To protect the identities of graduate student workers, those who wish to stay anonymous have been identified using first-name pseudonyms, which are marked with an asterisk.
For someone used to long days working alongside janitors, airport workers and food service employees in unions in New York, it was easy for Sara Trongone to discount the concerns of graduate workers.
Trongone started a career in labor organizing soon after graduating from college. She did not come from an academic family and had a “typical outsider perspective,” seeing Ph.D. programs as places of privilege or golden gateways into stable careers where students get paid to learn. Not only did she have no intention of entering academia, Trongone did not expect to organize on a college campus.
Now, Trongone is involved in both of those endeavors, as a third-year graduate student working toward a doctorate in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s sociology department and as co-president of the Teaching Assistants’ Association.
“What I realized, as a totally naive person entering academia not knowing what to expect, is that there’s a lot of talk on campus about universities as more inclusive, diverse, accessible places,” Trongone said. “It’s open in some respects, but to a very uncertain and precarious future where there’s very few supports ... For a lot of people, (it’s) a lot of emotional hardship, persistent harassment, persistent feelings of mismatch between identity and culture.”
When Trongone arrived at UW-Madison, graduate student workers had no legal union status. Since losing collective bargaining rights under Act 10, the legislation championed by former Gov. Scott Walker in 2011, the TAA was operating under an informal university commitment to its prior contract, which promised the university “will not make any changes without consultation and discussion.”
It was not until May 2019 that the Graduate Assistantship Policies & Procedures explicitly outlined workplace protections for teaching assistants and project assistants. On Tuesday, UW-Madison released an updated version of GAPP affecting research assistants. Together, TAs, PAs and RAs comprise over 80% of graduate student employment at UW-Madison.
In October, the Wisconsin State Journal published an investigation into abusive former Electrical and Computer Engineering professor Akbar Sayeed, whose seventh-year student John Brady died by suicide in 2016. Students became increasingly vocal, rallying to demand that Sayeed be banned from returning to campus, and departments started coming together under the urgency of preventing another similar tragedy.
While GAPP was largely the product of collaboration with student representatives, several students interviewed said the nature of their employment still requires more robust solutions and seats at the table. As student employees’ relationship with the university continues to fray, TAA co-president Robert Christl said the union’s priorities remain what they have been all along — a greater commitment to shared governance and tangible protections from workplace abuse or overwork.
“After Act 10, a lot of administrators were willing to meet with TAA representatives and offer a list of concessions to make it seem as if they were still including graduate workers in crafting policies,” said Christl, a fifth-year graduate student studying history. “For a couple years after Act 10, no one had started to ask those existential questions.”
In a university statement, spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said that “all members of our campus community deserve to be treated with respect.”
“The university has employment, grievance and appeals policies that provide important protections when raising concerns about faculty members,” McGlone said. “In addition, the university has campus-wide policies against hostile and intimidating behavior and retaliation. We encourage graduate students and postdocs to use these resources.”
With no way of vetting possible advisors from 8,000 miles away, international student Diane* simply chose a professor in her humanities department through the UW-Madison website.
But before beginning her first semester in 2016, Diane quickly learned that her advisor would be absent conducting research abroad as she began pursuing her doctorate. Throughout a year of long-distance, minimal contact and a strained relationship when he returned, Diane became sleep-deprived and anxious.
She felt she never had adequate instructions and regularly disappointed him with mediocre work. Once, she mentioned to her advisor that she was afraid of receiving his reprimanding emails. In his response, he acknowledged his reputation as a tough professor, but that “my students go on to find jobs.”
“Even if we had a meeting, it would be very vague, and he would make me feel very stupid for asking the questions I should ask to know what I should do,” Diane said. She added in an email that “most of the time I was not even sure what I was supposed to do while my whole life depended on doing it right and doing it well.”
While Diane was not yet sure of her career aspirations, earning a Ph.D. was a personal goal. Her advisor seemed to disagree. Like many professors, he viewed a doctorate as a gateway into academia and implied she would not need a Ph.D. to teach in her home country.
“I don’t think any professor should make that decision for me,” Diane said. “Whether I need a Ph.D. or not is none of their business … Who are you to decide that?”
Former graduate student Lauren Ayers, who was dropped from her program in 2018 by history professor Bill Cronon, said she also felt she was taken less seriously for not being interested in an academic career. Like Diane, Ayers sensed that her advisor was never satisfied with her work. He called her by the wrong name, even after four years, and she cried regularly after their meetings.
