Information on Pending NLRB Decision

July 12, 2016

Members of the Brown Community,

Graduate education has been central to Brown’s mission for well over a century. Today, graduate students at Brown compose approximately one-quarter of the student population and contribute in significant and enduring ways to teaching, research and the advancement of knowledge across the disciplines. Conversations are taking place here at Brown and throughout the country about the role graduate students play in the educational and research mission and operations of private universities such as Brown. In particular, at Brown and at a number of our peer institutions, discussions have focused on whether graduate student teaching and research assistants at private universities should be regarded as students, as they are under current law, or as employees with the right to unionize.  

Private university employees are covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) as administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Under current law, graduate student teaching and research assistants at private institutions of higher education are considered students first and foremost, and not employees, and thus are not subject to unionization. In two pending cases, the United Auto Workers union has asked the NLRB to reconsider the current classifications. Arguments for and against reconsideration have been submitted to the NLRB. The decision, expected later this summer, could have important implications for graduate education at private institutions of higher education across the country.  

If the NLRB changes current law and determines that some or all graduate student teaching and research assistants may be classified as employees, Brown graduate student assistants will have the right to consider whether or not they wish to be represented by a union. This is a significant responsibility and choice, and it is an important and opportune moment for our community to engage in open and productive dialogue about graduate education and the potential role and implications of unionization. While the University has stated clearly that it views teaching and research as integral to graduate education and that graduate students are students, and not employees, the University also respects the right of graduate students to engage in dialogue about union representation. Should the NLRB reverse the 2004 decision[i] stating that graduate students at private universities are students and not employees, Brown will respect that decision and encourage open discussion and debate over whether or not it is in the graduate students’ best interests to unionize. It is essential that these discussions be free of any form of intimidation by any party.

Regardless of the NLRB’s ruling, it is valuable for graduate students and the broader community to consider how graduate education is supported and conducted at Brown. For Brown to achieve its greatest aspirations and advance our academic mission, we must continue to attract and support the most promising graduate students across the disciplines, and the University is committed to strengthening support for and engagement of graduate students.

We look forward to constructive dialogue on the topic of graduate education and graduate student unionization in the coming weeks and months. The resources included on this website provide information that may help to inform these discussions


Richard M. Locke