Editorial Board: Stanford’s ‘second class citizens’

March 1, 2018, 1:43 a.m.

“…With the extreme affordability challenges enveloping the Bay Area, the submissions revealed a substantial impression of being ‘second class citizens’ among large parts of the Stanford community: notably postdocs, staff, and non-tenure-line educators. Submissions related to affordability are not only asking for help in accessing housing; they are also noting that [sic] current policies create the impression that the institution does not value the contributions of these communities.” —Page 5 of white paper C1

As part of the long-range planning process, all members of the Stanford community were encouraged to submit proposals for the future of the University, and their contributions were summed up in groups of white papers — in categories like research, education and sustainability.

Throughout the white papers, a motif of “second-class citizen” popped up again and again. In the quote above, the housing crisis’ impact on postdocs, staff and non-tenure-line educators is highlighted. But these groups receive less resources and attention than students in many more ways than just housing.

Take postdocs, for example. Postdocs, or postdoctoral fellows, are researchers pursuing research, training or teaching to prepare for a life in academia after receiving their Ph.D. In 2017, there were 2,312 postdocs at Stanford — more than the student population of any undergraduate class. Of those postdocs, only 115 live in Stanford housing (4, C1) and since 2010, the number of postdocs at Stanford has grown by 39 percent (2, C8).

The University has largely overlooked the needs of postdocs in spite of their large population on campus. For starters, they have no representation in student government. If you are a postdoc, you are not defined as part of the graduate population according to Graduate Student Council (GSC) bylaws and are not eligible to run for a position on the GSC. There is an Office of Postdoctoral Affairs that oversees postdocs at Stanford, but this office is not the same as top-level administrative positions that advocate for their student body, like VPUE or VPGE. Without a voice in student government or even a centralized mailing list, how do postdocs communicate the needs of their community?

The Provost’s Advisory Committee on Postdoctoral Affairs is a step in the right direction, but this group only meets four times a year, has just two postdocs on the actual committee and lacks the power to enact policy decisions. White papers from the long-range planning process are one of the few chances we have to understand, directly from postdocs, their needs and wants.

And there are many needs left to be addressed. 40 percent of postdocs are women, but less than 3 percent are underrepresented minorities (11, C3). In proposal 389, someone wrote, “there are currently ~35 black postdocs on campus, and these postdocs can go days or weeks without seeing somebody who looks like them.” The hiring of postdocs on a case-by-case basis by individual faculty is a practice, one proposal noted, that “does not encourage diversity” (9, E9).

Additionally, postdocs hold an ambiguous and undefined status at Stanford. With decentralized housing, postdocs are spread out across the Bay Area without any community center or way of meeting one another — most are strangers.

And, even on campus, they have unclear rights — postdocs are able to audit classes, yet lack many of the resources that students enjoy. They have access to some healthcare benefits, yet lack retirement benefits. While they are primed for entry into academia, there is little emphasis on generalized professional training that could be hugely beneficial to postdocs, especially as a greater number find jobs outside their area of specialty and outside academia. Several proposals suggested that postdocs be recruited through a centralized program instead of being individually courted by professors. Such a program would also track postdoc placement and lead professional training efforts, focusing on written and oral communication skills.

Postdocs help make Stanford the elite and flourishing institution that it is, from teaching classes to undergraduates to working on cutting edge research in labs and publishing papers. The amount of time and effort that postdocs put into Stanford should be matched with the same level of institutional support. As one proposal noted, Stanford’s support for postdocs should be “commensurate with the contributions they make to Stanford’s success” (7, E5).

While it may be unreasonable to expect Stanford to provide the same guaranteed on-campus housing for postdocs as for undergraduates, the University must do a better job supporting these underrepresented and often invisible scholars. The issues highlighted above are not only relevant to postdocs, but also to other unseen members of the Stanford community: untenured teaching faculty, grad student spouses and other marginalized communities without centers or a voice. Although the needs of each individual group may be different, widespread issues of housing, benefits and lack of representation apply to all.

In order to address these rising issues, the white papers raised several actionable solutions: including postdocs on the GSC, rethinking Stanford’s land-use policies, providing resources for professional development, creating a community center for postdocs and students with families, educating faculty on implicit bias and diversity. It is vital that postdocs have some sort of political representation so that issues can be publicized and addressed as they arise.

Further, Stanford’s campus includes a shopping mall, an 18-hole golf course and an off-site facility in Redwood City, yet cannot fully house its student population. Even if it is unlikely that every single graduate student be housed on campus, the University must provide more support for students struggling to find housing as Stanford continues to buy land in neighboring areas.

Creating a community center for the postdoc cohort will help establish a stronger sense of community and ensure that people going through similar struggles will have a local space to rely on for support. A petition for one such proposed center, the Family Resource Center for postdocs and students with their families, has 500 signatories and would allow for professional development and other educational opportunities (10, C1). Further, providing education for faculty on implicit bias will help affect the diversity of the postdoc candidates.

The long-range planning process was a special opportunity for sidelined groups at Stanford to make their concerns known. But we should not wait for another long-range planning project to listen to these voices — the onus is on the Stanford community at large to leverage existing platforms to hold the administration accountable for these issues. The GSC could keep an eye on postdoc issues. Undergraduates could listen more closely to the non-tenure line faculty who teach PWR classes and staff residential dorms. Inclusivity should be a bottom-up effort as much as it is an administrative push.

We urge that the Stanford community continue to press on these demands and other issues that have surfaced in the white papers. We hope that the administration will take action to solve these issues, because no one deserves to feel second-class and policies make more impact than promises.

Editorials represent the views of The Stanford Daily, an independent newspaper serving Stanford and the surrounding community. The Daily's Editorial Board consists of President and Editor-in-Chief Hannah Knowles '19, Executive Editor Fangzhou Liu '19, Managing Editor of Opinions Regan Pecjak '18, Senior Staff Writer Samantha Wong '18 and Opinions columnist and Managing Editor of Graphics Josh Wagner '20. To contact the Editorial Board, submit an op-ed (limited to 700 words) at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor (limited to 500 words) at [email protected].

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