I don't know if this has been covered elsewhere in the science/chemblogosphere, but I thought it was interesting. It's the story of a dispute between materials engineering graduate student Jennifer Dibbern and her faculty adviser, Rachel Goldman, over efforts to get the research assistants in the department to join the graduate student instructors union:
Former engineering GSRA Jennifer Dibbern claims that shortly after informing her faculty adviser she was an advocate of forming a student researcher union she began receiving poor reviews and was ultimately dismissed. Dibbern said she was essentially told by her adviser to cease her involvement in unionization efforts.
[UM provost] Hanlon, however, says that's not the case and that Dibbern's account of her dismissal, which she shared during a news conference Wednesday, is incomplete.Here's some of the timeline, as provided by the graduate student union:
"I have personally reviewed the academic record for this case and I'm convinced that the academic decisions made by our faculty were justified and appropriate," Hanlon said, adding that faculty "followed a thorough and fair process and I want to offer my strong support for them."
August 5: In an individual meeting (called to discuss data) Goldman stated that she wanted to go to the MERC hearing Monday as she feared the union would ruin grad education at U of M. She relayed conversations she had with graduate students who were involved in the No Campaign. In the conversation, she referenced the consent agreement reached between GEO and the University regarding terms of election and said she was following the situation “very closely.” She then stated Ms. Dibbern had more data than they could review in that meeting and that they would discuss it the following week.
August 8: At a 10am individual meeting, Goldman reviewed the GEO website and spoke about it with Ms. Dibbern. She stated that the MERC meeting will determine whether "we have a research university left." She stated she would leave if the union was formed.
August 8: Goldman sent Ms. Dibbern an email that, for the first time, questioned the progress she was making on research and instructed her to stop all outside activity to demonstrate her commitment to her research.
August 10: Goldman repeatedly instructed Ms. Dibbern to stop all outside activity, this time inHere's a snippet of a blog comment from one of the union's stewards, Dan Hirschman (who is speaking for himself.) Go over and read it -- it's much longer and very informative:
person. When Ms. Dibbern asked for clarification, Goldman stated, "you know what I mean."
Although Prof. Goldman has a reputation for running a very intense lab, no other student was ever told (to my knowledge) to curtail other outside activities (such as participation in sports, or family obligations). The first allegations made by Prof. Goldman of specific failures were in the email linked above, dated August 8 (after having favorably reviewed Dibbern’s progress just two months earlier). Prof. Goldman fired Dibbern just three weeks later.
So Dibbern and the union seem to have a couple grievances:
- Professor Goldman seems to have fired Ms. Dibbern not because of any poor performance, but because of her enthusiasm for unionization.
- Professor Goldman did not follow established procedures for removing a research assistant.
I think this story is interesting because it lays out the current balance of power between professors and graduate students at top research departments in the US. If the professor doesn't like the graduate student for any reason, they can be removed (counter to the university's own policy!) and the administration will make it very clear that they're going to back the professor, not the student. Graduate students (and especially undergraduates considering graduate school), be aware of this possibility.
If it is indeed true that Professor Goldman runs an intense laboratory, one of her funded students should be aware that announcing that you'd like to get involved in a political and organization effort outside of your laboratory research is really unwise. It may not be fair, but is it worth 2+ years of your research career to die on that hill? (...And this is how the balance of power will continue...)
I'm also discomfited by the suggested solution by Mr. Hirschman (the union steward):
One brought up above is the ability of PIs to fire research assistants for whatever reason they chose, and how often that is used. At least at Michigan, it is not uncommon for a student to switch labs or to leave a program with just a master’s degree because of disagreements with a PI - personal or professional. That is precisely one of the most important reasons why GEO has pushed to bring RAs into the union (currently graduate student instructors (aka TAs) are covered, but not RAs). PIs should have the ability to fire students who fail in their research tasks, but they should be required to prove that the student has actually failed. (Whether or not PIs should be able to demand 80-hour work weeks and forbid their RAs from taking Christmas vacations is also something that will hopefully be up for negotiation – bearing in mind the complexity that many RAs work on their own projects in conjunction with their paid work.)
"Prove that the student has actually failed"? That sounds like a high bar (depending on who's doing the measuring, of course.)