Boston’s academic giants treat student workers poorly

Presidents of BC, BU, Harvard, and Northeastern need to step up

MORE THAN 10,000 student workers at Boston’s largest universities drive tens of millions of dollars to their employers. They teach classes, perform groundbreaking research, and help win lucrative federal grants. You would think their employers would protect their valuable employees. 

You’d be wrong. 

These multi-billion dollar universities do not treat these employees with the respect they deserve, even refusing to face them last month when the Boston City Council held a hearing on the plight of student workers. Harvard, Boston University, Boston College, and Northeastern were invited to testify and defend their treatment of the workers. Not a single one showed up.  

But hundreds of their workers did. 

Student workers not only provide invaluable services to their universities, but also are a critical part of our economy. They shop in our grocery stores, pay taxes, advance critical research, and create an ecosystem that attracts major employers looking for new talent. Their work not only upholds Boston universities’ reputations as elite institutions of higher education, but also helps brings in nearly 1.5 billion dollars in grants that fuel the universities and the local economy. 

The nature of graduate student work is often isolating and done in close consultation with faculty and professors who have enormous control and power over their work, grades, and future careers. The universities are notoriously bad at handling cases of harassment and discrimination against student workers. The severe power imbalance often makes student workers fearful of retaliation if they report mistreatment.  

Current processes are handled by employees of the universities, which pose inherent conflicts of interest, rather than a fair, neutral process that survivors can trust. That is why student workers need a process for reporting and resolving harassment and discrimination complaints, independent from their university’s administration. The City Council heard this clearly as women, people of color, and LGBT workers testified about their experiences on campus. 

Additionally, student workers face inadequate pay and healthcare, and no access to affordable childcare, which prompted them to join forces across universities and speak out. When I learned of the conditions facing this workforce, I called for a hearing at City Hall. 

This isn’t just a matter for student workers or the City Council. This is Boston’s fight. Our educational institutions are supposed to be good community partners. That is why they have non-profit status. But that means treating our communities and workers with respect. It means recognizing employees as human beings worthy of a living wage, health care, and protections against harassment and discrimination. When wages stay low, tuition goes up, expansion is constant, and payments in lieu of taxes go unpaid, where is the accountability to any party beyond university trustees? 

To the universities’ relief — and to our consternation — it appears President Trump may come to their rescue. Trump has appointed individuals to the National Labor Relations Board who do not respect graduate student workers as worthy of worker protections and are planning to strip graduate student workers of their right to collectively bargain. The same president has gone after Title IX protections university leaders are urging students to rely upon, personally harassed women, and persecutes immigrant populations. Is this really the person, and the values, that Boston’s universities want to align with?  

Rather than hiding behind Trump, the presidents of BC, BU, Harvard, and Northeastern should do what is right. They should come to the table and negotiate fair contracts with their student workforces that offer a living wage, healthcare, and protections from harassment and discrimination. 

These are basic demands, and how student workers are treated in our city is a reflection not just on the individual universities, but on our values as a community. BC, BU, Harvard, and Northeastern need to do better.  

Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards represents District One and previously worked as a public interest attorney, focusing on labor issues such as fighting for access to unemployment insurance and fair treatment for domestic workers.