Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A Christmas Appeal: Do Not Forget Harvard's Neediest!

By Larry Lowell
The College Correspondent

The normally authoritative New York Times today enjoins its readers not to forget the Neediest, so in that spirit, let's consider the plight of Harvard Yard's neediest, the graduate students of the School of Arts of Sciences (or, as we call it, Harvard).

Since early December, they have been on strike, having tried to negotiate something resembling fair compensation for their services with the University and gotten nowhere.  So at this holiday season, they're subsisting on, to use the technical term employed by the Department of Economics, bupkis.

University Provost Alan Garber '76 calls
the negotiations complex and challenging
What's going on?  First, a little background for the preterite who didn't attend The College.  Starry-eyed freshman  arriving in the Yard soon learn that for $64 large a year, they aren't actually taught by the glorious Harvard faculty, which was recruited in large part with the promise that they would not have go anywhere nearer a grubby undergraduate than weekly performances to a 700-strong grinder peanut gallery bent over their laptops in Science Center B.

The miserable business of teaching these obnoxious young over-achievers falls to the graduate students in exchange for tuition, room and board (assuming they are actually willing to dine with the bright young collegians), and a modest stipend.

How modest?  If you are among the best and brightest meaning, oh, let's say the top 5% of aspiring young academics, you can earn the princely sum of up to $45,000 a year, according to The Boston Globe.   In Cambridge this income would easily pay for a nice apartment, if your idea of a nice apartment is a cardboard box conveniently located over a steam vent in Holyoke Center.

Some of the grad students were brilliant and kind, others were brilliant and mean, still others weren't brilliant at all but showed a talent for sucking up to senior faculty that served them well in their later careers as war criminals, but at least they were there and they would try to explain wtf Hegel was talking about.

The University is sitting on an endowment that, although its managers have underperformed a three basis point index fund for years, aggregates over $40,900,000,000, so you'd think the powers that be at Harvard might be able to throw a few more pennies in the direction of the poor souls who do the actual work (which work includes providing invaluable “assistance” to the research projects and thus the glory of the tenured faculty).

Although the grad students' union and the University have been negotiating for over a year, Harvard is considering asking for federal mediation because, according to University Provost Alan Garber "76, the issues are  “complex” and “challenging.”

Who is Alan Garber '76 and why does he find a straightforward labor dispute so difficult?  Let's check out his Harvard bio to see if we can find any clues:

Provost Alan M. Garber serves as Harvard University’s chief academic officer.  He is also the Mallinckrodt Professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School, a Professor of Economics in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Professor of Public Policy in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.  An economist and physician, he studies methods for improving health care productivity and health care financing.. . .

Dr. Garber is an Elected Member of the Association of American Physicians, the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He is also an Elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American College of Physicians and the Royal College of Physicians. A summa cum laude graduate of Harvard College, Dr. Garber received a PhD in Economics from Harvard and an MD with research honors from Stanford. 

It's amazing this guy can negotiate a glazed cruller and large regular extra sugar at Dunkin' Donuts under the Square, much less a labor agreement.  No wonder he's begging for a federal mediator.  Perhaps the problem is that he, like the rest of the FAS faculty, is lost without their grad student helpers.

Indeed, the Globe's summary of the economic issues will demonstrate their staggering complexity:
Harvard has proposed an 8.2 percent pay increase over three years for a majority of the graduate students in the union. But union members said that would end up being less than the 3 percent annual raise many of them have received in recent years.
The union has countered with a proposal for a 5 percent raise in the first year of the contract and a 3.5 percent increase in subsequent years, according to union representatives.
Now, we didn't,  to understate matters considerably, graduate summa in Economics, but the University's contract offer of 8.2% spread over three years, or an annual increase of um, give us a second, 2.7% was in fact less than the 3% increase Harvard had been willing to offer in the absence of union representation.  Although we too are baffled by complexity,  we interpret the University's offer of salary increases below what they were willing to pay in the absence of a union as simply an effort to demonstrate to the grad students the futility of seeking to improve their lot by unionizing.

But that's not all that's flummoxing the Mallinkrodt Professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School and Economics in the Harvard School of Arts and Sciences.  There's also the issue of addressing issues of sexual harassment, which seems to be on the minds of some graduate students.

Again, you don't have to possess a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard and an M.D. from Stanford to wonder why the grad students are so concerned about this.  We remember grad students and junior faculty worrying about this revolting practice as far back as 1975.  If the University has failed to resolve this problem despite being aware of it for over 40 years, it must be complex and challenging indeed.

Grad students are always whining about money
The grad students seek third-party arbitration of sexual harassment complaints.  Such arbitration is common in union contracts.  If you don't believe me, ask former Harvard President Derek Bok, or just read Part V of his Labor Law casebook.

So why is this so complex and challenging?  Again according to the Globe:  “But Harvard officials have said that would circumvent the federal Title IX sexual harassment complaint process, creating an inequitable system for students who are in the bargaining unit and those outside of it.”

We seem to recall that, notwithstanding the no doubt compelling complexities and challenges of the university context, every anti-union employer in the world has stonewalled union demands on the same ground: giving union workers a better deal than their non-union counterparts would be unfair to the unorganized rabble.  Actually, we can make this simple:  giving unionized workers a better deal would demonstrate the advantages of union representation, which might in turn entice others to organize.

To make the matter simpler still, it's just union-busting.

Speaking of matters that are challenging but not complex, who's paying the price for the endless impasse, besides the starving grad students?  If you said the tenured professoriat, then brother (and sister) you didn't go to Harvard:
Some end-of-semester study sessions for undergraduate students have been canceled, and in certain cases professors have cut back on the length of final papers or have opted to give multiple-choice exams, to reduce their grading workload while their graduate assistants are on strike.
You don't have to be the Provost of Harvard University to understand that the tenured faculty, rather than picking up the slack, is simply offering even less to the undergraduates than before.

If you guessed it's the undergrads that are getting screwed, then you're Ivy League material!  In addition to the loss of sections and class time, the undergrads get to confront the many unpleasantnesses of crossing picket lines just to get the education their parents paid for.  And grad students perform many other services, such as recommendations, post-grad career guidance, and making sure the little darlings don't throw themselves off the bridge because they got a C+ on a problem set.

Maybe the problem is that Harvard's negotiators are too brilliant for their own good.  We remember that the bright young things who graduated summa tended to make everything more complex than they were in real life.  The reason that girl from Fieldston ignored Alan and instead hooked up with the Egyptian waiter at the CafĂ© Algiers wasn't really that complicated: he was gorgeous and you were not.

And labor disputes are resolved every day by people who don't hold endowed chairs at Harvard.  Just offer them 4.5% and everyone at Harvard can get back to what they do best: self-promotion.

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