Graduate students

Implications of the NLRB's reconsideration of grad student unionization (essay)

The recent resignation of the president of the University of Missouri System and the chancellor of its Columbia campus followed a strike of sorts by university football players. While the athletes did so without benefit of a union, their success draws attention to the way students who have organized -- for collective bargaining or otherwise -- can significantly alter a university’s policies.

In fact, grad students at Missouri had already successfully campaigned against a plan to terminate summarily their health insurance (the administration rescinded the edict for this year), and they continue to seek a longer-term insurance commitment, better pay and full tuition waivers -- as well as to pursue unionization.

For graduate students at private universities, the real action may occur in the wake of last month’s vote by the National Labor Relations Board to reconsider collective bargaining by teaching and research assistants at such institutions. The groundbreaking case involves the New School University in New York City and the United Auto Workers, and the NLRB’s final decision in the matter could have far-reaching implications.

The issue of grad student unionization at private higher education institutions has a curiously checkered history, reflecting political fortunes since World War II. In 1951, the NLRB declined to offer bargaining rights for private university employees, including academic personnel. Two decades later, however, the board reversed that ruling and declared that the federal labor laws covered academic employees in private institutions. In 2000, when the NLRB ruled that graduate teaching assistants are eligible for collective bargaining and can be considered employees, New York University became the first private university to recognize a graduate student union.

But in 2004, the NLRB changed course yet again, ruling that graduate teaching and research assistants at Brown University were not “employees” because “they have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” Thus, when NYU’s initial contract expired, the university’s board declined to renew it in response to the intervening ruling concerning Brown. Keeping the players -- and the rules -- straight during this ever-changing saga has understandably posed a challenge.

To put the issue of grad student unionization at private institutions in a broader context, the legal status of full-time, tenure-track professors has remained far more consistent. Most of those professors are effectively barred from unionizing in the private sector by the Supreme Court’s 35-year-old ruling in the Yeshiva University case, under which faculty members at independent campuses are considered to be “managers” because of their involvement in the governance of their institutions. While there has been much recent discussion of possible reopening of the Yeshiva ruling, such a prospect seems increasingly unlikely.

Indeed, as the Supreme Court in its current term revisits the status of public school unions among K-12 teachers, the primacy of Yeshiva today seems, in most cases, if anything even clearer than it was a decade ago. (I say, “in most cases” because a handful of private campuses, such as Goddard College in Vermont, have voluntarily recognized bargaining efforts by its professors and have simply declined to oppose union efforts. In addition, the labor board indicated last December its potential readiness, specifically in the case of Pacific Lutheran University, to distinguish Yeshiva in certain cases that involve religiously affiliated institutions and non-tenure-track faculty whose role clearly involves less “managerial authority” than that of tenured professors.)

Between the two extremes of graduate students, on the one hand, and full-time faculty members, on the other, lies the anomalous legal status of adjuncts and part-time faculty. Especially in the Boston and Washington regions, aggressive organizing activity by unions such as Service Employees International Union and United Auto Workers has greatly expanded bargaining rights for such contingent faculty, including not only improved salaries and working conditions but even opportunities for promotion to tenure-track positions. Most academic employers at such independent campuses as American University, Georgetown University, Tufts University and a host of others have welcomed such efforts and have been quick to negotiate bargaining agreements.

The legal landscape differs sharply when it comes to unionization in the public sector. Full-time professors, adjuncts and graduate students are mainly either covered by state-enacted public employee bargaining laws or are barred from unionizing by “right to work” legislation. At this point, 28 states have embraced or sanction public employee bargaining, and many public universities have long had unionized graduate teaching assistants. Enjoying hybrid status, some graduate students at three New York private universities (Alfred, Cornell and Syracuse) are already covered by a union contract because they are enrolled at academic units of the State University of New York within those three affiliated upstate private institutions.

The Shape of Things to Come

What will be the long-term implications of NLRB’s recent agreement to reconsider whether graduate assistants at all private institutions are entitled to collective bargaining? Until the board actually rules, the ramifications will remain to be fully appraised. And even then, given the tortured and protracted history of the central issue, it seems unlikely that in this area the board would issue detailed guidance to potential institutions and unions.

