Thoughts on Graduate Student Unionization from the Dean of the Graduate School

March 30, 2018

Dear Graduate Student,

I want to offer my perspective on the important issue of union representation for graduate students at Penn State, because of the potential it has to fundamentally alter graduate education at the University.

Graduate students are the pillars of our world-class research university, and your collective scholarship is a vital element of Penn State’s contributions to society. You contribute to the fulfillment of Penn State’s mission in every domain. I want our graduate students to know that you are highly valued and occupy a unique status as mentees, developing scholars and future colleagues. Faculty come to Penn State because of the opportunity to interact with graduate students, and derive enormous satisfaction from serving as mentors and contributing to their students’ professional development, and take great pride in their success.

To enable graduate students to focus on their education, develop important disciplinary and professional skills, and in many cases, engage in activities that support their professional interests and career goals, financial packages in the form of assistantships are provided. These support packages include a stipend, full tuition grant, subsidized high-quality health insurance that provides comprehensive coverage, including for dependents, and summer tuition assistance. The average package currently totals approximately $50,000-$65,000 in value, depending upon the number of summer academic credits taken and insurance coverage selected.  Many students receive supplemental scholarships, travel grants and other support in addition to their assistantship.  Because of the importance of graduate education and of our graduate students, the University prioritizes this support, which is evident in many ways:  The average stipend has increased over 43% in the last ten years; tuition grants are consistently increased to fully cover the student’s tuition costs as graduate tuition has increased; and most recently, the University aggressively advocated to members of Congress to ensure that tax reform provisions did not negatively impact our graduate students, as its top priority.

Penn State has always viewed our graduate students as individuals seeking advanced degrees, not employees, and does not believe unionization is in the best interest of graduate education.  I share that view and am concerned for a number of reasons.

The hallmark of our graduate programs is the individualized training each student receives, and the flexibility to accommodate their different needs, whereas unions bargain for the collective group, not for individual students. A collective bargaining agreement would apply to all graduate assistants and trainees at Penn State, and would almost certainly limit the flexibility of students, their faculty mentors and the Graduate School to tailor expectations, training and educational opportunities, and financial support packages to meet the needs of students in particular programs, and even of individual students within those programs.  Although CGE has said that graduate assistants will retain control of the local chapter and ensure the union works on your behalf, when graduate student leaders conduct the negotiating for the entire population of the bargaining unit, this may cause internal conflicts if student leaders hold a particular disciplinary perspective rather than reflect the needs of all disciplines.  At Penn State we have almost 200 graduate fields of study, and the diverse needs and priorities that must be accommodated across these for success of our graduate students can be vastly different.

A collective bargaining agreement could impact individual students and programs in many ways. Currently in some programs, assistantship activities can be completed in less than 20 hours a week for students with a ½-time appointment, and the activities are flexible.  In other programs, students are allowed a semester or two off with no assistantship responsibilities, while still receiving their assistantship, in order to write their dissertation. These practices could potentially violate a collective bargaining agreement depending upon the terms related to work hours, which could be strictly regulated.  For graduate students on research assistantships (which are the majority at Penn State – approximately 2,170 of more than 3,760 graduate assistants – and predominantly in STEM fields), research for their assistantship is indistinguishable from their thesis/dissertation research.  A collective bargaining agreement could bring limitations on whether research performed on assistantships could be used for academic purposes, including theses, and could contain restrictions that could limit research opportunities (for example, restrictions on research hours).  Discovery, innovation and creativity do not flourish in a constrained environment.  Although the union may make assurances that you can work beyond contracted hours if you wish, the outcome of any collective bargaining agreement that would result if the union is elected cannot be assured or even known at this time.

It is important to recognize that graduate assistant unions at other Big Ten and peer research institutions are predominantly or exclusively TA/instructional (including at the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and the University of California schools) and have relatively fewer (or completely exclude) RAs because their research is indistinguishable from their program of study. This is why the bargaining unit at Penn State cannot readily be compared to other research-intensive peer institutions, and in fact to a large extent is unprecedented in significant and concerning ways.  It is noteworthy that at Minnesota, the one other Big Ten institution with a large proposed bargaining unit of TAs and RAs, a fifth unionization effort failed, in 2012, with 62% of 3,000 voters saying “NO” to the union.

