Why don’t graduate students engage more at Stanford?
The answer is not that complicated.
It seems that the Stanford community as a whole is somehow at a loss to understand why graduate students remain a largely silent student majority — in terms of student leadership, committee engagement, or even survey responses. After an academic year spent meeting regularly with administrators to serve as an informational conduit, offering feedback on COVID-related issues and advocating for the graduate community, we feel prepared and compelled to answer this question by sharing some of the primary reasons graduate students do not readily engage in campus service and advocacy, as well as concrete ideas as to how Stanford could rewrite this script.
The Graduate Student Advisory Committee (GSAC) formed this time last year following the rollout of Stanford’s COVID response, which hit the graduate community heavily in part because it was not created with graduate student concerns in mind. It included the implementation of a punitively-worded Campus Compact threatening to bar students from campus and their work, and/or to remove them from their homes amidst a global pandemic, with no appeal process. Its implementation also further marginalized members of the graduate community by heightening campus policing measures — despite objections from students, faculty, and staff — leading to the further harassment of our Black community members. All of this resulted from Stanford’s policies directly, to say nothing of the personal and professional toll COVID took on everyone’s lives and livelihoods.
Despite this — or perhaps because of it — active graduate community engagement is more important than ever. Graduate students need a voice: in committees, in policies impacting us, and in the student government leading us.
Unfortunately, the message broadcast to the Stanford graduate population is that such engagement is not actually valued, unless and until it is relevant to our research and/or there is an emergency. Right now, graduate engagement comes at the cost of time and energy we need to complete required and supported activities.
We fully and heartily disagree with this model. Further, our interactions with administrators this year demonstrated how graduate student service and contributions are actually incredibly valuable on multiple levels: to them, to the graduate community, and to the University as an institution.
To reconcile this, it is useful to understand some of the impediments to engagement in committee work, student organizations, and campus leadership that graduate students have vocalized. While by no means exhaustive, here are some of those most often voiced:
Stanford culture assumes that graduate students = their research. This dehumanizes graduate students and leans on the assumption that all graduates want to research exclusively, thereby limiting any efforts at graduate-targeted outreach. This also offers a convenient excuse not to develop new avenues for reaching graduates.
There is no requirement in our contracts that we participate in service work. Graduate students are already overburdened with requirements essential to degree progress, but community service is — with the rare programmatic exception — not one of them.
Dismissiveness of our concerns further emphasizes that they don’t matter. Graduate students have vocalized concerns (like cost of living) for, quite literally, years now (actually for decades). Nothing has changed. Administrators dismiss these concerns, fail to affirmatively respond and/or offer little transparency on how decisions affecting graduate lives are made. Stanford’s decentralization allows for convenient finger pointing across offices, and the resultant radio silence response (or defensiveness) disincentivizes service. Further, successive negative interactions with administrators has become an all-too common experience for graduate community leaders — to the extent that engagement, even that invited by administrators, can feel like a waste of time.
The ASSU and its procedures align with undergraduate outreach almost exclusively. Despite efforts to involve graduate students in ASSU leadership, it remains disconnected from the graduate community. Graduate groups, listservs, etc. are not targeted when seeking student candidates (through the election or the Nominations Commission). Also, by and large, the current slate structure (restricting an executive slate to include exactly one president and one vice president, as opposed to sharing responsibilities across co-running mates) makes it virtually impossible for a graduate student to balance graduate level work with an executive leadership role. Offering flexibility in how positions are filled would provide more options for graduate participation, as would more proactive graduate targeting and transparency on processes, elections and engagement opportunities.
In light of these concerns, there are concrete ways that Stanford students, faculty, and staff can help encourage graduate involvement.
Graduate students: your voices are important, unsubstitutable and needed now more than ever. Consider applying to join a university committee via the Nominations Commission; join us for weekly GSC meetings on Wednesdays at 6 PM (live or virtually); run for positions in the ASSU or apply for the executive cabinet (no, it’s not just for undergrads and, yes, they make decisions that impact your life at Stanford — and these positions provide a stipend). Although changes may not happen overnight, engagement in your Stanford community offers the opportunity to address issues you care about and that impact you.
Administrators and faculty: support graduate students, recognize and discuss the import of service, and encourage engagement, a goal listed as part of the VPSA’s “most important work.”
In fact, here are a few specific ways that Stanford could proactively encourage graduate engagement:
Pay us for the time spent on committees. This would signal the importance of the work and help justify the time commitment, especially because it is not explicitly required or even actively encouraged for us to do. There is a fine line between service to community and exploitation.
Incentivize community service through fellowships or actively advertised awards. It signals the import and value of such service not only to students, but to advisors and program heads, as well.
Bring conversations about service to the forefront. Ask graduate students about the community engagement we’re involved in. Tell us about your service to the community and why it is valuable. Discussions about community engagement and service work highlight its role in academia. If you don’t talk about it, we won’t know.
Proactively celebrate graduate service within programs and departments. Simply hosting a panel of engaged students to discuss their experiences can be enough for new graduate students to envision how they, too, might balance research, courses, TAing, personal life and community involvement.
Offer support and training to educate growing leaders about leadership. That “student” is still part of our title does not mean we have the same availability as undergraduates, but it should signal that we’re still here to learn. While some programming does exist through VPGE workshops, these require students to seek it out instead of counting as part of our education (e.g., as credits or program requirements). Many graduate programs require students to present at conferences as part of their professionalization — imagine what Stanford might stand for if we all graduated prepared to be engaged community leaders?
All in all, graduate student voices need to be in these important community conversations. Higher education is not merely about the time spent in the classroom, though that is important. Even at an R1 university, graduate study is not exclusively about research. Sidestepping or ignoring issues facing one’s community will not resolve them.
Stanford’s culture needs to change. Graduate students need to rejoin campus conversations, but to do so, there also needs to be an affirmative, intentional effort — using or building upon the suggestions above — that validates and encourages that involvement. If Stanford wants to prepare the “leaders of tomorrow,” we need to start at home.
2020-21 Graduate Student Advisory Committee (GSAC)