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Trustees and the Grinnell student union (or vice versa) (#1012)

Topics/tags: Grinnell

This weekend, Grinnell’s Board of Trustees had their winter meeting on campus [1]. Among the issues they discussed was the partial expansion of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers to include some other positions, such as the mailroom [2]. The Trustees voted not to permit the expansion. Michael Kahn ’74, Vice Chair of the BOT and Chair of the Trustee and Administration Working Group on the Expansion, also released a nice letter explaining their rationale. On Saturday afternoon, Board Chair David Maxwell ’66, Michael Kahn ’74, and Trustee Angela Onwuachi-Willig ’94, chair of the Trustee Task Force on Student Financial Support and Success, hosted a discussion session about the deliberations and decisions [3].

The session was not nearly as well attended as I had expected it would be. As far as I could tell, were fewer than a half-dozen students (although one was a union leader) a similar number of faculty, a similar number of trustees, and a bit more staff and administrators. A few factors may have led to the lower attendance. The prior announcement of the decision may have led some folks to feel that there was little point in attending. The Trustees had also just met with the union leadership [4] and that leadership was off meeting together, or perhaps with other students.

I’m glad I attended. While there’s a lot of detail in the original notification and the letter, it was helpful to hear a summary and some particularly important points. I appreciate their statement that Students shouldn’t have to negotiate to afford their Grinnell education [5]; that is, union bargaining should not be the thing that decides whether students can have enough money to thrive at Grinnell. I also sympathize with the suggestion that NLRB regulations can get in the way of productive conversations; I certainly felt limited in what I could say during the period in which the union had petitioned to the NLRB for full expansion.

Although the union lost this partial expansion bid, it does sound like they won in some ways. The Trustees noted that they expect to meet with the union leadership each time they are in town, just like they meet with the SGA leadership. I even think I heard them say that they’d tend to talk to the union, rather than the SGA, about issues of student employment. I have mixed feelings about that and raised them at the meeting. On the one hand, the union has played an important role in helping the Trustees understand the financial struggles many Grinnell students face and in raising issues of inequitable treatment of student workers. On the other, they are only tasked with representing one segment of the student-worker population. I did hear from the Trustees that they are also open to meeting with leadership from other student groups.

The Trustees seem very committed to helping all Grinnell students afford not only to attend Grinnell but also the other things that go with being a college student. They were very concerned that some students could not afford to go home, could not afford their textbooks, could not afford to eat when they stayed on campus during breaks [6].

What else did I hear? They repeatedly noted that Grinnell spends a greater percentage of its budget on financial aid than almost any other institution [7]. They seem committed to continuing to support the UGSDW, albeit only in its role of representing the student dining workers. They seem very proud that we have the first undergraduate-only union in the country.

I look forward to seeing what happens next.

Postscript: I had mixed feelings about writing and sharing this musing. Since so few people were there, it seemed good to share the information more broadly. I don’t think I’ve revealed anything private and the session was open to the campus community.

Postscript: It may not surprise you to hear that I asked the first question. George Drake commented that it wasn’t surprising. I didn’t ask about the union. Rather, I asked about something related to student work and affordability. More precisely, I asked about summer work. MAP stipends have not changed since 2012 or before. And students are expected to pay not only for their living expenses out of those stipends but also their expected contribution to their education. It’s even worse for students on Grinnell-supported internships. They get funding only for their living expenses and travel; nothing that they can use toward the expected contribution. I realize that the funding allows students to pursue unpaid internships without paying their own cost of living, but the need to come up with their expected contribution likely makes it less available to many students. I asked that the trustees revisit the idea of allowing high- and middle-need students to opt out of one or two summers of expected contributions. It sounds like they are already thinking about these kinds of issues. Dean Harris also noted that they are doing a study about who does and does not take advantage of these kinds of opportunities. I just hope that they’ll go beyond the basic data to include interviews; I know some high-need students who’ve taken advantage of opportunities, even though it’s stretched them financially.

[1] At least I think it was their winter meeting. I’m pretty sure that they are on campus once in the fall, once in the winter, and once in the spring. In some years, they also have extra retreats in the summer and winter.

[2] At least that’s what I think the expansion was supposed to include.

[3] Can I call her Potential Future President Onwuachi-Willig? I’d love to see her in that position. I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one.

[4] I think I heard someone say that the union leadership was not notified of that meeting before it was announced in an all-campus memo. As I’ve noted before, Grinnell needs to work on its communication.

[5] That quotation is approximate.

[6] We allow students to stay on campus during breaks, including winter break. I know that many institutions kick students out.

[7] Can you say that Berea, and other tuition-free institutions, spend a higher percentage on student financial aid? I’m not sure.

Version 1.0 of 2020-02-08.