Last Friday, on the 24th of February, a group of about 40 Caltech graduate students and postdoctoral researchers delivered a petition signed by over 400 of our colleagues, in support of an international graduate student. Facing unjust retaliatory action from the Institute, the student risks losing their graduate student status at Caltech permanently, and with it, their legal immigration status in the US. Fully unfurled, the petition stretched seven feet long. Organized by our nascent union campaign, Caltech Grad Students and Postdocs United (CGPU), we rallied in support of the petition’s main demand: to unconditionally and immediately reinstate the student into the graduate program.
The student, who is in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics (BMB) graduate option, repeatedly had others repurpose and take credit for their work. In June and July 2021, these experiences, combined with overwork and verbal abuse, eventually resulted in serious physical and mental health issues and several trips to the ER.
Despite these dire circumstances and injuries, the graduate office has done nothing to effectively intervene on the student’s behalf. Graduate students are often told that part of the Graduate Office’s role is to mediate student-advisor disputes, but the student’s grievances were not met with attempts at remediation. Instead, the student was required to take unpaid medical leave—or else graduate within two terms and lose the research credit and publications from their work over the past 4 years. While on leave, they lost access to the lab they worked in, their research records, data, and materials, and their stipend—all while faced with heavy medical expenses. At the direction of Caltech’s General Counsel, other students (including those who are part of the Graduate Student Council) have been barred from mediating on their behalf.
The urgency of this situation came to a head at the beginning of February. The Institute delayed the student’s re-enrollment for so long that their F1 visa status was allowed to lapse. Now, the student depends on an F1-OPT (optional practical training) visa extension to legally remain in the US. If not reinstated within the next 2 months, the student will lose their immigration status in the US. The exigency of this timeline, and the continued stonewalling by senior administration, spurred CGPU to take public collective action to demand accountability for a member of our own community.
The student’s situation is one that international scholars in the US are likely all too familiar with. Faced with the precarity of their immigration status and isolation from their support networks at home, they are often compelled to throw themselves into their work, in the hopes that being the ideal researcher leads to crucial continued support from their advisors. This leaves international scholars especially vulnerable in the already unequal power dynamics of advising relationships, with a recent study by Nature finding that international researchers are especially targeted with highly malicious forms of abuse. Too many international scholars are familiar with the feeling of deferring their own needs, health, and aspirations for the sake of building a life and career in the US. This case served as a grim reminder for us: no amount of exceptional scientific ability or deferential behavior to your advisor can or will guarantee your safety. For many of the international researchers that make up CGPU, this student’s case hits a deeply existential nerve: the truth is, this student could easily have been any one of us.
And yet, in the face of this reality, and in our recognition of our individual precarity, many of us find strength and not fear. If no amount of individual effort will ever grant us the safety we seek, then we will work together to make sure that we secure it. Our situation is already precarious, involvement in organizing notwithstanding. If we can be fired at a moment’s notice, if institutional safeguards fail us, if we are disposable once we no longer serve the Institute’s interests, then our most effective route to safety is clear: to collectively organize for our rights and protections.
Such acts of public protest are atypical at Caltech, despite many of us knowing of someone, or perhaps having faced, similar abuses of power during our time at the Institute. Unjust treatment is academia’s badly kept secret: many of us are compelled to keep quiet, whether through coercion, fear, or shame. The petition delivery and sit-in on February 24 was the culmination of weeks of planning, coordination, and outreach. We dedicated weeks to organizing for our colleague because we hope it marks a true turning point at Caltech. We will no longer tolerate what we see as continual institutional failure and silencing of our peers.
Our action joins the recent protests and campaigns organized in the past few years on the Caltech campus—Caltech for Affordable Healthcare, Caltech for Black Lives, and the Rally for Reproductive Justice among them. Organized action on the Caltech campus might be historically atypical, but these campaigns reflect the growing recognition that we must take collective action to effect meaningful change. We are also not alone in unionizing, in part, to better protect and support early-career researchers. Across the US, at institutions like MIT, the University of Southern California, the National Institutes for Health, and the University of Washington, researchers are unionizing and seeking contracts that protect from abusive conduct, unjustifiable workloads, and unfair termination. In the UC system, graduate researchers and postdocs have already organized on multiple occasions to protect international researchers from unjust termination. By setting the precedent with this student’s case, we hope that researchers at Caltech, like our peers at other institutions, will act in solidarity with their vulnerable colleagues.
In his 2022 Year End address, Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum wrote, “We pride ourselves at Caltech on an open-door policy for ideas and collaborations. The barriers to crossing disciplinary boundaries are low and the payoffs for original approaches are high…We have no compunction about seeking help from a student, postdoc, faculty, or staff member who may hold the key to discovery.”
In this spirit of communality celebrated by President Rosenbaum, we call on the rest of our colleagues to work towards building a Caltech that prioritizes the rights and well-being of everyone in this community. In organizing as a union, the barriers to crossing disciplinary or departmental boundaries to acknowledge our shared interests are low, and the payoffs of solidarity and collective action are high. No one should have to face what this student went through alone, and we want to ensure that no one else will. To achieve that, we have no compunctions about asking that the Caltech community rally around our colleague and stand resolutely in support of our cause.
Article co-authored by Abdullah Farooq (G5 Biology · International student), Fayth Hui Tan (G5 Biology · International student), Sam Ponnada (G3 Astronomy · International student), Nadia Suryawinata (G2 Biology · International student), Elisabetta Benazzi (Postdoc Chemistry · International scholar), Varun Wadia (G6 Biology · International student), Zitong Wang (G5 Biology · International student)