But she never thought she would be unable to finish the program. Cronon offered her flexible ways of working through her degree when she was diagnosed with a chronic illness, and she received two years of government funding for her dissertation. So, when she was dropped as unfit to continue the program after presenting her dissertation prospectus, she was “flabbergasted.”
“One person has a lot of power and more students should be aware that a shitty advisor can destroy your graduate career and make it very difficult for you to even stay in the discipline,” Ayers said. “These people are all well-intentioned. (But) they’re policing the boundaries of these disciplines. They’re policing what it means to be a historian.”
Ayers entered “the lowest point in my life in years,” including two years in mental health treatment. Diane experienced intense suicidal thoughts. Both students lost their financial livelihoods, professional references and years of hard work because one person can be the “gatekeeper” of their students’ degrees, Ayers said.
With 60 days to find a new program or leave the country, Diane found staff and administrators who helped her transition to a new master’s program, where she now feels much more supported and comfortable. Ayers was unable to find a new advisor.
“Everyone’s hands are tied,” she said. “So many people are connected to him and have professional working relationships with him that they’re not gonna help one of his students, one of his rejected students.”
Five months after leaving the university, she moved to Milwaukee for a job at a law firm and recently returned to Madison.
Cronon said in an email statement that a department rarely, and only after “much feedback and opportunity to improve,” asks a student to leave.
“Mentoring graduate students has been among the greatest privileges of my 38-year career. I've advised dozens of dissertations, and I work hard to help all my students succeed,” Cronon said. “I have nothing but sympathy for the hard feelings a student might experience toward me and the university in the wake of such a decision.”
McGlone said students are “entitled to clear information from their advisor about academic expectations and their progress toward their degree.” She added that students are also able to reach out to people in and outside their programs for help or change advisors.
But when powerful, tenured professors are the problem, it can be difficult for faculty — let alone students — to speak out.
Alyssa Franze, an English instructor and president of the United Faculty and Academic Staff union at UW-Madison, said even normally outspoken professors fear intimidation or retaliation “when it comes to issues like grievances or overwork or abuse within their departments that involve their own colleagues.”
“Ultimately, the decision makers are people who are very removed from the everyday experiences of people filing grievances, and they have a lot of power,” Franze said.
In April 2017, UW-Madison Graduate School Dean William Karpus and Laurent Heller, vice chancellor for finance and administration, charged the GAPP working group with codifying the first written protections for graduate student workers since Act 10. The committee included two representatives from the human resources staff, two graduate school staff representatives, one from the College of Letters and Science and one from the College of Engineering, in addition to four representatives through the Associated Students of Madison. All four of those seats were filled by TAA members.
Meetings took place every other week. By May 2018, the committee had completed a final draft to be circulated to schools and colleges, which greenlighted them in December with one exception: The unique nature of research assistant work warranted a separate set of policies “appropriate to their academic mission and standing,” Karpus said in an interview. The first iteration of GAPP would only cover teaching and project assistants.
“The RA position is much more results-driven and not time-driven. An RA appointment is a mixture of work, employment and educational aspects,” Karpus said. “It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to disaggregate work from the educational part of the experience.”
Throughout this process, TAA committee members and administrators homed in on finalizing GAPP’s grievance procedure, and co-presidents Trongone and Christl checked in regularly with Karpus. They received periodic updates but were uninformed about the decision to separate research assistants and “totally in limbo” about the draft’s status, Trongone said.
“They’re chummy, they’re nice. You ask about their kids, they ask about how your time to degree is going,” Trongone said about the meetings. “And then you eventually get down to business and say, ‘Hey, when’s GAPP coming out?’ … And then just nothing. Every single time.”
Karpus said in an email statement that the university stuck to its commitment to consult multiple campus stakeholders: “This type of consultative process takes time and process isn’t always linear. … We believe the end result is policies that are clear and fair and will serve graduate students and the institution well going forward.”
The TAA was left “with no choice but to act like a union,” Trongone said. On April 5, 2019, students held a sit-in at Bascom Hall, but heard no updates. On April 26, which Trongone describes as a turning point in their relationship with administrators, she and Christl invited other students to a meeting to heighten demands.
