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Speaking Out

Special Attributes of Grad Study

Jerry Brigg's reduction of the vast variety of relationships between graduate students and their mentors to relations with "capricious, hectoring drillmasters" (Almanac January 28) suggests that he regards mentors as employers. This ignores their primary role in guiding the development of the neophytes' intellectual capacities and rigorous understanding of their chosen subject which involves specific, often very unique interactions of mentor, student and subject matter.

Each such relation is necessarily individual and may appear oppressive because of the rigorous demands of the mentor and the discipline, which must be accepted by the student if he or she is to succeed. In such a situation, union intervention would actually be the capricious element; from the inside of the academy such intervention could only be undertaken under most carefully defined circumstances, consistent with the requirements of academic freedom.

Recognition of these special attributes of graduate study does not of course solve problems relating to stipends and teaching obligations; these need an appropriate agency, perhaps similar to the Faculty Senate, based on a democratic electoral process, empowered to represent graduate student interests before both faculty and administration.

--Robert J. Rutman, Professor Emeritus,
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology,
School of Veterinary Medicine

Notes from Outside the Ivory Tower

As a doctoral student in the program that Dr. Wortham chairs, I have always admired the knowledge he brings to his subject as well as his wit and good-humor. However, I am surprised by his Pollyanna view of the University (Almanac February 11) as a value-free institution whose sole concerns are research, mentoring, and teaching.

The academic reputation of an institution like Penn is integrally tied to research, which is integrally tied to revenues. Mentoring and teaching play a distant second to research I institutions‚ never-ending search for increasingly elusive monies to maintain existing research projects and to pursue new ones that will garner prestigious awards and boost reputations (and rankings).

As federal grants dry up, research I universities have formed unabashed relationships with private corporations that have raised some uncomfortable questions about conflict of interest and the commitment to inquiry for the sake of inquiry. It has become almost commonplace for universities to conduct research on products that they themselves have a vested interest in. Sadly, I do not have to look far for an example.

In 2000, major news sources such as the Wall Street Journal and Time reported that James Wilson, principal investigator of the gene-therapy program at Penn in which Jesse Gelsinger died, held a 30% interest in Genovo, the company that held the rights to the drug Wilson and his team were studying. When Genovo was acquired by another corporation, Wilson stood to gain more than $13 million, and Penn $1.3 million for its shares.

I am sure that my esteemed professor would agree that this is a trend that began long before there was ever any talk of unionization for graduate employees on the Penn campus. And whether there is a union or not, it is a trend that promises to be around for a long time to come.

The point is not whether Professor Wortham agrees with GET-UP's fish metaphor. The fact of the matter is that as research I universities like Penn align themselves with corporate models, graduate employees at these schools are left with precious little recourse.

We simply want the assurance that our love for scholarship does not subject us to undue financial hardship. The University cannot promise us this. GET-UP can.

--Raymond Gunn, 4th Year Doctoral Student,
Educational Leadership Division, GSE

Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues will be accepted by Thursday at noon for the following Tuesday's issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated. --Eds.


  Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 22, February 18, 2003