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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Kenny Easwaran
Kenny Easwaran
5 years ago

Your correspondent says, “having some formal authority within the department makes a huge difference, and that different departments widely differ in this”. I’d be interested in hearing what that huge difference actually is.

I believe at all three departments I’ve been affiliated with for more than a year (Berkeley, USC, Texas A&M), grad students have had a representative attend faculty meetings, and have made statements about job candidates, but haven’t had any formal authority in any department matters. The closest was probably that at Berkeley, some number of colloquium speakers were chosen by (or at least nominated by) the students.Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
5 years ago

I’d say the difference is simply believing you have a voice in your department’s policies that affect you. Even if the voice is advisory only, at least one feels they have a chance to be heard.Report

Mark Alfano
5 years ago

At the University of Oregon, where I worked for two years, the grad student representative had voting rights on some decisions. However, typically when their vote would make a difference, one or another of the faculty would propose changing the bylaws of the department to disenfranchise them. I don’t know how common such shenanigans are at other departments, but I think the department would have been less poisonous if the grad students only ever had an advisory role. Corruptly implemented idealism << Realpolitik.Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
Reply to  Mark Alfano
5 years ago

Academic politics are so vicious because so little is at stake. Really, change the bylaws to avoid grad students’ voices??? Wow!Report

Michel X.
Michel X.
5 years ago

Here, graduate students have a (single) vote on all departmental decisions save those involving individuals who are currently members of the department (e.g. tenure and promotion decisions, and decisions on the advancement of graduate students to ABD status). There is a relatively robust convention, however, that we abstain from most decisions not involving graduate students directly. We have a single vote on hiring decisions, and a representative sits on the hiring committee with faculty members. We also have representation on various department-level committees, and are welcome to make contributions to department meetings. These rights. much like the British Constitution, are enshrined in historical precedent rather than written in a single document. As TAs, however, we belong to a union, so our rights on that front are explicitly written down in the contract negotiated with the university.

I do know of grad students at programs where the graduate student body is expected to participate actively (e.g. preparing and hosting a supper for job candidates), but is given no vote on the outcome, and is not actively invited to contribute in even an advisory capacity. In at least one department that I know of, this led to a mass exodus when students were unanimously against one particular candidate who received the department’s first offer.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
5 years ago

My department’s Board of Studies has one PhD student representative and one representative for all of the taught MAs and the graduate diploma programme. It’s hard to say if they have a formal vote or not, because I’m not sure I can recall anything in my department being decided by vote in the two years I’ve been there. (With one exception: We were presented with four possible themes that the Institute for Advanced Study was considering adopting and was soliciting input on. We were asked to say which of the themes we supported, preferably only one or two. We took a show of hands — each person had two votes — of everyone in the room. This included the student reps.)Report

JDRox
JDRox
5 years ago

There are many reasons why graduate students shouldn’t have an “equal vote” (most obviously, the average “lifespan” of a graduate student these days is around 5 years, while the average lifespan of a tenured faculty member is several times that or more), and probably not a vote at all. Maybe “one vote” for all the grad students could work, but if each grad student got a vote they’d get sucked into often nasty departmental politics, which would often be worse than not having a vote at all.Report

Michel X.
Michel X.
Reply to  JDRox
5 years ago

I’d be surprised if anyone was really advocating that each graduate student should have a separate vote on departmental matters.

I want to address the lifespan argument in your comment, however, because it’s one that I hear quite a lot and it strikes me that it’s wrongheaded. Graduate students actually have a fairly strong interest in the way their programs are organized, and the hiring decisions their programs make. True, we leave once we graduate, but until then we work very closely with faculty in the department (taking classes, teaching/being a teaching assistant, participating in departmental events and culture, research assistantships, supervisory relations, etc.). And even when we leave, we have a vested interest in the success of our colleagues and the prestige of our PhD-granting institutions, since (unfortunately) that counts for quite a lot post-graduation. We also have a unique perspective to offer on issues that concern us, since we have direct experience of the policies and issues under discussion. Some issues at the forefront of our experience (e.g. inadequate/infrequent feedback) might not even make it to your checklist.

It doesn’t take much in the way of policy-level decisions (or just a lack of communication) to poison a program’s atmosphere. If you want the luxury of a PhD program, you should at least be willing to listen to your graduates, and to consult with them on issues that affect them. One obvious and easy way of doing that is to give them representation on committees that make these sorts of recommendations, and to give them a vote on their future. Not a veto, just a vote.

We don’t just pass through in the night.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Michel X.
5 years ago

I totally agree with listening to and consulting with graduate students. I’m open to giving the graduate students (combined) one vote, but I think the Alfano worry above is a real one. In any case, I want to understand your worry about the lifespan argument. For most graduate students, hiring decisions won’t affect them much at all. That is, at any given time, most graduate students are done with coursework, and most departments have more than one area of specialization such that it is unlikely that the new hire will be in yours. Still, some hiring decisions might affects certain specific graduate students a great deal–e.g., if it causes your department to shoot up or down in the specialty rankings (e.g., in the minds of other philosophers) in your specialty. Indeed, such a hiring decision might affect the rest of your life, by affecting the job (if any) you get. Is that the argument? If so, point taken (perhaps graduate students who work on X should have a special say when hiring someone working on X?), although I think such circumstances will be relatively rare and so the overall/generic impact of a hire on faculty will be much greater than on graduate students.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Michel X.
5 years ago

I think people also make a similar argument in city politics to try to disenfranchise renters. Renters will only be here a few years while homeowners will be here forever (if you believe the hype). But even if it’s true that past renters are no longer here, future renters aren’t here yet, and current renters will be gone soon, there will always be renters living with local regulations, so *someone* needs to cast a vote on their behalf. Similarly, if successive generations of graduate students can be expected to have relevantly similar views about departmental affairs, it could make sense to have current grad students express their vote on behalf of the future grad students that will live with the resulting policies.