Rather, we might expect the shaping of that emerging landscape would generally follow the experience within public colleges and universities. We should also recognize that each state is free to adopt whatever laws and regulations it may choose to govern graduate student organizing, as with full-time and adjunct faculty, including the option to be either more or less welcoming to graduate organizing than it is with regard to other public-sector teachers. The potential for such state-level regulatory variation does not, however, necessarily make the eventual outcome any easier to predict or assess.

Meanwhile, as we await further developments from the NLRB, the higher education community remains sharply divided on this issue. Groups like the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Universities are, for example, diametrically opposed in this respect, despite concordance on many other matters like race-sensitive admissions.

Those boards and administrators (and some faculty groups) that strongly oppose graduate student organizing argue that unionization would inevitably intrude upon the optimally collegial professor-student relationship and jeopardize academic freedom. Harvard University President Drew Faust may have put it most forcefully in a recent Harvard Crimson interview: “We really think that it’s a mistake for graduate students to unionize, that it changes a mentoring relationship between faculty and students into a labor relationship, which is not appropriate [and] is not what is represented by the experience of graduate students in the university.” (It is also worth noting that despite their resistance to unionization, a few major private universities have made commendable efforts to enhance both tangible and intangible benefits for graduated student employees. Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago, for example, won substantial pay raises for its members after a series of rallies and “teach outs.”)

On the other side of the table, proponents of the revised NLRB policy argue with equal force that the universities’ fears are at least exaggerated if not wholly misplaced. Such advocates insist that several decades of experience at major public research campuses simply have not documented such concerns. Moreover, the steady explosion of student indebtedness, increased demands upon the time and energy of already burdened graduates, and diminished opportunities for advancement only underscore the case for unionization.

In fact, amid the seemingly endless debates about graduate student unionization, several practical issues have been somewhat overlooked. For one, the growing costs of graduate education (especially for independent institutions) may well diminish racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity at a time when the higher education community seeks greater inclusiveness and students are demanding it. Graduate student organizers argue that the mounting financial burdens on such students will inevitably and regrettably diminish diversity.

Indeed, graduate student unionization would appear to enhance prospects both for greater diversity and for the mitigation of onerous financial burdens. Speaking in support of organizing efforts for TAs and RAs, Matt Canfield (an NYU doctoral student and member of the Student Organizing Committee) has argued that “academia will become closed off to people of color, and people with children -- and we want to be ensure that NYU reflects the diversity of the city we’re in.”

In addition, while graduate teaching assistants and graduate research assistants are often treated as homogeneous, there may be reasons for separately reviewing their respective statuses. The mere fact of unionization and the evolution of contract negotiations and board approval could well differentiate more sharply the respective roles and responsibilities of graduate teaching assistants, on one hand, and advanced students who aid laboratory research, on the other. The distinction, though subtle, nonetheless offers clarity. For example, under the exemplary personnel policies of the University of California at Los Angeles, TAs “serve an apprenticeship under the tutelage and supervision of regular faculty members who are responsible for curriculum and instruction in the university,” while RAs “are selected on the basis of scholastic achievement and promise as creative scholars and serve an apprenticeship under the direction and supervision of a faculty member.”

Whatever the NLRB’s final decision and its implications, it’s clear that grad students remain relatively overworked and underpaid -- at the bottom of the academic food chain, one might say. The reality is that they make up a significant portion of the instructional workforce in higher education. The Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions ventures that between half and three-quarters of all university classes are actually taught by graduate assistants or contingent faculty.

Thus, as we await further developments in this already complex and contentious field of law and policy, we might invoke the wisdom of Lisa Simpson (of The Simpsons) regarding student unionization.

As Lisa throws bread on the ground to feed some ducks, a hungry student cohort converges, while a professor with a whip appears and barks, “No food for you grad students until you grade 3,000 papers.” Lisa should claim the final word.

Robert M. O’Neil is the former president of the University of Virginia and of the University of Wisconsin System, former director of the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Initiative, and former general counsel of the American Association of University Professors. He is currently a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities.

