Faculty FAQs

All faculty are strongly encouraged to review the Unionization FAQs on graduate student unionization to become fully informed about this issue and to be able to engage in knowledgeable conversations.

What is the University’s position on graduate student unionization?

We believe that involving a third party, such as the union, may impede the mentoring and academic relationship we have with our students. Indeed, our relationship with our students is fundamentally different from that of an employer and employee. It is critical for our students to be able to engage with Graduate Faculty and staff independently and freely, and we are opposing the petition in order to protect those relationships.

Those graduate assistants in favor of unionization claim that their teaching activities at Penn State are primarily economic activities aimed at generating revenues for the University.  Penn State believes, on the other hand, that such activities are inextricably tied to their educational mission.  After all, it would cost Penn State considerably less to have others teach than to provide tuition awards and assistantship stipends to graduate students teaching in the classroom.  Penn State provides these financial awards and opportunities to graduate students to facilitate the attainment of their educational goals.

Penn State highly values the assistantship activities performed by its graduate students as an integral part of the research and teaching community of the University. Most importantly, those assistantship activities are most often the seminal component of students’ degree programs and/or provide professional development opportunities to prepare students for the spectrum of careers and placement opportunities both within and outside the academy afforded by their advanced degrees.

The University is proud of the important and valuable contributions that our graduate students make to Penn State, and it is the preservation of the relationships and opportunities that lead to such contributions and successes that we seek to defend in challenging the petition.

How might my relationship with my students change with a union?

A common misconception is that with a union, graduate student assistants will not only keep what they currently have, but will make more and have better benefits. That is not accurate. There is no guarantee that benefits and stipends will go up with a union. It is likely, however, that a union will seek to standardize stipends across the University, limiting the flexibility that programs currently enjoy to fund students based on the needs of the student and the program. This may impact your ability to recruit certain students to your program and remain competitive with similar programs at other institutions.

As stated succinctly by Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Stanford University, and Yale University in their unified Brief of Amici Curiae to the National Labor Relations Board in the 2016 Columbia University case (https://unionization.provost.columbia.edu/sites/default/ files/content/Amicus%20Brief.pdf, page 7), “Both collective bargaining and arbitration are, by their very nature, adversarial.  They clearly have the potential to transform the collaborative model of graduate education to one of conflict and tension.”  Penn State agrees and believes that the educational and mentoring relationship that characterizes the interaction of faculty and graduate students is placed in jeopardy by unionization.

In addition, unions often seek to bargain for seniority rules, which could impact how you make assistantship assignments. For example, a union could seek a rule that the person who has been in the program the longest will have the choice of assignments, even if there is another student who has more expertise in the area.  In addition, the union could seek provisions that could restrict your ability to use a post-doctoral scholar for a certain project if a graduate student had been involved with that type of project in the past.  At some universities with unionized graduate assistants the unions representing graduate assistants have challenged the right of university authorities to select the individuals assigned to teach particular course sections.  At NYU, for example, the union filed three separate grievances against the university (all of which went to arbitration) because individuals outside their bargaining unit – instead of graduate assistant members of the union – were assigned course sections.  Likewise, unionized graduate assistants at other institutions (e.g., the University of California (2014), the University of Oregon (2014), and the University of Illinois (2009)) have gone on strike, thereby complicating the working relationship with their faculty mentors, other students, and their research projects.

Finally, your relationship with your student or mentee could also change because you could be considered a manager under the law. As a result, you would be required to step into the shoes of typical supervisors and managers in other workforce settings. This change could potentially damage the collaborative relationship between faculty and graduate students. For example, depending upon what is negotiated in a union contract, you may be required to monitor your graduate assistant’s hours, and not have the flexibility to allow changes to those hours to accommodate an individual student’s needs. As a researcher, you may have a funded research opportunity that would provide a credible and impactful dissertation project, but a graduate assistant interpreting the conditions of a collective bargaining contract may not view research in this way, and believe expectations above the conditions of the contract are unreasonable, rather than necessary and the norm for successful research in the field.  Faculty also may be restricted in their ability to provide students with certain research opportunities if doing so would violate restrictions related to hours of work in a contract.

What can I say to my graduate students who ask about unionization?

You are free and encouraged to discuss unionization with your graduate students if you feel comfortable doing so. You can also discuss your opinion and experiences with a union if you wish. Here are some other things you may do:

    • Respond to graduate students’ questions and/or address inaccurate or misleading information being disseminated. You can also refer them to the Unionization FAQs.
    • Explain the University’s efforts to address graduate student concerns in the past, in large part with the guidance and input of graduate students on councils, governing bodies and committees, such as the Student Insurance Advisory Board, Graduate Council, University Faculty Senate, and Board of Trustees.
    • Explain the University’s continued commitment to providing graduate student assistants with a world-class graduate education, and teaching and/or research experience in their respective fields to prepare them for careers when they leave the University.
    • Tell graduate student assistants about the competitive benefits they presently enjoy and the resources that are available to them (refer to information available on the Grad Facts website).
    • Explain what could change with unionization versus the current state, such as being able to deal directly with faculty mentors about scheduling and other issues related to their assistantship.
    • Explain some of the known aspects of belonging to a union – such as the expense of initiation fees and monthly dues; membership rules that may be restrictive; the possibility of a strike; and their loss of individuality; possible limits on special arrangements for stipends, hours, and other assistantship conditions.
    • Tell graduate student assistants they do not have to talk with union organizers at their homes, or anywhere else, unless they wish to do so.
    • Encourage graduate student assistants to be informed. Unionization is a consequential decision; one that will impact both current and future generations of University graduate students.

Is there anything I should refrain from doing or saying?

Yes.  The law imposes certain restrictions on what faculty can do or say.  You may not:

      • Threaten: Faculty may not threaten graduate student assistants with harm or reprisals (economic, academic or other) if they decide to support unionization, or if they choose not to support unionization. We must be respectful of differing viewpoints on this issue.
      • Interrogate: Faculty may not ask graduate student assistants about their attitude toward the union or about union activities.
      • Promise: Faculty may not promise any benefit or reward to a graduate student assistant for supporting or refusing to support the union.
      • Spy or Surveil: Faculty may not conduct surveillance of graduate student assistants engaged in union organizing activity or give the impression of unlawful surveillance.
      • Speak for Penn State: Faculty may not represent their own expressions or opinions as those of Penn State. Take care to ensure that you are clear that your communications are your own, and not made on behalf of Penn State.

As you can see, many of these prohibitions are common sense. Nevertheless, it is important to remember not to do or say anything that could even be perceived as unlawful behavior.

What can I do if I have a student with questions I cannot answer, or have questions myself?

We are committed to engaging in a meaningful dialogue about the impact of this effort. To that end, anyone can email gradinfo@psu.edu with questions. For example, if you need additional guidance on how to handle a question from a student, please send your question to gradinfo@psu.edu.