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Protecting Grad Student Employees

September 16, 2009

Graduate student employees would have expanded due process and informational rights, under a draft plan released Tuesday by the American Association of University Professors to amend its recommended policies for colleges and universities on academic freedom and tenure.

The AAUP's statement on academic freedom has long included provisions about the work done by graduate students as teaching or research assistants. But the association decided to revise the statement to reflect changes in higher education.

"[G]raduate student employment in the academic workforce has changed substantially," the statement says. "It has been a growing component of the workforce during a time when the proportion of faculty members whose positions are tenured or probationary for tenure has sharply decreased. Moreover, graduate students are remaining longer in the workforce in that capacity as the length of time in many academic disciplines to obtain the terminal degree has been increasing. The enhanced use of graduate student employment brings with it enhanced concerns for the student employees regarding academic freedom, governance, and due process."

The proposed changes that follow concern graduate students' rights as employees, not their rights as students in academic programs. So "dismissal" and similar words don't refer to students who are asked to leave a degree program because they are failing, but to the rights of a graduate student who is working as a teaching assistant or research assistant. Typically, such proposed changes are eventually codified by the AAUP, sometimes with modifications. While the AAUP's statement on academic freedom and tenure do not have the force of law, many colleges and many college faculties view the statement as one that deserves attention and respect.

Here are some of the proposed changes:

  • Work conditions and procedures for renewal would need to be specified at the time of appointment.
  • Dismissal could only take place after a hearing, unlike the present system, in which an academic employer is required to hold a hearing, but can do so after a dismissal. In hearings, the burden of proof would rest with the administration.
  • Graduate employees could not be dismissed for participation in strikes or other labor actions.
  • Notice of whether appointments will continue the following semester or year would be required one month before the end of a current appointment. (Many graduate students complain that they are left uncertain well into the summer on status of work in the fall.)
  • Graduate students would have the right to a hearing over reasons for non-reappointment.
  • Graduate students would be entitled to time to correct any problems identified by their supervisors.

Julia Mortyakova, president of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, said that the changes "sound like wonderful additions and changes that really need to be made." She said that many of the changes speak directly to the kinds of issues graduate students face in their employment at their universities.

Officials of the Council of Graduate Schools were unavailable to comment on the AAUP's proposals.

 

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