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A Ph.D. should result in a tenure-track job, not an alt-ac one (essay)

What’s the measure of a successful doctoral program? In many fields, placement in tenure-track positions used to be enough. Today, however, many Ph.D. programs are claiming other kinds of success, particularly placement in what is being described as alt-ac (short for alternative academic) employment. Alt-ac positions are often in administration on a campus, in museums or in libraries. Others are in government or nonprofit organizations. Typically these alt- or nonacademic jobs involve research, analysis and writing -- skills that many people hone in graduate school -- though few require completing a doctorate.

Some people believe that in competitive hiring between individuals who have some degree of postgraduate education, actually holding the terminal degree can offer an advantage. But is that theoretical edge in nonprofessorial employment a good reason to run a graduate program?

One explanation for the changing metric is that graduate faculty members are being more respectful of the actual career pathways of their students. As Bethany Nowviskie, the director of digital research and scholarship at the University of Virginia Library and a research associate professor of digital humanities at the university, puts it, “That our culture for many years has labeled these people ‘failed academics’ is a failure of imagination.” Her complaint is fair enough, particularly for those with nonfaculty positions on campus: professors do sometimes inflict status injury on nonfaculty staff members, even those with advanced degrees.

A more cynical explanation is that faculty like having graduate programs and, perhaps more to the point, administrators need them. For faculty, grad programs confer status, provide emotional gratification of several kinds and legitimate the teaching of fewer, smaller classes.

Crucially, however, administrators need doctoral programs across fields to maintain the institution’s Carnegie classification. One of the four major correlates of research activity used to measure aggregate institutional performance is Ph.D. conferrals. The hundred or so universities in the Very High Research Activity (VHRA) class push out a median of 35 humanities doctorates annually, 900 percent more than the hundred or so institutions in the merely High Research Activity group, whose median production is just four per year.

So long as continuing high levels of doctorate production are part of the price of admission to the most exclusive club in American higher ed, it’s hard not to imagine that many universities will continue to run a menu of smallish graduate programs even at a financial loss -- and find ever more elaborate rationales to keep them running.

With the support of influential graduate faculty and staff members at academic associations, the alt-ac brand of hashtag activism has won a tidal wave of big-dollar institutional support. While serving as president of the American Historical Association in 2011, Anthony T. Grafton issued a manifesto saying graduate curricula and culture should value and target alt-ac and nonacademic jobs and stop treating them as plan B to professorial appointment.

Today, the AHA actively sponsors “value-added” changes to graduate curricula in support of what it has called “The Malleable Ph.D.,” a vision of next-generation degree holders who respond flexibly to job-market opportunities other than their first-choice professorial careers. The association and its funding partners want prospective degree holders to know they are 100 percent behind those who, as 2015 AHA President Vicki L. Ruiz puts it, refuse to dismiss “a career outside the classroom as some sort of consolation prize.”

Armed with a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of “Career Diversity for Historians,” Ruiz is using her presidential year to whip up rationales for Ph.D. programs to value “service to multiple publics” -- i.e., beyond the faltering mission of reproducing tenure-stream faculty. Similarly, the University of Miami has attempted to brand itself as a “national leader” in graduate education by launching a program of internships in alt-ac careers alongside traditional forms of apprenticeship training such as teaching.

In short, suddenly a lot of money is being spent proving something that the Bureau of Labor Statistics could have told us for free: people who have earned doctorates have extremely low unemployment and generally have good jobs. The Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Historical Association (AHA) have each run expensive surveys to this effect.

The Council of Graduate Schools has the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Mellon Foundation to extend those survey efforts to other disciplines. The explicit intention is to articulate new rationales for Ph.D. production and new metrics appropriate to those rationales. CGS President Suzanne T. Ortega says the goal of acquiring better data about the alt-ac and nonacademic careers that previous degree holders have already found for themselves is to “develop curricula and professional development opportunities that better prepare graduate students for the full range of careers they are likely to follow.”

Put plainly, CGS and other big institutional players want to move the goalposts from a difficult challenge -- placing Ph.D. holders in tenure-track positions -- to a far simpler one -- taking credit for positions degree holders are already finding for themselves. They’re responding to programs desperate to find measures justifying Ph.D. production at a time when they can no longer pretend that the “market” in tenure track jobs is going to turn around.