Karpus physically pushed a student out of the doorway and administrators showed “no interest in any lines of communication,” Trongone said. University Police escorted students out and Karpus later apologized to the student over email. He said in an email statement that the TAA’s intent did not seem to be to “engage in good-faith dialogue but rather to occupy the office.”
About a month later, UW-Madison published GAPP online without notifying graduate students.
TAA secretary Keo Corak, a fifth-year plant breeding and plant genetics Ph.D. student who joined the committee in 2018, said the policies were largely in line with expectations. Yet students were surprised to see that they only covered project and teaching assistants, especially after the original GAPP charter covered “all graduate assistant appointments.”
“Speaking personally, the largest absence in the policies or the associated communication is a real clear commitment to disseminating the policies and procedures in a way that is accessible to graduate students,” Corak said.
Then, in November, Trongone received a department-wide email from a faculty member who had been asked for input about the RA draft. For the TAA, which had no idea such a draft was in progress, Christl said it was a moment of “surprise and frustration,” and students immediately tried gathering as many research assistants’ input as possible.
Administrators scheduled two November meetings with student representatives, which were open to the public, but “open in the loosest sense of the term,” said Physics Graduate Student Council president Susan Sorensen.
“They’ve been things I’ve heard through the grapevine, through students. They weren’t advertised. I couldn’t find room numbers,” Sorensen said. “Whether or not it’s intentional, it feels isolating … If you’re trying to help graduate students, why wouldn’t you open that line of communication?”
TAA members said they did not know the meetings were open before asking for clarification at the first gathering. And when TAA leadership reached out to Karpus, Heller, Chancellor Rebecca Blank and HR strategy lead Patrick Sheehan with a request to resume regular GAPP meetings in October, they received no response.
In early December, Sheehan sent out a call for feedback about the draft, saying he would send out an updated version “as soon as possible.” Despite email requests, ASM and TAA representatives did not receive this draft and administrators did not agree to their request to extend the comment period further.
On Dec. 6, graduate students gathered at Engineering Hall for a rally organized by the Electrical and Computer Engineering Graduate Student Association to honor the life of John Brady.
After the State Journal reported that Sayeed had compared his students to “monkeys” and “slaves,” regularly yelled at them and fostered a lab environment of “exploitation,” students demanded that UW-Madison open a new investigation. The university had previously determined Sayeed violated its hostile and intimidating behavior policy and put him on paid leave, but he will return in an administrative position this spring.
“Most graduate students are doing okay. Most faculty want the same thing we want – for us to be happy and healthy and successful and protected,” Sorensen said at the rally. “But when it comes to student safety, most of us is not enough.”
Though students can report abuse through the university’s hostile and intimidating behavior policy, Corak said GAPP does not adequately outline graduate workers’ duties. Some often report being asked to babysit or do laundry, which Corak said especially affects new, unassuming students who are unsure what constitutes appropriate work.
The day the State Journal published its investigation, Provost Karl Scholz sent an email urging students to report any hostile and intimidating behavior to directors of graduate study, department chairs, deans or the Dean of Students Office. The university grievance procedure, as outlined in GAPP, follow the same order.
Students, however, express doubt about bringing up complaints within departments. Sorensen said in an email that “unless I could I could be confident that the person I was talking to had been trained on how to protect me from retaliation,” she would not feel comfortable confiding in them.
Planning and landscape architecture professor Kurt Paulsen said the task of protecting graduate students or offering additional supervisor training often falls on individual departments.
“On-the-ground implementation is going to be highly variable across departments,” said Paulsen, a UFAS member. “Their interface is with the department, and departments may or may not have adequate staff or resources to handle some of these more complicated HR issues.”
Some students doubt that implementing better policies would even have tangible effects. Steve*, who completed a science doctorate in 2017, said he has a “hard time believing” his advisor would have followed any policies outlining stronger workplace protections.
When Steve first entered his department, he, like many other first-year graduate students, was eager to work under a famous, long-tenured professor. She was known for propelling students into strong careers at the cost of very strict, rigorous mentorship. Though older students warned him, Steve said her track record made it seem worth it.
In retrospect, it became a “sunk-cost fallacy.”
“You find yourself a few years into graduate study with her and you’ve already gone through a few years and it’s pretty horrible and you don’t want to leave at that point,” Steve said. “The idea is that you work for her, you suffer for five years and then you get a good job out of it.”
