Letter to Penn State Faculty

Dear Colleagues:

You should all have received a letter yesterday from President Barron related to the filing of a petition for union representation of all graduate assistants and fellows with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB).

President Barron’s letter to our community expressed the position of the University on this petition for unionization. As the president stated, Penn State views its graduate students as students first and foremost, not employees. When our graduate students apply for admission to Penn State, they apply to one of our graduate programs to study and pursue an advanced degree at a premier research institution. They come to Penn State, not for a job, but for a degree and for disciplinary training, professional development and meaningful experience that will help them succeed in their future careers. We believe the focus must remain on the advanced degree and our faculty’s role in mentoring and optimizing our graduate students’ individualized experiences. Therefore, Penn State is opposing the petition for representation before the PLRB.

We have serious concerns that working with unionized graduate assistants – which would be focused on a uniform approach to our diverse group of students – will negatively impact the unique and collaborative relationships currently experienced between faculty and students. We understand there likely is a wide range of opinion among our students, faculty and staff about graduate student unionization and we encourage free speech and sharing of those views. It is these differing views that make our community stronger. We must be respectful of all individuals’ viewpoints as we engage in an open dialogue about these issues.

In response to a number of inquiries we received from both faculty and students, we have created FAQs to help answer questions, available at gradfacts.psu.edu/union. We also have created guidelines for faculty on interactions with students about unionization. Those guidelines are available at gradfacts.psu.edu/resources.

We encourage our faculty to continue to engage and interact with our graduate students as they have done in the past. We know that faculty members have questions about what to do if the topic of unionization arises. Faculty are free to discuss their personal opinions and examples, as well as facts about unions or unionization. However, in doing so, faculty must remember not to:

  • Threaten: Faculty may not threaten a graduate student assistant with harm or reprisals (economic, academic or other) if he or she supports or opposes unionization. Differing viewpoints on this issue must be respected.
  • Interrogate: Faculty may not interrogate graduate student assistants about their perspectives regarding unionization. This simply means that faculty cannot ask students questions about their position on unions.
  • Promise: Faculty may not promise any benefit or reward to a graduate student assistant for supporting or opposing unionization.
  • Spy or Surveil: Faculty may not surveil graduate student assistants engaged in union-related activity or give the impression of unlawful surveillance.
  • Speak for Penn State: Faculty may not represent their expressions or opinions as those of Penn State. Ensure you are always clear that any personal statements are solely yours, and not made on behalf of the University.

Graduate students may express their views and opinions to you about unionization. You are free to listen and, as indicated above, discuss your own opinions. You or your students can visit the University’s website at gradfacts.psu.edu/union for information about the unionization effort or direct questions to gradinfo@psu.edu. If graduate students raise issues regarding unionization to which you are unsure how to respond, you can contact Suzanne Adair, Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Affairs, at sca917@psu.edu for assistance in responding to a student inquiry.


Nicholas P. Jones, Ph.D.
Executive Vice President and Provost