Daniel Diermeier: University Position on Graduate Student Unionization

To: All Campus
From: Daniel Diermeier, Provost
Subject: University Position on Graduate Student Unionization
Date: June 6, 2019

This week, some graduate students picketed on campus and declined to teach classes, respond to students, or continue research, with the goal of the University recognizing a graduate student union. As always, the University stands for freedom of expression and respects these students’ right to protest and express their views. I am writing to reaffirm the University’s position on graduate student unionization.

Graduate students are essential members of the University’s intellectual community. We admit students to earn PhDs, the highest degree a University can confer, and to become scholars. This commitment to developing the next generation of scholars defines the University’s graduate educational mission.

The University of Chicago is working collaboratively with graduate students and faculty to ensure the continued strength of our doctoral programs. Last year, I charged the Committee on Graduate Education – composed of faculty and graduate students from across campus – with providing a thorough assessment of the present state of PhD education nationally and at the University. They produced a comprehensive report, which was shared with the University community. Faculty and graduate students are guiding efforts and making progress in addressing the report’s recommendations in areas such as PhD funding, mentoring, pedagogical training, grievance policies, health services, housing and transportation, campus climate, and space for graduate students. In addition, various schools and divisions are considering enhancements to student financial support, such as sixth-year funding. Such improvements may have to stop if the University were to recognize a union.

PhD students receive at least $30,000 annually, fully-paid health insurance premiums, and full tuition for at least the first five years of their programs. The University has increased financial support for doctoral students receiving the Graduate Aid Initiative by more than 23% over the last eight years and our financial packages for doctoral students are comparable with other highly-selective institutions. The $30,000 annual funding is above the median income for young adults in the United States, and nearly double what students at some campuses with graduate student unions receive. Over the course of their programs, PhD students benefit from an investment of more than $500,000 in tuition, annual support and other benefits.

Unionization would fundamentally alter the decentralized, faculty-led approach to graduate education that has long been a hallmark of the University of Chicago. Graduate students are students, first and foremost. They come to the University to study, to learn how to teach future generations of students, and to make original contributions in their chosen fields of knowledge. A collective bargaining agreement would likely create an environment of standardization without room for differentiation, changing the nature and scope of the relationships of graduate students to their advisors, other faculty, and degree programs; and it could undermine the ability to attend to the unique needs of students across disciplines.

Unionization would not address many of the critical concerns students and faculty have identified, and could put current progress at risk. Some areas of concern identified by faculty and students fall outside of the scope of a union contract. These include critical issues such as degree requirements, mentorship by faculty, time-to-degree and other academic milestones, timely and substantive feedback on dissertation drafts and other scholarly work, pedagogy and curriculum design, and more.

There is no legally certified union for graduate students. In February 2018, union organizers voluntarily chose to withdraw their petition from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Accordingly, the University is not required to recognize a group or vote. In withdrawing their petition, the organizers foreclosed the legal process for recognition through the NLRB or federal courts.

The University of Chicago is not opposed to unions. The University has productive relationships with organized labor in general, and specifically with eight unions that represent around 1,400 employees on our campus. However, we believe strongly that doctoral education is most impactful when faculty work directly with students, without a third party mediating and defining those relationships.

We support the right to free expression, but the actions of protestors cannot jeopardize undergraduate and master’s students’ education. We all share an obligation to support our undergraduates and master’s students as they make progress in their education and complete their degree programs. As we enter the reading period, students need a quiet environment that is conducive to studying, writing papers, and taking exams to successfully complete their courses.

As the academic year draws to a close and we prepare to celebrate convocation, this is an opportune moment to reflect on our values. All members of our community are entitled to their opinions and encouraged to express them in accordance with the principles of free expression. At the same time, we must remain focused on our core commitment to the educational experience of all our students, both graduate and undergraduate.