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Opinion: Grad Students: 'We Expected More From OHSU'

Oregon Health & Science University's sprawling west side campus. | AARON BIELECK/OHSU
October 30, 2019

Over the last year, Ph.D. graduate students at Oregon Health & Science University came together to form our own union, Graduate Researchers United/AFSCME (GRU). Now, we are in the process of negotiating our first union contract. 

What we’re asking for is simple. Protection from abusive supervisors, input into the decision making process on things like stipend increases and health insurance coverage, and policies that address equality, diversity and inclusion on campus. 

In order to understand our fight, and why we’ve been met with staunch resistance, it’s important to understand a little bit about biomedical graduate studies. Ph.D. graduate students in this field are students, but at OHSU, the majority of us spend just three months in the classroom. Then we join a lab and develop a project, with our supervisor's guidance, that will produce new scientific knowledge and further our understanding of a biomedical topic. We expect to spend the next five years working on that problem while we give talks, present at international conferences, publish papers, and write grants. There are very few written rules on how this process goes, and our graduation timeline is almost always at the discretion of our supervisor. Although we are considered students, our position is more reflective of an apprenticeship with a hazy finish date. This can be a wonderful and enriching system, but it can also be a system that is ripe for abuse. 

Expectations can be wildly different between labs and even for researchers within the same lab. Because we work with the same supervisor for five years, problems can compound and issues can fester for years. When a relationship becomes abusive or toxic, researchers are faced with three options. They can switch labs, they can stick it out, or they can leave. Switching labs often means losing years of work and extending the time it takes to graduate. Leaving can mean walking away from a career in science. Staying can cause an enormous amount of mental and emotional distress. There’s a reason that graduate students suffer rates of depression that is on par with those who are incarcerated. 

Our union is fighting to minimize and ultimately eliminate the number of researchers who have to make this excruciating choice. We are working to give our members a contract that they can point to when they are asked to meet unreasonable expectations, when they are asked to put their personal lives on hold for the “greater good” of science, when they are forced to work 60 hours a week to earn a recommendation letter that will impact their entire careers. 

To this end, we have proposed contract language stating that our members can not be coerced to work more than 40 hours a week. This is not meant to limit any researcher's individual drive or motivation to conduct scientific effort after their 40-hour mark has been reached; researchers could voluntarily work more. We often do, and we do not want to put a ceiling on those who go above and beyond. We just want to give our members, all of our members, the same baseline expectations. Because a system without explicitly clear expectation disadvantages those who have always been disadvantaged-people of color, women, individuals with chronic illnesses and those who are not able-bodied. 

Management, after months of a negotiation process that included closed-door sessions where they heard the stories of graduate students who had been abused, refused to accept the 40-hour-a-week contract language. 

We expected more from OHSU. We had incorrectly assumed that when confronted with evidence of abuse and coercion, they would understand why we wanted this language. We thought that the premier research university in Oregon, located in a liberal, labor-supportive, progressive Portland, would want to showcase an agreement that would affirm their desire for a more diverse and equitable workplace by getting rid of vague or non-existant expectations that created avenues for discrimination. Clearly, that assumption was misguided. 

It’s not a new story: one party fighting an inequitable system to fairly distribute power while the party who currently holds power uses bureaucracy and hierarchy to keep the status quo. History tends to cast a favorable light on the former. 

OHSU President Dr. Danny Jacobs has promised to “stand in the light.” 

We, the GRU, are here, in the light, waiting for him and his team. 

Katy Lehmann is a second-year graduate student at OHSU researching how nervous systems change during development and is part of the Graduate Researchers United/AFSCME Contract Action Team.