Wednesday, May 27

Ani Gasparyan: Allowing union grievances would better protect students from sexual harassment

(Nicole Anisgard Parra/Daily Bruin)

Graduate students make numerous sacrifices for their academic careers. The biggest one: having to put their future on hold so they don’t have to work with academic advisers who sexually harass them.

Graduate students within the University of California system who report sexual harassment are given little protection. Prosecuting those found to have committed sexual harassment can take several years because of the bureaucratic processes the Title IX office must go through after it finishes investigations. In the past, students have had to continue to work and learn in an unsafe environment because of inadequate interim measures throughout the remedy process.

In an effort to combat this widespread issue, UAW Local 2865, the UC student-workers union, is negotiating new demands with the UC in a proposed contract that would offer students more protection. The union is asking for the option to file union grievances while Title IX investigations are being held. It is also demanding that the UC enact interim measures that would allow students to work in a harassment-free environment, provide timely responses to reports of sexual harassment and give more options that would protect student workers.

A union grievance allows for employees to file a formal complaint against their employers through their union. This grievance process helps ensure that employees are given representation from people who will advocate for them, ensure timely responses to reports and allow victims to not be isolated from a case that directly involves them.

UC spokesperson Stephanie Beechem said in a statement that the University is firmly committed to protecting its community members from sexual violence and sexual harassment, and is considering UAW’s demands.

“UC is committed to pursuing contract provisions that align with the University’s systemwide sexual violence and sexual harassment policy,” she said.

It is paramount the UC meets these demands in order to provide a safer environment for graduate students. Union grievances would allow unions to lobby the University on behalf of graduate students so they can receive consistent updates on investigative and punitive Title IX processes against academic advisors who sexually harass them. Academic advisors can control the graduation status of their graduate mentees, and it is imperative graduate students should be able to rely on union support should they need representation.

From the looks of it, though, it looks like the UC is trying to save face and remove itself from liability. While UAW has been negotiating with the University to allow union members the option of filing a union grievance concurrently with a Title IX investigation, the union claims in its bargaining updates that the UC has not been willing to negotiate for different terms and alternatives to its procedures.

Melissa Melpignano, a doctoral candidate in world arts and cultures/dance and the head steward of UAW, said it’s difficult for students to continue working in an environment they no longer feel safe in.

“It impedes your ability to write, to get involved in the life of the community, which is a major factor, especially in grad life,” she said.

Graduate students at UCLA know well what it’s like to keep learning in the presence of a sexual harasser.

Allison Carlisle, a member of the UAW bargaining team and a doctoral candidate in Spanish and Portuguese, said the case of former UCLA professor Gabriel Piterberg is a perfect example of students having to be around professors they feared.

“He abused these people and then got minimal punishment, and came back to work and kept his tenure,” she said.

Carlisle added that she’s spoken to other graduate students who had to take Piterberg’s classes even though they were terrified of him.

Piterberg was accused of sexual harassment in 2013, but was removed from his position just this year. During this time, he had still been teaching students, with relatively inadequate preventative measures in place, such as having to hold office hours with the door open. The University withheld information for several years from the graduate students who filed the initial complaint of sexual harassment in 2013. The union’s demands would prevent the UC from doing this again by requiring it to speed up its investigations and put student safety, not the University’s reputation, first.

Piterberg’s case is just one among many instances of sexual harassment within the UC system. According to a report by the Daily Californian, the UC has at least 124 cases of sexual misconduct committed by its employees. This number reveals how sexual harassment in academia is a systemic issue that cannot be solved by the University because it requires complainants – some of whom are busy graduate students – to continually file and follow up with investigations of sexual harassment. Allowing alternative options, such as filing union grievances, would allow for faster investigations, and thus swifter action against sexual harassers.

Moreover, graduate students who come forward with cases of sexual harassment risk their relationships with their departments, their relationships with their peers and the future of their careers. The high rate of sexual harassment in the UC system is proof that more protections need to be put in place to protect student workers, and the union can provide those necessary resources.

Certainly, it might seem that allowing for union grievances would affect Title IX offices’ investigative proceedings and potentially sway findings. But this grievance process would be to ensure transparency in the UC’s investigations – something the University owes to complainants, and especially those whose livelihoods are directly connected to these investigations.

Graduate students sign up for long hours of studying and research. In return for their contributions to the University, it seems the least the UC can do is to allow students to learn on a safe campus that respects them.

Senior staff columnist

Gasparyan was an assistant Opinion editor from 2018-2019. She previously contributed as an opinion columnist for the section and writes about issues surrounding gender equity and student life.

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