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From the President and Provost

Grad Student Union Won't Serve the Academic Mission

For the past year, there's been a lively debate among members of the University community about the issue of unionization by graduate students. That debate has raised important issues that are academic, economic and also legal in nature.

It's important to know that the United States has a well-developed body of law specifically governing union organizing and labor-management relations. But recent efforts to unionize graduate students at private universities have raised a host of new issues for the federal decision-making agency, the National Labor Relations Board, (NLRB). As a result, some important questions about graduate student unionization campaigns at private universities have only recently been decided by various regional NLRB directors. Others are pending review by the NLRB itself. Those questions include whether graduate students at private universities should be viewed as employees for the purpose of unionizing, and if so, which graduate students should be included in an appropriate bargaining unit.

However, there is one important question that graduate students will be called on to answer when the union election is held at Penn in February. That is, whether their challenging and uniquely personal academic experiences can be as flexible, dynamic and appropriately shaped to individual needs under a unionized, collective bargaining regime as they are now.

As onetime graduate students ourselves, those of us responsible for leading this University are convinced the answer is "no;" and that a uniform contractual approach to graduate education would not serve the interests of current graduate students, nor the long-term interests of post-graduate scholarship.

Like our colleagues at Brown, Cornell and Columbia, we must stand up for the central proposition that a truly great graduate education can only be provided by faculty members with the autonomy to shape programs and projects to suit their students, their departments and their fields of study.

Strip away the legal arguments and political rhetoric and the unionization question really boils down to this: Applying for a doctoral or master's degree program simply isn't the same as applying for a job. Graduate students come to Penn not to serve as employees, but to become scholars in training under a world-class faculty.

Undoubtedly, that training requires hard work. It includes many hours inside the lab, library or out in the field doing research. It includes learning how to teach others by doing so yourself. It includes collaborating with faculty and other graduate students to solve complex problems. And it includes creating an individual work of original scholarship that adds new knowledge to your chosen academic field. A unionized learning environment that would impose an additional layer of rules and policies that affects some but not all students, for some but not all periods of their student careers simply does not support those objectives, and would jeopardize the quality of graduate education.

On Thursday November 21, the Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board issued a long and complicated decision about graduate student unionization at Penn. The decision divides and discriminates among different groups of graduate students, depending on their chosen area of scholarship or degree program at Penn. Because of these unreasonable distinctions, we have appealed the Regional Director's decision to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington.

A university community--both here at Penn and on other campuses--provides a vital, vibrant forum for discussion among students and faculty, staff and administration. Especially now, in light of the November 21st NLRB decision and the union election on February 26th and 27th, we as a community must weigh how unionization might affect the very goals we're all here to pursue: teaching and learning, research and scholarship. The University strongly supports free and open discussion of unionization and will continue to encourage lively discussion of the issues and widespread participation by the graduate student voters.

Of course, graduate students, faculty and other members of the Penn community are also rightly concerned with what the imposition of a union might mean to them personally. In the weeks to come we will endeavor to inform students, faculty and other members of the University community about the issues involved. The Penn web site (Graduate Student Unionization at the University of Pennsylvania, will be a resource for updates on the unionization effort and the administration's position.

In the union election Penn graduate students will have to apply their critical thinking and research skills to make up their own minds on the issue of whether having a union will enhance their own educational experience and that of future scholars. We hope that they will conclude, as Cornell graduate students did overwhelmingly in late October 2002, that a uniform union contract would not serve their unique, individualized needs for graduate scholarship.

Judith Rodin, President             Robert Barchi, Provost


  Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 17, January 14, 2003