Letter to Graduate Students

Dear Graduate Students:

Yesterday, President Barron shared with the Penn State community that the University opposes the petition filed with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board by some graduate students who are seeking to have all graduate assistants and fellows be represented by a union. As Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School, I also wanted to share with you directly Penn State’s view of the importance of its relationship with its graduate students.

We value you as our students, our mentees and, in many cases, our future colleagues. This relationship is very different than that of employer and employee. Introducing a union into this relationship would fundamentally alter the student experience and the fabric of graduate programs at Penn State for years to come. The University is committed to providing you with a world-class graduate education, teaching and/or research experience in your respective fields, and meaningful professional development opportunities to prepare you for successful careers when you leave the University.

You, our graduate students, play a critical role in our community through your dedication to research, teaching and learning, and innovation. Penn State continues to make considerable investments to enhance our graduate programs and your graduate experience.

Penn State currently provides a substantial support package to its graduate assistants that includes tuition, stipends, a health insurance subsidy, up to 9 credits of required coursework in the summer at no cost to the graduate student, and more. The value of the average package provided to graduate students on a ½-time fall/spring assistantship appointment as of Fall, 2016 ranges from $48,328-$55,357 for a graduate student with individual health insurance coverage, to $56,207-$63,236 for family coverage.

We recognize the need to include student perspectives in the decision making that takes place across the University, and understand there are areas of concern to graduate students and areas that could use improvement. Over the years, we have listened to and worked with you to address concerns and consistently enhance the graduate student experience. There are many avenues by which graduate students can be heard at Penn State.  The Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA), housed under the Office of Student Affairs, provides student representatives to the Graduate Council, the University Faculty Senate, and the Board of Trustees, which are the primary decision making bodies for University policies. In addition to the GPSA, the Graduate School routinely solicits feedback on issues that impact graduate students from graduate student groups that recognize the diversity and individualized needs of our graduate students, such as the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), Boricua Grads, and other organizations. The Graduate School also seeks your input directly through other means, including town halls held to provide you with the opportunity for open conversation with University administrators. In addition, the assistant dean for Graduate Student Affairs serves as an ombudsperson for all graduate students throughout the University, responding to individual graduate student concerns. You also have a significant voice in the governance of your programs within your academic departments.

If there is a union to represent graduate students, the role of GPSA and these other avenues of communication will likely change. The union would have the exclusive right to speak for covered graduate students on matters that are subject to bargaining.

The University and its faculty have a successful history of working directly and collaboratively with graduate students to support and mentor you, enhance your benefits, and create a multitude of professional development opportunities and a vibrant intellectual environment. We believe that we can continue to do these things most effectively by working directly with you, rather than with a third-party union representative. Such a potential change to the fundamental relationship between you and faculty concerns us deeply.  As graduate students, you have individual needs, but also typically needs that vary by your disciplines/fields and even by the department and college in which your program is offered. In contrast, unions are designed to represent their members’ collective interests.  As a University, we are concerned that this approach will limit the individual experience graduate students currently enjoy.

It is for these reasons and more that in his letter yesterday, President Barron announced that Penn State will be opposing the unionization petition before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. We know that some of you may not agree with our stance, while others will feel as we do. As an institution of higher learning, we are committed to maintaining an open dialogue and engaging in discussion so that all can be informed about these issues and come to their own personal conclusions.

Our goal is to ensure that you have all information necessary to educate yourself about the unionization effort and what it may mean for you. As scholars pursuing advanced degrees, your training emphasizes drawing conclusions based upon facts, and evidence-based decision-making.  In that spirit, I urge you to stay informed of the facts on this matter. For more information, visit gradfacts.psu.edu/union. If you have specific questions, you can direct them to gradinfo@psu.edu.


Regina Vasilatos-Younken, Ph.D.
Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School