Letter to the Editor: Tulane does not care about its graduate student workers

Sarah Mellman

On Wednesday, Aug. 26, I publicly resigned from my position as the Graduate and Professional Students’ Association’s Uptown Vice President after orating the following letter in GAPSA’s annual meet-and-greet with President Mike Fitts. My response below directly answered Fitts’ question that he asked the GAPSA executive council members present: “Who are you, and how are you feeling?”

“Good afternoon, President Fitts, Dr. Osteen and those present. Thank you for being here.

My name is Sarah Mellman, and I am a third year Anthropology Ph.D. student in the School of Liberal Arts. I also earned my M.A. in Latin American Studies from the Stone Center in 2017.

In addition to serving as GAPSA’s Uptown Vice-President, I serve as a Graduate Studies Student Association (GSSA) representative and am the President of the Tulane Anthropology Graduate Student Association.

This is my fifth year affiliated with Tulane University. Based on all of my experiences thus far at this institution, I do not believe that you or any upper level administrator really care how I am feeling. If you cared how I am feeling, you would not be holding this meeting today, the day that a hurricane is hitting Louisiana in the same week as Katrina’s 15th anniversary. If you cared how I’m feeling, you would have known about and planned for this meeting in advance. If you cared how my graduate student colleagues and I are feeling, you would have planned in advance of reopening to conduct a graduate needs assessment survey and prepared to address our needs.

The university this semester has counted on underpaid and overworked graduate students to work as teaching assistants, research assistants and instructors of record in order to reopen the university. Y’all decided that whoever falls at the bottom of the university hierarchy is simply going to have to work harder for the sake of the ‘Tulane community’ with no added support, pay or benefits. I am tired. We are tired.

It is only the second week of this shortened and very intense semester, and we are already burning out. The university’s pressure for us to work harder is taking a toll on our mental health, our physical health and those of our communities.

Too much is being asked of my colleagues and me. You ask us to give more and more and more without offering us any support with which to do it. We need mental health support. We need to see evidence that the university cares about us. What is happening to graduate students at Tulane is inhumane and unsustainable.

Wake up and stop treating graduate students as if we are disposable. I am not disposable. My friends and colleagues are not disposable.

I am tired of donating my intellectual, mental, and emotional labor to do your work for you. I am now going to reclaim my time and leave this meeting so that I can establish healthy boundaries around my own mental wellness.”

From my position as the token graduate student representative on Tulane’s reopening subcommittees over the summer, I observed an institutionalized, insidious and ultimately cruel indifference to graduate student needs and concerns as they relate to the pandemic and the university’s reopening. For five months, I virtually met with my constituents and shared their fears and concerns about reopening with administrators via the proper student government channels of communication. Verbally, administrators assured me that they care.

It is said that actions speak louder than words. Not only has the Tulane administration not substantively acknowledged my constituents’ concerns or endeavored to address them, but they have misappropriated my knowledge, insight and information about the graduate student body in order to perpetuate harm against us. When I would communicate a graduate student concern, the administration would rush to release a deceptive PR statement or hold a symbolic graduate student webinar where none of our questions were meaningfully answered.

Since March, Tulane administrators have reactively worked to quell my concerns instead of proactively including graduate student voices in their decision-making processes. By pretending to care while actively ignoring our concerns, the university intentionally misleads us into believing that they will act to address our demonstrated needs. Emails from President Fitts, like his thank-you note sent on Aug. 28, call for the unity of a fictional “Tulane family.” Tulane is not a family. It is a workplace that perversely manipulates its second-class graduate students by indenturing them as teaching assistants, research assistants and instructors of record. In order to maintain good standing, these graduate student workers must make intolerable personal and professional sacrifices for the sake of the first-class students who pay tuition. Fitts’ hypocrisy is glaringly obvious for anyone who works with or is familiar with graduate student labor at Tulane. This institution does not care about its graduate student workers. Our physical and mental health are collateral damage in the university’s reopening plan.

My unique perspective as a graduate student government representative overtly pressured to silence my dissent and act in lock-step with the administration is important. Undergraduates and their families deserve to know how my graduate student colleagues and I are being treated by the institution of which they are so proud.