Graduate Student Unionization

March 21, 2017

Dear Graduate Students,
I write with regard to recent misinformation released by Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees (SUGSE) in its efforts to form a union of graduate students at Brown. 

Last August, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate research and teaching assistants at private universities could be classified as both students and employees and thus decide for themselves whether or not to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. Soon after this ruling, President Paxson, Graduate School Dean Campbell and I wrote to the University community stating that we would comply with this change in the law and work to promote an environment that supports open, fair and fact-based discussion and debate so that individual graduate students can make an informed decision on whether or not it is in their best interests to unionize. We continue to stand by this commitment – a commitment that I have repeated and reinforced throughout the year at every University-wide faculty meeting and at each monthly meeting of the department chairs and center/institute directors. 

It is in this spirit that I feel compelled to write. Now more than ever, facts and truth matter, and we must adhere to this core principle during this important process of deliberation and decision-making.

SUGSE recently released a paper as background for a scheduled vote they are organizing to determine which national union federation Brown graduate students may wish to affiliate with. Sharing information to guide an important decision is useful and I commend SUGSE for its efforts to do this. Unfortunately, many of the items presented as “factual” in the document are, in fact, inaccurate and misleading. It is essential that graduate students have the benefit of full and fair information as they assess their choices.  

For example, the document claims that many of the recent enhancements to graduate student stipends, benefits and quality-of-life support were the result of SUGSE pressure and advocacy. In fact, enhancing graduate education is an important component of Brown's strategic plan, Building on Distinction, released in 2013, which states, "A major focus in the coming years will be to continue to improve the quality and visibility of Brown’s doctoral programs." Brown has taken deliberate actions in recent years to strengthen graduate education and to increase support for graduate students – through competitive stipends, no-cost dental insurance for doctoral students, child support, an enhanced parental leave policy, sixth-year funding and improved summer support for doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences, etc. – because the University values graduate education and the talented students enrolled in our graduate programs throughout the University. We promoted these additions because it was the right thing to do.

We took these actions – working together with graduate students through a system of shared governance – because we are committed to competing for the most promising students and providing an environment in which they are able to thrive. We will continue to strengthen our graduate programs and enhance support for our graduate students regardless of whether or not graduate students decide to form a union at Brown.

The SUGSE document also suggests that Brown is following a national trend of "dismantling the tenure-track system" and seeking to reduce and replace tenure track positions and relying more on graduate students and adjuncts. In fact, the University has expanded the regular (tenure-stream and long-term lecturer) faculty by 27% in the past 15 years, while the undergraduate population has grown by 13% over that period. This expansion of the regular faculty has meant that the percentage of students at Brown taught by adjuncts has not increased in recent years. In addition, our Dean of the Faculty office has hired a significant number of previously temporary faculty into long-term regular faculty positions, providing them with full benefits and very competitive compensation.   

SUGSE also claims to have taken a leading role in the development of the University’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP). While graduate, undergraduate and medical students played very important roles in the development and refinement of the DIAP – something the administration and faculty have publicly acknowledged and celebrated over the last year –SUGSE as an organized group did not play an active role. I cannot recall SUGSE representation in any of the scores of meetings I had with concerned students over the course of this process. Perhaps individual students affiliated with SUGSE were present at some of those meetings, but, if so, they never identified themselves as such. Claiming credit for the DIAP that in fact was the product of the work of hundreds of people – undergraduate, graduate and medical students, staff, faculty, alumni and members of the administration – is not only misleading, but it also unfairly diminishes the contributions of others. 

Let me conclude by recognizing that there is still much work to do to strengthen our graduate programs and enhance support for our graduate students. And, like SUGSE, I too reject “the anti-education and anti-worker policies” of the current administration in Washington. But if we are going to have an open and honest conversation about graduate student unionization on our campus, adhering to the truth and to the facts is essential. This is critical not just for the issue of graduate student unionization, but for our fundamental values as a university.


Richard M. Locke