The Graduate Student Council’s Board of Directors has put together a statement to communicate the ideas, philosophy, and vision of the GSC for 2020-2021 to all graduate students. In particular, we elaborate on the two models of advocacy the GSC employs. One centers around the majority of students and includes efforts like developing and analyzing the annual survey, advocating for advances like the stipend increase and an institute-wide vacation policy, and social events like GSC Formal and Gradiators. The other is for when a minority of students experiences a disproportionately high burden as is the case for graduate student-parents, students with chronic illness and/or disabilities, and racially minoritized students, to name a few. Using these two approaches, the GSC strives to fulfill its mission to improve the lives of all graduate students and ensure that no students are excluded from our efforts. To read the full letter, see below.
We hope this brings clarity and opens dialogue regarding the role of GSC in serving Caltech’s graduate students. Every graduate student is a member of the GSC and we welcome feedback and suggestions at all stages from the entire student community via email or our anonymous feedback form.
Dear graduate students,
You might have noticed that the number of emails and open letters coming to you from the GSC in the last couple of months has increased compared to previous years. This is motivated by the increased frequency and magnitude of crises on campus including the cuts to Caltech’s graduate health insurance plan, Caltech’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and our entire community’s efforts for combating systemic racism. At the same time, GSC’s communication to you has also been more transparent and specific about the work that we have been doing and what our viewpoints are. In this context, some people have expressed possible concerns about what the GSC actually stands for, and about how we are trying to achieve tangible progress.
The GSC’s mission is to improve the lives of all graduate students on campus — not just the “average” student (whoever that may be). A society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members, and if the discussions about systemic inequalities in this country and in academia have (re-)taught us anything in the last couple of months, it is that we cannot leave the fight for issues that disproportionately affect minority groups to those same groups.
We are all grateful that Caltech has given us the opportunity to pursue our graduate studies here. Our job is to do cutting-edge science, and Caltech’s responsibility is to enable us to do so. Conventionally, this means providing us with advisors, facilities, and other academic resources. However, to enable students to perform groundbreaking research, providing for personal wellbeing is just as important as providing the academic framework. Caltech knows this, as it is competing with other schools for our talent.
These two paradigms are what the GSC incorporates into its viewpoints and what we negotiate for in our discussions with the institute administration. We do not believe that Caltech should be a campus where chronically ill students cannot afford necessary medication. We do not believe that Caltech is doing enough to keep the campus safe from COVID-19 come Fall term. We do not believe that our campus is free from racism, or that we have been doing enough to prevent it.
The GSC advocates based on two different models. The first model involves centering our efforts on the support of the majority of students, which we gauge through our annual survey and direct exchange with student representatives from each division or department. Majority-centric efforts have included stipend increases (which are not automatic, and have stagnated in the past), the institute-wide vacation policy, and organizing social events such as GSC Formal and Gradiators. When a huge proportion of students make themselves heard through petitions, the GSC also acts on these petitions. Recent examples include petitions from Black Students and Engineers of Caltech (BSEC) (signed by approx. 30% of graduate students) and Caltech for Affordable Healthcare (CAH) (signed by >40% of students).
A second advocacy model is used when a minority of students is experiencing a burden that is disproportionately high. Often, the majority (“median”) student does not experience and may not be aware of these burdens, so the GSC works to amplify minoritized voices to advocate for them effectively. Majority rule in these cases can lead to disproportionate outcomes and deny equitable treatment for students in the minority. However, in all cases, we will aim to explain to everyone the reasons and necessity for our decisions.
Many problems are not new, and most have certainly worsened over the last half year. Increasingly, many students are frustrated that Caltech’s response has not matched the rising magnitude of the issues at hand.The GSC’s regular channels of advocating for change, which focus on regular conversations and meetings with the dean and other administration officials, have not always produced sufficient change, either. In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that traditional meetings between a few students with administrators behind closed doors has produced several disadvantages, such as increasing distrust amongst students, and allowing the institute to claim that they are working alongside students, even when meetings were unproductive and did not include the students whose interests were at stake.
This is why in addition to those channels, the GSC has adopted a more open and firm stance towards the administration. Graduate students have no formal power at Caltech, and therefore community pressure, hand in hand with providing evidence that a mentally, physically, and financially healthier student body is also in the institute’s best interest, are our next best options. Standing still or even moving at the previous pace is not an option, as the health and well-being of graduate students are at stake.
There are signs that our efforts, in collaboration with other student advocacy groups on campus, are showing promise. Crucially, the amount and detail of official Caltech communications on COVID-19 related topics such as testing, case count, and housing, is becoming more representative of its gravity following the strong involvement of GSC’s COVID-19 Response Team. Among significant and damaging cuts, Caltech for Affordable Healthcare advocates were able to keep current mental health coverage in place and prevent an increase in the physician visit copay. In response to the BSEC petition about dismantling anti-Black racism at Caltech, the administration sent out an email that promised to enact many of the proposed action-items, and the GSC Diversity Committee is helping to coordinate student- and institute-led efforts towards this goal.
Our work is obviously far from done, however. Caltech’s COVID response is far below that of our peer institutions. Our healthcare related costs are still skyrocketing compared to other universities. The fight for equal opportunities for racially or otherwise minoritized students is a fight of our generation.
We hope that this perspective on GSC’s handling of the last half year can be helpful for anyone who is feeling lost or apprehensive. If you have any concerns, suggestions, or other feedback, please do not hesitate to message the GSC’s Board of Directors, join GSC’s Slack workspace to listen in and be heard, or leave an anonymous message using this form. Caltech graduate students can also join GSC committees to work on specific issues. Regardless of whether we all agree on the same methods or strategies, or if you have not needed our advocacy efforts thus far, know that should you ever need support, we will advocate for you.
The Graduate Student Council’s Board of Directors, 2020-2021