Not unlike many STEM students, Steve and his peers worked many days of 12 or more hours and frequently on weekends. His advisor remains known for holding hours-long meetings on the weekends, “basically an excuse to make people work an extra day.” If you weren’t sleeping, you were expected to be working, he said.
In an email statement, the professor said weekend meetings help facilitate collaborations among a large research group and that she accommodates those who cannot attend.
“I am committed to providing my students with support and opportunities to succeed,” she said. “The work we engage in is demanding but we also have time for friends and family and other interests. Without proper work/life balance, it is not possible to carry out first-rate research.”
Graduate students “fought hard” to remove language from past RA drafts that says work hours are neither binding nor grievable, Corak said. Language in the GAPP update reflects this progress, providing guidelines about “inappropriate” work duties and weekly hours. A footnote, which Corak had been hoping for, specifies a full-time appointment as a 40-hour week.
Still, TAA publicity committee member Anna Meier said in an email that it lacks a university-wide grievance procedure that goes beyond individual supervisors and departments.
“This is incredibly concerning, as it creates uneven policies across campuses and raises questions about the ability of supervisors to neutrally evaluate their own behavior,” Meier said.
Even without a quantified upper limit of hours, students who feel they are being overworked can pursue GAPP’s employment grievance pathway and “see where that takes them,” Karpus said. The process will decide whether the concerns fall under employment or academic policy.
He added that all students’ first line of recourse should be the Dean of Students’ Office, which can triage complaints and circumvent inner-department intimidation.
Trongone responded that counseling a student to initiate a formal process without defining reasonable work doesn’t legally hold water. If the risk “is that their career is ruined, I don’t think anyone’s gonna take that chance.”
“RAs are so willing to compromise on this that they’ve said, ‘Can you please put into writing an acknowledgement that we’re not supposed to go over 40 hours a week?’” Trongone said. “We’re happy to double our working time even though we’re technically part-time employees. .... That just makes my blood boil.”
While Diane was able to successfully transfer out, students in her department continue to encounter similar challenges. In November, a student wrote in a letter to the program’s dean that the same professor, who overworked and discontinued other advisees, abuses his power to “silence,” “belittle” and drive away students and faculty.
The dean said in an email that, since receiving the letter, he has begun meeting with students and staff who have concerns and will fully pursue any formal complaints if they arise. The professor also said in an email that the accusations are “surprising and disheartening.”
“In my 32 years as a professor, I have been committed to advancing equity, diversity and justice,” he said. “I have taken great satisfaction and pride in successfully advising more than a dozen Ph.D. students, about half men and half women, including international students, all of whom have gone on to fulfilling professional careers.”
Coming to a new country, Diane said access to public information about potential advisors would have offered “more of an idea of what I was getting into.” Low-cost efforts, such as tracking professors’ attrition rates or allowing for anonymous advisor reviews, would help prevent similar situations, she said.
Though graduate students remained in the dark about the RA draft’s status, until Tuesday, Trongone said she was glad to see that later iterations dropped the requirement of submitting a written request to a supervisor before formally initiating a work duty-related grievance.
In the meantime, students like Sorensen have worked to address problems at the department level. In physics, she said, groups like the Physics Graduate Student Council and Gender Minorities and Women in Physics have eased the requirements of an overly strict qualification exam and started peer and faculty mentoring programs. They look to departments like chemistry, which developed a climate survey, for ways to alleviate fears about an advisor’s influence in a department.
The most obvious route to faculty support is training, which landscape architecture professor Paulsen said has improved in recent years but remains insufficient when the burden of reporting still lies on students.
“If we want to honor the principle of shared governance but deny shared governance for graduate workers ... that’s inconsistent with our values,” Paulsen said. “I certainly don’t have all the answers, nor should faculty be in a position of deciding what the answers are. I don’t think we should have faculty or administrators being the only ones to decide.”
Ultimately, he called himself a “flawed spokesperson” and said students are best equipped to advocate for themselves.
Trongone’s biggest priorities now are not far off from her prior union experience. Moving forward, she plans to continue building relationships across the university — from food service workers to building trades — to improve policies and worker representation.
“Before we even get to the nitty gritty ... of the policy, give us a standing committee where graduate workers can talk to the administration about their everyday lives,” Trongone said. “Call it shared governance, call it meaningful worker voice … we just want to be able to sit down in a room and, every time these policies are revised, have some real voting power.”