Graduate student advocacy groups reflect on progress made, demands still unmet under Dean Mayo


Daily file photo by Catherine Buchaniec

Rebecca Crown Center, home of The Graduate School. Kelly Mayo assumed the post of TGS dean permanently on May 1.

Maia Pandey, Assistant Campus Editor

When Ph.D. student Sarah Peko-Spicer came to Northwestern in 2015, she worried about finding community as one of two Black graduate students in the statistics department. But the transition was not as difficult as she had anticipated, Peko-Spicer said.

“I remember finding this really thriving community of Black graduate students who were well supported by The Graduate School,” she said. “Many of us felt like TGS was a place that was really highlighting the successes of historically excluded students and constantly making space to celebrate them.”

Peko-Spicer attributed this environment, in part, to the work of former dean Dwight McBride, who left TGS in 2017 to become Emory University’s provost. Teresa Woodruff succeeded McBride, before leaving to become provost at Michigan State University. Dean Kelly Mayo, who has been at NU since 1985, then took over as interim dean and was appointed to the post permanently as of May 1. For some graduate student activists, his appointment is a promising change.

The environment of TGS shifted under Woodruff, Peko-Spicer said, prompting student backlash.

During Woodruff’s tenure, TGS reduced funding to the Queer Pride Graduate Student Association by 25 percent and did not solicit donations for Black Graduate Student Association, which reduced its budget by 42 percent. The school also discontinued Black History Month programming.

In Fall 2019, Peko-Spicer joined members of TGS to form CoalitionNU, a group advocating for graduate students of marginalized identities. The collective sent an anonymous letter to administrators laying out their demands, which included Woodruff’s removal as dean.

Along with cutting funding to affinity groups and events, the letter claimed Woodruff ignored graduate student-led advocacy efforts.

“Through Dean Woodruff’s tenure, TGS has placed greater burden on underrepresented graduate students to navigate inaccessible and inequitable campus environments and has shirked responsibility in perpetuating harm,” the letter said.

CoalitionNU has met with Mayo on a near-monthly basis since he began his term as interim dean, a significant improvement from Woodruff’s tenure, Peko-Spicer said. Still, their demands mostly hinge on increased funding, and TGS does not usually have the budget to address them, she added.

Northwestern University Graduate Workers, a student-led group pushing for the unionization of graduate students, has not seen as significant a shift in their interactions with Mayo as opposed to Woodruff, NUGW communications coordinator Benjamin Zucker said. 

The University does not recognize the graduate students’ union, so NUGW has never formally met with Mayo or any other senior administrators, they added.

“Plenty of us have respect for Dean Mayo and understand that he came into the interim position in an extremely challenging time,” Zucker said. “That being, we have not found anything that he has done to be in any way characteristically different of the broader administrative response (to NUGW).”

Ph.D. student Andrew Hull, NUGW unity committee chair and former co-chair, said while Mayo has never officially met with NUGW, the dean’s approach to Graduate Leadership and Advocacy Council and Northwestern University COVID-19 Committee meetings have been promising. 

“Many of the people who are in those meetings are NUGW members, and a lot of the survey data and research that provides these student leaders’ best arguments comes from NUGW,” Hull said. “The impression that a lot of people get when they interact with Dean Mayo is that he’s somebody who really does care a lot about grad students.” 

Mayo has been especially receptive to presentations about why graduate students should be granted a universal, one-year funding extension in light of the pandemic, Hull said.

As permanent dean, Mayo can use his influence to advocate for graduate students among other senior administrators, Hull added.

“I really hope that TGS becomes an advocate for grad workers to other sectors of the university — to the Board of Trustees or to the president of the University,” Hull said. “I think Kelly Mayo is the type of person who would be able to introduce that change.”

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