A Message About Efforts to Unionize PhD Students

April 21, 2017

Dear PhD Students and Faculty,

I write to offer my perspective on the question of whether unionization is in the best interest of graduate education at Brandeis University.

In August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate students who engage in teaching at private universities, including Brandeis, may be considered to be both students and employees, and thus are legally able to choose to be represented by labor unions for the purpose of collective bargaining. Recently, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 509 petitioned the NLRB to represent Brandeis graduate students and started a process that will lead to a vote by our graduate students that is critically important to the future of graduate education at Brandeis.

I strongly believe that unionization is not in the best interests of our students, our graduate education, or the Brandeis community. This belief is based on three fundamental concerns: first, that unionization will inhibit individualized graduate student academic programs; second, that it will create a formal employer/employee relationship between faculty and students; and third, that it will compromise the university’s ability to work collaboratively with graduate students in a shared governance model.

If a union represents our graduate students at Brandeis, I believe there will be a negative impact on flexibility, individuality, and inventiveness as students and their faculty advisors seek to structure the academic environment. Each graduate student should be able to optimize opportunities for learning, teaching, research, service, and creativity. I believe that graduate students and their faculty committee and mentors are best able to make critical decisions regarding the components of each student’s graduate program without potential constraints imposed by collective bargaining agreements. The tailoring of individual plans of study is an essential part of the graduate program at Brandeis. These plans may involve internships, off-campus research, and many other experiences — plans of study are not one-size-fits-all — and may be difficult to develop if subject to a collective bargaining agreement.

Unionization would interfere with the mentor/mentee relationship that our faculty and graduate students now enjoy, which is central to the graduate student educational experience. Unionization would convert the student/teacher relationship to that of supervisor/supervisee, which is unduly formal and legalistic rather than personal and flexible, and is at odds with the strong academic partnership that is formed between students and mentors.

Graduate students are vitally important members of our community. I prefer that Brandeis deal directly with our graduate students, working collaboratively toward advancing learning and degree attainment, rather than working through a third party.

Brandeis is a much smaller and more intimate community than almost all our peer research universities. We admit very small numbers of the most highly qualified PhD students, and, while teaching is a critical part of the graduate experience, we do not rely on numerous assignments to staff our undergraduate courses. Our model relies on individual faculty/student relationships and individually tailored programs to maximize the student experience.

Brandeis supports the rights of workers to vote to organize. There are several employee unions on campus, and Brandeis is currently negotiating its first collective bargaining agreement with part-time faculty who are represented by the SEIU. However, I do not believe that unionization will enhance the graduate student experience.

If you are a graduate student eligible to vote in the upcoming union election, you may have already been contacted by the SEIU or may have talked about the election with your friends and colleagues. We are committed to ensuring free and open dialogue, and ensuring all potentially affected members of our community have the information they need to make decisions on this important topic. I encourage you to read the PDF of Frequently Asked Questions Regarding PhD Students and Unionization. The deans and I are available to discuss these issues further.

Most important, if you are eligible, I urge you to vote. Whether you vote and regardless of how you vote, you will be bound by the outcome of the election. This issue is critical to your educational experience, as well as the experience of all graduate students who succeed you.

Best regards,

Ron Liebowitz