhere, and if so, where (e.g., graduate handbook, departmental policies, a university-wide set of rules)?

Second, let’s take up the normative questions: what rights, if any, should graduate students have in departmental decisions? Which decisions?

A couple of things might be worth noting up front. One is that contingent faculty at many institutions lack a formal say in departmental matters. The questions of whether, when, and how this should be addressed is in principle a separate matter from which rights, if any, graduate students should have. Additionally, while my graduate student correspondent conveyed by email the view that it was “ridiculous” that graduate students should have formal say in decisions on departmental matters, it is not unusual for tenured and tenure-track professors to similarly have a merely advisory voice, especially over college- or university-wide matters. Additionally, there may be non-arbitrary differences between graduate students and faculty that are relevant to them having differential authority.

Collaborative painting by Bouabana Art Space Tunis

Collaborative painting by Bouabana Art Space Tunis

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