Ruiz is up front about this, frankly adopting the approach articulated by advice columnist Leonard Cassuto earlier this year: “Instead of thinking wishfully about how great it would be to have a better system, let’s focus on what can be done with the bad system that we have.” What Cassuto and Ruiz mean by a bad system is one that trains people for positions that don’t exist because the jobs have been converted into temp work.

As responsible analysts have understood since the mid-1990s, this isn’t because of an oversupply of Ph.D.s but an intentionally created undersupply of tenure-stream positions. Beginning in 1970, administrators began systematically turning teaching-intensive jobs into part-time or nontenurable positions that -- they claim -- don’t require a Ph.D. As a result, many teaching-intensive appointments are filled with students, staff members and other people who don’t have doctorates -- while those with doctorates quit the academy or take alternative academic jobs.

So from at least one informed, activist perspective, keeping Ph.D. programs running makes sense. There’s actually plenty of faculty work for everyone with a doctorate. The real solution is turning temp work back into tenurable positions, just as the American Association of University Professors has long maintained, and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has recently proposed with a bill to make federal education aid contingent upon states restoring a 75 percent tenure ratio in publicly employed college faculty. If the Sanders plan succeeded in restoring that ratio in even two large states, many disciplines would soon see an undersupply of persons with terminal degrees.

However, what Ruiz and Cassuto want is to keep programs running without changing the labor system. That’s a far less ethically tenable posture. Unlike the AAUP and Sanders, they prefer to believe the system is fundamentally unfixable, and dismiss meaningful change as “wishful thinking.” They think people studying for doctorates should actively plan on jobs in filmmaking, government or nonprofits. Cassuto’s new book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, reiterates this thesis, claiming that graduate schools in the humanities with a “realistic” approach must alter curricula to emphasize “practical, transferable skills” that prepare Ph.D. students for a “wide range” of work entirely outside the academy.

Even while people without doctorates make up an ever-larger fraction of college teachers, Cassuto and his supporters dismiss as “utopian” such straightforward Sanders-style fixes to the system as employing those with Ph.D.s in teaching-intensive positions. Although Cassuto occasionally lauds examples of Ph.D.s in teaching-intensive positions -- including one of his own students whose admission he might have blocked if he’d known she wanted to teach at a community college (gasp!) -- over all, he assumes that graduate students have little interest in pursuing careers in what he airily dubs “low-caste teaching.”

Apart from the distasteful confusion of curricular location with caste, there are at least two big factual mistakes here. First, grad students and nontenurable faculty members teach the full range of courses at many institutions, from the first year to disciplinary seminars, including at the graduate level. Second, most faculty positions, tenured or not, involve teaching courses at different locations in the curriculum.

Dismissing lower-division teaching as “low caste” isn’t just offensive; it paints a false picture, dismissing from consideration the majority circumstances of the professoriate. The superficial pragmatism of Ruiz and Cassuto conceals how foundations, associations and much of the academic chattering class continue to evade the real problems of contemporary faculty.

For people with doctorates, by far the most common “alternative” to professorship is a nontenurable appointment. Ditto for persons who went to graduate school but didn’t complete the degree requirements. Those with these part-time or nontenurable appointments have long outnumbered the tenured minority. They too are treated like “failed academics.” What is really needed is much more aggressive support for the nontenurable majority faculty.

While no one is going to argue against supporting degree holders who search for nonprofessorial employment, there’s little evidence that they actually need more of this help. My cohort of graduate school activists in the mid-1990s was already perfectly aware that folks with doctorates who went the nonprofessorial route generally had low unemployment and good jobs. According to the MLA and AHA surveys, that hasn’t changed. These folks have consistently found excellent employment without placement help from their professional associations.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for foundations and associations to actually address the more substantial question -- raised by activists, the AAUP and Sanders -- of whether persons with doctorates should hold teaching-intensive positions as they did in 1970, and on what terms, with what preparation?

Sure, that would require sustained civic engagement and serious political effort. It would raise further tough questions -- such as how to safeguard the workplace rights of current faculty without doctorates while recreating teaching-intensive tenure-stream positions. But that would be in the best interests of graduate students, for many of whom the goal of getting a doctorate remains quite straightforward: a tenure-track job.

Marc Bousquet is an associate professor in the department of film and media studies at Emory University.

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