If the union were ultimately elected and certified, faculty could be considered managers under the law. As a result, they could be required to step into the shoes of typical supervisors and managers in other workforce settings, rather than the unique model of advisors and mentors that defines graduate education. This change could potentially damage the important collaborative relationship between faculty and graduate students.  In addition, strikes by graduate assistant unions have occurred at many universities, including the University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, University of Oregon, University of California, New York University, and the University of Illinois (the latter in 2009 and again this year), thereby complicating graduate students’ relationship with their faculty mentors and other students, and their own research projects.

If the union were certified to exclusively represent all graduate assistants and trainees, it would have the right to bargain over terms and conditions of assistantships, but not have the right to bargain over matters that are purely academic or left to the discretion of the University. There is almost no precedent in Pennsylvania for determining what topics are subject to bargaining for graduate students, whose teaching and research activities are part of their academic training.  This leaves open many possibilities for disagreement, which has been the experience at NYU, where the union filed three separate grievances against the University for assigning course sections, an academic judgment, outside the bargaining unit.  Many of our graduate students are supported on fellowships, which are outside the bargaining unit defined for Penn State.  A union could seek to challenge assigning a student to a course section who has covered that course in a prior semester and is well-qualified, or who wishes to give guest lectures in order to gain experience in pedagogy and enhance their professional credentials, if the student’s support changed from an assistantship to a fellowship in a given semester.

Importantly, graduate students have a significant voice in governance at many levels throughout Penn State. Through the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA), graduate students have seats on Graduate Council, the academic governance body for graduate education across the University; on the University Faculty Senate; the Board of Trustees; as well as representatives on key bodies relevant to graduate students.  The latter include the Student Insurance Advisory Board and the Student Insurance Administrative Council that assure graduate students have input on the student health insurance plan, including plan design, mechanisms to manage costs, and the selection of insurers. Graduate students also have their voices heard directly by University leadership, as the President of GPSA meets regularly with key University leaders, including the Provost and the Dean of the Graduate School, and GPSA has worked effectively with the University to address graduate student concerns and needs.  If the union is elected as the sole voice for graduate students in the bargaining unit on matters which relate to their assistantships, University leadership and faculty, who would be management, may be limited or restricted in dealing with graduate students on councils and governing bodies with respect to issues that could be subject to collective bargaining.  Because there can be only one representative voice, the role of GPSA would almost certainly change.

Individual graduate students also have established policies and multiple avenues to resolve problems, including their advisor, graduate program or department head, college/school administrator for graduate education, and ultimately the Associate Dean for Graduate Student Affairs in the Graduate School, who serves as a university-wide Ombudsperson and advocate for all graduate students across the University.  In addition, graduate students have access to support through such offices as Affirmative Action, Global Programs and Student Affairs.

The essential factor underlying the effectiveness of all of the unique aspects of graduate education – your individualized educational experiences, tailored support packages, a voice in governance – is the ability to work directly with graduate students, and I firmly believe the opportunity to resolve differences is greatest through direct communication in a collegial environment.  Unionizing and engaging in collective bargaining introduces a third party as the exclusive representative of the bargaining unit such that graduate students in the unit will no longer be able to work directly with their faculty advisors on many issues that today are resolved together on an individual basis. That third party includes not only the local union (CGE), but PSEA and NEA, and payment of dues to support all three may be required for you to have a full voice that allows you to vote on decisions such as approving any contract, election of union leaders, or a decision to strike, that would directly affect you as a member of the bargaining unit.  It should also be recognized that even though CGE may be able to adopt by-laws for the local chapter to reflect the position of members of the bargaining unit, it cannot control the policies, structures, and requirements of the PSEA, and its rules would need to be consistent with the PSEA constitution, and ultimately the NEA.

Graduate students are not a homogenous group.  Your needs vary by many factors, including the culture of your fields, but most importantly, as individuals.  As you consider the issue of union representation, ask yourself why you applied and chose to come to Penn State for your graduate degree, and reflect on what your own experience has been.  Be certain you have tangible answers to what added value the union would bring to your experience and to your academic program, and consider how inserting a third party and collective bargaining would impact that experience.  Graduate education is unique in its individualized approach, and I believe is not best-served by sitting on opposite sides of a bargaining table.  Each of you must make your own decision, but I urge you to make that decision known by voting in the election, as the outcome will have consequences for graduate education for years to come.

Very Sincerely,

Regina Vasilatos-Younken
Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School