How can I speak out about issues that are important to me without jeopardizing my career?
Date: May 2019
I’m a PhD student and a member of my field’s national professional organization. My hope is to find an academic job and be a part of this organization for the duration of my career. Our annual conference this summer (at which I will present) is set to be held in the state of Georgia. I have found myself deeply troubled after the signing of the Georgia abortion law this month, coupled with the more recent signing of the Alabama abortion law.
I understand that abortion is controversial, but I also understand that one in four American women will have an abortion by their 40’s and I believe it is a fundamental right for all women in this country. These new laws horrify me and I view them as major threats to the advancement and autonomy of American women, including those like me in academia.
Through our annual conference, my professional organization will send thousands of people and millions of dollars to Georgia. I don’t expect my organization to pull the conference at this point, but I would like to see them take a stand or at least know that they have women in their organization who are threatened and angered by these laws. However, I feel that as a graduate student who doesn’t even have a job lined up, there is too much risk for me to speak directly to our organization’s leadership. What can I do?
Values-conscious Graduate Student
Dear Values-conscious Graduate Student,
Thanks very much for your Ask a Dean question. I appreciate the complexities of trying to reflect and live out your personal values in the context of your professional involvements. It’s not always easy (nor straightforward) to do that, especially as a junior member in the profession, and when there may be others (sometimes many others) in the organization with personal values different from your own.
I’m not familiar with the organizational structure nor operational nuances of your specific professional organization, but I’ll offer some suggestions for your consideration. There may be safety in numbers – for example, if your professional organization has a graduate student section or committee, you could contact the student section officers and express your concerns and inquire if the student section, as a group, might wish to develop a resolution or other expression of concern to send to the professional organization’s leadership. If the organization has a committee that focuses on policy, ethics, or political action, the student group might consider contacting the leaders of those committees to ask if they are considering making some type of statement to express concerns (for the meeting in Georgia or for future meetings) to direct the economic clout associated with hosting a professional meeting to locations that are more inclusive. Such resolutions by organizations are complicated, however, as you likely know, because the organization’s membership may be itself be divided on such issues.
Even the actions above, though, require you to make yourself and your views known to others in the organization. You could send anonymous notes of concern to the organization’s leaders, or to relevant subcommittees, but anonymous notes are likely to have less clout than coming from a registered member. You could choose to take personal action by boycotting the meeting (but that has potentially significant negative professional consequences), or by choosing to spend as little money as possible associated with the event (and thus benefiting Georgia). If you choose to take a personal action, you could do it privately, not letting anyone else know, or you could extend your impact by letting others with whom you feel safe in sharing that information know what you are doing and why. Alternatively, you could take personal action by writing a letter to the Governor of Georgia or to other key political leaders sharing your concern and indicating that in the future you (and likely others) may avoid traveling to the state if it continues to engage in the practices that run contrary to your values.
Earlier in my career, I experienced a somewhat similar situation. My scientific organization (professionally, I am in a branch of environmental sciences) was planning a conference in a southern state known for NASCAR (race car speedways). The local hosting group for the conference was planning an evening social to occur at a racetrack. During the planning discussion, I spoke against that idea, articulating that I did not believe putting our dollars into supporting such a facility reflected our scientific and professional mission and values. I was outnumbered, and the social event was held at the racetrack. I chose not to attend that particular event at the conference, and let others – the organization’s leadership as well as individual colleagues – know why I was making that choice. I experienced no negative repercussions. I recognize that I was at a different stage in my career at the time (as a junior faculty member, not a graduate student) than you are.
I hope these suggestions help. If you feel comfortable talking privately with any Cornell faculty who are members of the same organization as you, they may have other ideas for you to consider based on their familiarity with the group. And congratulations on having a presentation accepted for the meeting.
Barbara A. Knuth
Dean of the Graduate School