Title IX complaints key issue at grad student union forum


Graduate students voted this week on whether or not they’d unionize, following several campus community discussions featuring Pitt administrators and United Steel Workers representatives.

University Senate President Chris Bonneau moderated back-to-back panels, each hoping to inform graduate students, on April 9 and 10.

These events were held before the four-day election began on April 15. Voting wraps up today and results won’t be known until late next week.

The graduate student unionization campaign also has caught the attention of presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, who voiced his support for the union at a campaign rally April 14 in Schenley Park, and Elizabeth Warren, who tweeted her support.

The Graduate and Professional Student Government hosted the April 9 session in the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center ballroom, which featured a panel discussion featuring Maria Somma, USW director of organizing, and Brad Manzolillo, a USW attorney. Graduate students could ask questions about the unionization process and what it would mean for them moving forward.

Many of the questions and answers were related to the procedure and scope of the bargaining unit. These and other topics have been covered previously in the U-Times.

Rachel Coombs, GPSG president, said Pitt administrators were invited to the April 9 panel discussion, but declined.

Provost panel discussion

Provost Ann Cudd and Nathan Urban, vice provost for graduate studies, held a separate discussion on April 10 that was live streamed.

The format for this discussion was slightly different than one held on March 26. Students could still submit questions online or anonymously through cards, but this time students could ask Cudd and Urban questions directly. The lack of this option was a prominent criticism of the March event. The crowd was notably smaller though, as roughly 20 people attended this panel.

Throughout the hour-long panel, students asked about Pitt’s current benefits for grad students, how much the University was compensating Ballard Spahr, Pitt’s legal representatives for both the graduate student and faculty unionization movements, and more.

Cudd said she “didn’t care to comment” on the amount of money Pitt is paying Ballard Spahr and added that she wouldn’t know the answer. Cudd said the law firm has been on Pitt’s payroll for roughly 10 years, consulting the University on various legal issues.

One submitted question asked if the University planned to accept a “yes” vote in favor of a union for graduate students, or if they would seek further legal action.

“Well, I think that’s getting ahead of ourselves here,” Cudd said. “I think it’s merely speculative at this point as to what we’re going to learn from this whole process. Seeing people show up, seeing what the questions are, what is the voter turnout, things like that, may play a role in that.”

Another question asked why workloads vary so much across academic units. The answer, Cudd said, is a bit complicated and has to do with the different demands and number of students involved in each discipline and the standards for the discipline nationally.

“I think it’s unlikely that a union would change that comparison across different fields. It would be very unlikely that we would try to standardize across all fields, if we did, then we would no longer be able to be competitive for a whole class of graduate students,” Cudd said.

One major topic throughout the panel discussion was harassment and Pitt’s Title IX office.

In one instance, an anonymous question from a student said they reported harassment from a faculty member to their respective department and nothing was done. The question then asked how students can expect the University to follow through on these issues without “collective action?”

“We are very concerned about any allegations of abuse, and we certainly would investigate it,” Cudd said. “And as for a union, how would that work for a union to intervene in the academic process? I’m not sure how that would help. It’s not going to change our personnel policies. That’s not something that collective bargaining unit can weigh in on. So, I’m not sure why that would be more helpful than coming directly to me and my office.”

Urban added that when misconduct is discovered among Pitt faculty, there are “serious consequences.”

Several attendees voiced other concerns with the Title IX office’s transparency. Bonneau asked Urban and Cudd if they knew the number of referrals or resolved issues within the office.

Cudd deferred to Urban, who declined to release specific numbers, and said the information was not public because the office didn’t want the general public to get the wrong idea about an increase in referrals.

“The main source of an increase in the number of cases is likely to be from the fact that more people are reporting, and we’ve been doing things in terms of increasing visibility of the Title IX office all the time,” Urban said, adding that the overall goal is to get students to report incidents to the office more.

Bonneau then made a push for the office to release its statistics.

“An increased transparency of the number of cases, I think, would be useful regardless of what happens going forward,” Bonneau said.

Some graduate students who attended the discussion found Urban’s and Cudd’s answers “evasive” and “indirect,” especially in response to the Title IX questions.

“I think there were a lot of people who asked very tough questions,” said Jake Pomerantz, a doctoral student in the history department. “And the provost and vice provost failed to address those questions accurately. And I think it demonstrated very clearly that the administration is not willing to address all the concerns of graduate students.”

Chie Togami, a graduate student in sociology, said she also disagreed with the decision not to release Title IX office statistics publicly.

“I think their argument that it would make people worried or upset and scared — it’s just, it’s really weak,” Togami said. “I think it could work the opposite way. And that knowing that other people are filing complaints makes you feel less alone, and it would empower victims and survivors to come forward.”

After the panel was over, Urban said he’d take more time to understand the variety of concerns students have of the Title IX office.

“I think a lot of what I heard today was an indication that there’s … more questions that I should ask, to try and understand better the perspective that some of the students have,” Urban said, adding that regardless of the outcome of the vote, he wants to see students happy and successful.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.