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Important University Update on Doctoral Education

September 12, 2012

Dear doctoral students,

I am writing to inform you of an issue of importance to graduate education, both at Brown and elsewhere, that is now under consideration at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). For the second time in 10 years, the Board is considering whether graduate students who receive a stipend and serve as teaching or research assistants should be considered employees rather than students.  I write to apprise you of Brown University’s involvement in this issue, following my testimony before a U.S. Congressional committee on this topic.  Please do take the time to read this email.

Graduate education is an educational opportunity that, if successfully completed, leads to an academic degree; graduate education is not a job.  In a 2004 ruling, the National Labor Relations Board confirmed this understanding. In 2004, in Brown University v. NLRB, the NLRB determined that graduate student assistants who teach and do research at our university in connection with their doctoral studies are not statutory employees because they “have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” Consequently, the National Labor Relations Board determined at the time that the United Auto Workers union could not unionize graduate student assistants.   

The NLRB is now reconsidering this issue.  In the current cases, the United Auto Workers’ Graduate Student Organizing Committee is seeking the right to unionize graduate student assistants at New York University and the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.  In July, Brown University filed an amicus brief in support of the two universities.  In the brief, we argue against modifying or overruling the NLRB’s 2004 Brown decision, because to do so would have “permanent and disastrous consequences for private graduate educational institutions whose education model is similar to Brown’s.”  

The 2004 Brown decision emphasized an essential academic tenet: that doctoral students are first and foremost students.  Further, the decision affirmed that programs and departments have the academic freedom to decide the intellectual content of doctoral programs.  The interaction of students and faculty is clearly defined in Brown’s mission,[1] according to which we engage in  “… discovering, communicating and preserving knowledge ….” and we do so “… through a partnership of students and teachers in a unified community…”  The very essence of this mission, that graduate students and faculty pursue the discovery of knowledge in a spirit of partnership, would be imperiled by the overturning of the 2004 Brown decision: re-classifying doctoral students as employees and allowing for union representation would diminish the authority of graduate programs over academic requirements for degrees and potentially involve union leaders in academic decision-making.  It would furthermore introduce a strict hierarchy that would damage the partnership of graduate students and faculty in their shared intellectual pursuit.

Beyond individual interactions of doctoral students and faculty, Brown University prides itself on a strong and participatory governance structure, which provides important channels for dialogue between administrators, faculty, and students. Through the Graduate Student Council (GSC), graduate students are represented on the Graduate Council, which sets policies for the Graduate School. Graduate students are also represented on the University Resources Committee, which is responsible for recommending the University’s annual operating and capital budget to the President, and on the Brown University Community Council, a University-wide representative forum.  It seems doubtful that graduate students would draw more confidence from representation by the United Auto Workers than from these University channels.  If the NLRB were to overturn the 2004 Brown decision that very question may be put to you.  

Since 2004, Brown University has continued to articulate its vision of graduate education, making academic policy and funding decisions that have benefited graduate students.  They include:

  • The nine-month stipend for doctoral students has increased by 34% between 2004-05 and 2012-13.  In many years, the increase in the graduate student stipend level exceeded the increases of other groups on campus. 

  • Very importantly, a five-year funding guarantee for doctoral students has been adopted. The guarantee, which took effect with the cohort of students who matriculated in the fall of 2006, includes a stipend, tuition remission, a health-services fee, and a health-insurance subsidy. This support structure allows doctoral students to focus on their academic endeavors rather than worry about a source of financial support. 

  • Students now have financial incentives to compete for and secure external funding, and the Graduate School holds workshops to assist students to create stronger applications. Brown graduate students now win more than double the number of major academic awards and honors than in 2007-08.

  • The University expanded the minimum support to four summers from three summers, beginning with the cohort of doctoral students entering in September 2010. 

  • In 2011, the Graduate School created a merit-driven process to distribute support to doctoral students who need additional time to complete the dissertation beyond the five-year guarantee period. Input from academic programs and doctoral students shaped the process.

Domestic Ph.D. students should also know that if they were suddenly to be reclassified as employees, they would no longer be exempt from FICA taxes.

As an active participant in your graduate education, you will want to pay attention to the current national developments.  Please be assured that Brown’s administration is watching the situation closely.  If you have any questions or concerns about this matter, please feel free to email me or to stop by my office during open hours.

Sincere regards,

Peter M. Weber
Dean of the Graduate School
Professor of Chemistry