Sunday, May 28, 2023

LETTER: MSU wrong to critique family choices of GEU members

I had offers of support from three other universities when I decided to come to Michigan State. My scores on the GRE were near perfect (I missed one math question). I had bachelor’s degrees in both biology and geological sciences. I received a very generous fellowship offer from MSU. Now, in my fourth year as a PhD student, my husband and I are expecting our first child, and I am closely following the proceedings of the GEU/MSU contract negotiations.

I am alienated by the language that the university bargaining team is using, both as a professional and, if you look forward about 3 weeks, as a parent. As a fellowship student who is close to graduating, the new contract will have little effect on me, but my own bottom line isn’t what makes it important.

According to the Graduate Employees’ Union blog, the university bargaining team “suggested we make hard decisions, adult decisions, about whether we choose to have children, and whether or not we choose to come to MSU if we already have families.” 

Academics are supposed to grow a thick skin. But when I perceive that the administration is critiquing my personal choices – implying that getting pregnant was not an “adult” decision, for example – I find it hard to take. 

I also dwell on the implication that the administration thinks it’s OK for this university to be a hostile environment for pregnancy and working motherhood. Is there ever a time when having a child is an easy choice, not an “adult decision,” especially for a female academic? I would have expected MSU to be more progressive than that.

Does MSU regret recruiting me as a fellowship student now that I'm pregnant? Because that would be a terrible thing to hear, but if it's the truth, say it to my face. And say it loudly: I want other young academic researchers to hear it from you, so that they know to go elsewhere for their education.

What I am hearing from the university is that I should choose between contributing to society, or reproducing. In other words, my potential contributions to hydrogeology are not so important that I should continue to pursue them, now that I’ve made the (childish?) decision to get pregnant. 

I am also hearing that any struggles I have with money couldn’t possibly stem from low wages, but must be a result of poor decisions (the “decision” to pay student loans, or to front the cost of the conferences I am expected to attend, perhaps?).

And the same must be true for my fellow graduate students whose salary is barely more than half of mine, and any new students I am expected to try to recruit. 

I see in my last E-mail from the GEU that the administration says to “stop asking for everything we already have only better, and…it is time to start making real adult life decisions.” For the moment, let us  set aside the condescension in that remark.

How is the university’s expectation to cut graduate students’ pay any more reasonable than the GEU’s request for an adjustment to keep up with the increasing cost of living in the coming years? Why is it rational for graduate students to expect their standard of living to decrease? 

How is it an adult life decision to accept the Hobson’s choice that the administration has presented, to increase both our salary and expenses, or accept reductions in both, no matter where that leaves us with respect to the poverty line?

I would say the only real adult decision is to fight for something better.

Erin Marie King Haacker is a doctoral student studying environmental geosciences. Reach her at

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