This bargaining session on January 28 was dominated by an animated discussion over discrimination and harassment, and Columbia’s team made it abundantly clear that they prioritize retaining the sole power to decide the outcome of discrimination and harassment complaints above attempting to change the system that is so flawed.

Last session we provided a detailed argument citing recent studies, literature, and Columbia-specific examples in the media to thoroughly illustrate how Columbia continues to tolerate harassment. This conclusion will be no surprise to most graduate workers who have witnessed how these problems are repeatedly not addressed by the University. Too many have personally experienced this institutional ignorance of discrimination and harassment when their complaints are unfairly dismissed and improperly investigated, or when they are encouraged to be silent about their experience by faculty, administrators, and even the lawyers Columbia appoints to Title IX complainants. Many have seen complaints result in no meaningful recourse, forcing the student body to rely on whisper-networks to learn which faculty should be avoided. The futility of seeking redress through Columbia’s procedures was one of the major reasons that graduate workers started the fight to unionize 7 years ago. Tellingly, Columbia’s team does not dispute that harassment and discrimination are a big problem at Columbia and does not deny that under-reporting of harassment and discrimination is a systemic issue. We listened to the Deans express sincere desires to change Columbia for the better, but with one catch: they won’t consider any change that would allow a neutral arbitrator to hold them accountable.

This week Columbia’s team brought in Jeri Henry, the Vice Provost of EOAA, to talk to us about Columbia’s procedures. She emphasized Columbia’s improving their response to harassment complaints and cited the expansion of her office from 3 people to a dozen employees over the last ~15 years as evidence of Columbia’s dedication. Henry told us how proud she was of the speed with which complaints get resolved (most by 90 days), insisting that the complainants themselves were responsible for delays. In contrast to the student worker testimonials we shared, Henry feels that EOAA is unbiased, thorough, and fair.

During our questioning we were able to clarify several facts:

  1. Columbia’s EOAA is unable to address instances of power-based harassment or cases where the complainant cannot prove that the motivation for misconduct is identity-based. Henry herself stated that she is well aware of how pervasive power-based harassment is, and she said there ought to be multiple pathways to resolution. In Henry’s own words, ‘If you want to empower the victim, give them options.’ That is exactly what our proposal would do: provide an additional option to pursue a complaint through grievance and arbitration, a neutral and legally-binding process that is not completely controlled by the University.

  1. The EOAA neither decides nor enforces consequences for misconduct. If they find the accused guilty at the end of the investigation, they may make a recommendation, but the decision whether and how to discipline always resides with the administration. It does not matter how professional and unbiased the EOAA is, because they do not have the power to make decisions. Columbia’s administration retains all decision-making powers, proving that this cannot be a neutral process.

  2. When students are unsatisfied with the outcome of their investigation and threaten to sue, Columbia hires expensive for-profit private companies to intervene before the issue can go to litigation. The EOAA has no role in this process and does not recommend or decide when third-party mediators are involved. The third-party that Columbia hires advertises that “by using [their] services, universities will ultimately save on litigation costs and preserve donor relationships by avoiding publicly mishandled Title IX cases.” Clearly Columbia has no problem using outside systems in addition to the EOAA office to solve complaints—they want complete control over when to use them and whom to hire. Columbia would rather hire a firm whose priority is maintaining Columbia’s image rather than provide another option for real recourse for student assistants. It’s worth noting that these private companies profiting from campus harassment and assault are widely criticized.

We argued that arbitration with union support provides an outcome that graduate workers can trust to be neutral. Not only will this encourage more people to come forward with complaints, but it will hold Columbia accountable in a way that nothing inside the University’s system can. Most importantly, union-supported arbitration will be equitable and encourage diversity and inclusion. Right now, many students at Columbia see a lawsuit as the only path to real recourse. Columbia does get sued—there have been numerous complaints lodged with the Office of Civil Rights and dozens of lawsuits over the last few years. If the only student workers who can protect themselves are the ones who have the resources to weather and finance a lawsuit, then the inequality gap at Columbia will only increase.

The University’s team dismissed our arguments, saying that labor arbitrators are not competent enough to be trusted by Columbia to preside over these cases. Nevermind that we have already agreed that the Union and the University will pick mutually acceptable arbitrators for the final step of our grievance procedure. Instead, the Deans asked us to come up with some other way to work to improve Columbia’s approach to addressing discrimination and harassment. This sentiment completely devalues the variety of grassroots efforts that have already been undertaken by Columbia students and ignored by the administration. For example, Columbia students led the No Red Tape effort to remove the policy that disallows complainants to record their Title IX investigatory interviews. We asked Henry if the University still implements and enforces this gag policy, and she said (contrary to the standard in Federal and NYS law), complainants who make recordings of their investigation interviews will be punished. This policy is yet another way that Columbia avoids accountability and refuses to address the problem of under-reporting of discrimination and harassment.

Columbia’s administration wants us to trust them to do the right thing. However, accountability is essential to improving the climate on campus, and the only way we see getting accountability is through neutral and binding arbitration. This is not an unusual demand; it is a standard feature of almost all labor contracts, including many graduate worker union contracts. We know that being able to pursue complaints through grievance and arbitration will not change the system overnight, but we believe it is an important step towards getting to real recourse. Nonetheless, Columbia is unwilling to cede power. We will continue advocating for real recourse at the bargaining table. In the meantime, we want our union members to think about the power we already have—our collective power—and how we can wield this to win protections for ourselves and future student workers at Columbia.