Assuming that the other worries don’t overwhelm this. (e.g, the desire to stay out of department politics).Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
Reply to  JDRox
5 years ago

Very interesting point. But don’t some faculty move on after 3-5 years, get denied tenure in the same time span? And while they are there they do get a vote equal to other faculty, presumably? But, again, a very good point worth pondering!Report

Alan Nelson
Alan Nelson
5 years ago

When I was a grad student at Illinois-Chicago in the 80’s, grads had five(!) votes on most matters including faculty hiring. In my experience when something important was up for a vote, the grad students usually split 3-2.
For a short time at California, Irvine around 2000 the grads had two votes on most matters, including hiring. In cases of hiring, there was no space on the admin form for recording these votes, but it was mentioned in letters. This arrangement lasted a short time because the grads decided they did not want to have the right to vote.Report

philosophygrad312
philosophygrad312
5 years ago

At my university (Top 50 PGR) the graduates have no say, voting or otherwise, in any departmental decisions, including all of the issues raised by Justin (hiring, budgeting and funding, curricular requirements, departmental policies, use of space, event planning). We are simply not consulted on any of these issues (or really any issues at all). We do have a graduate organization which plans its own events (without funding, and so no external speakers), but that’s it. That organization isn’t invited to any departmental decision making process either.

For my own part, I don’t think not having voting rights is a serious issue (and certainly I agree with concerns above about giving *every* grad voting rights), but it would be nice to be involved or asked about some decisions before they’re finalized. Reasonable things to have graduates vote or weigh in upon include:

1. Departmental colloquiua / conferences – it would be nice if graduates were involved in the invitation or brainstorming process for invited speakers, especially since they make up a huge percentage of the audience for such events.
2. Hiring – I don’t necessarily think graduates should be granted a vote in the hiring process, but it would be nice if the department asked their opinions on potential new faculty for obvious reasons.
3. Curriculum – graduates should be granted a vote in the curriculum design especially given we teach a significant portion of the courses (more courses are taught by graduates than by faculty, given we outnumber them substantially).

None of these rights are afforded to us at my school. At my undergrad institution graduates get to choose (collectively) one of the colloquiua speakers, and help design new courses, which I wish we had. We do meet with potential hires, but the department does not ask us for or give us any way to submit thoughts and feedback, which feels odd.Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
Reply to  philosophygrad312
5 years ago

Very well stated and I hope the writer might work toward correcting the deficiencies, but I know that is a hard road to go down. I especially like the comments concerning all three points. I have minor concerns about #2, hiring decisions, only because grad students have not yet been members of a faculty and may lack experience in weighing credentials. That they have a stake in hiring is clear, maybe advisory status with a grad student present as a rep during hiring process. Otherwise, very good.Report

Catherine Kemp
Catherine Kemp
5 years ago

For better and for worse, I have found that getting my degree in a department in which graduate students participated both formally and informally in the deliberative and political life of that department prepared me *like nothing else* for that aspect of my professional career ever after. In hindsight, would I trade that preparation for the very real benefit of having none of that history–and its professional consequences–with the faculty and students of that time?

A home question. For me, the answer is no, but that has everything to do with who I am as a person and, I think, nothing about what’s good or desirable or right for programs, or for other people.Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
5 years ago

1. What rights do graduate students in your department have over departmental decisions?

The two grad schools I attended back in the day were very different. One had no grad student alliance or any input. The other had a grad student alliance that could pass recommendations and critiques. But it was up to the department to accept or implement them, both of which happened, some were just rejected – so, something like an advisory position that was taken seriously, but not binding.

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?

Advisory only, but taken seriously at one institution. No grad student input at all at the other.

3. Are these rights written down somewhere, and if so, where (e.g., graduate handbook, departmental policies, a university-wide set of rules)?

At one institution they were written, I believe in the departmental policies that sanctioned the grad student alliance, but am not sure.

Overall, those many years ago, even at the institution that had the grad student alliance, the input was mostly ineffective, not due to the department but because the grad students could never agree on anything. I remember a 45 minute debate over whether a rule for faculty members on dissertation committees should read, “There shall be 3 members on the committee, be they graduate faculty certified,” versus “There shall be 5 members on the committee, 3 shall be graduate faculty.” Graduate faculty meant those members of the department who were certified to teach grad courses (so that ruled out adjuncts or part-timers with less than a PhD, etc…).

Anyway, yes, grad students should have a voice, and I would hope it is taken seriously, but if it is to be taken on an equal basis with faculty, that voice should be one vote equivalent to one faculty member.Report