Members of the Faculty,

With increased activity around graduate student unionization at a number of private universities, including Brown, I am writing to offer guidance to faculty about acceptable forms of interaction to ensure we adhere to the law and offer a climate that is conducive to thoughtful discussion and debate.


Last August, President Paxson, Graduate School Dean Andrew Campbell and I wrote to campus to share news that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that students at Columbia University who serve as teaching or research assistants are employees with the right to decide whether or not to unionize. Since then, there have been petitions filed by unions seeking to represent certain students and elections held at several institutions, including Columbia, Harvard University, Yale University and Duke University.  On our campus, Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees (SUGSE) is organizing a vote later this month to determine whether to affiliate with an outside union and whether Brown students should file a petition with the NLRB.

As we noted in our earlier communications, our primary goal is to ensure that our students have opportunities to be fully informed about the important decision of whether or not to be represented by a union and engage in collective bargaining. The decision of whether or not to be represented by a union is an individual, personal decision that every affected student must make independently. We are committed to supporting open and informed discussion and debate, and to ensuring that we maintain positive and constructive relationships with our students. Our fundamental values, which include promoting a diverse and inclusive community, require that we treat all members with dignity and respect, free from intimidation or harassment by any party.

To inform our community, we have created a website offering resources and Frequently Asked Questions. In addition, the Graduate Student Council will organize an open forum for graduate students to explore the full range of perspectives.

It is important to note that the NLRB has strict guidelines for university and labor union officials that must be adhered to during organizing campaigns and elections. In particular, individuals considered supervisors are required to follow these guidelines. These include members of the faculty, deans, department chairs, and directors of centers, institutes and schools. What follows is guidance for University faculty, deans and other academic leaders to ensure we both comply with the law and promote a climate that upholds our principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression.


Permitted Activities

Maintain Academic Relationship: Faculty should continue to maintain their scholarly relationships with students, engaging in teaching, research and advising, as well as monitoring and promoting academic progress.

Personal Opinions: Faculty are free to have and express their personal opinions about unionization. However, it must be made clear that these opinions and points of view are personal, and not necessarily shared on behalf of a department, center, school, institute or the University.

Share the Facts: Students may request information as they consider their positions on unionization, such as information about stipends, benefits and policies. If you know the information requested, please share it. If you do not, direct the student to resources or individuals who can provide the information. (If students ask for speculation about potential details of a collective bargaining agreement, please note that that specifics would emerge through negotiations, which would occur after a representation election takes place and the union has won.)

Promote Participation: It is acceptable to encourage students to learn about the issues, and to vote should an election be held. The decision of whether a union will represent the petitioned-for students will be decided by the majority of those voting, so it is important for all eligible voters to exercise their right to vote.  At some other universities, small election turnout has resulted in a small percentage of students making the unionization decision for all students, a decision that may stand into the future and is not easily reversed.

Prohibited Activities

Coercion: While faculty are free to have personal opinions and positions, these should not be executed in a coercive manner.

Interrogation: Do not ask students their position on unionization, if they have signed an authorization card to support the union, if they know of others who have a particular stance, or for the names of individuals associated with the union/union leadership. Do not ask for information about the organizational structure of a union, or what transpired at union meetings. It is acceptable to listen if a student volunteers this information, without probing for additional details.

Threats and Intimidation: Threats and intimidation have no place at Brown, and are strictly prohibited in all contexts, including unionization. Threats to a student’s status or conditions as a means to influence a student’s position, opinion or actions related to unionization (or any other issue) are not permitted. Implied threats are also prohibited, such as speculating on the outcome or implications of collective bargaining.

Punishment and Rewards: Do not threaten adverse consequences based on the outcome of an election or a student’s individual positon or opinion. Likewise, do not reward or promise benefits to students based on the outcome of an election or an individual student’s position.

Surveillance: Students must be free to meet, organize and discuss issues related to unionization with the expectation of privacy. It is not permissible to eavesdrop or conduct any type of surveillance.

Deterring Organizing Activities: During their free time, students are free to engage in non-disruptive organizing activities -- such as soliciting other students to support or oppose a union. Organizers who are not students are permitted the same access to University premises as other guests and visitors. Organizers may not interfere with or disrupt University business.

Please visit the following NLRB websites for additional guidance for employers:

If you have any questions about this guidance or acceptable conduct at Brown in the context of unionization, please contact [email protected]. We are committed to cultivating a climate that supports robust discussion and debate on these matters, while respecting the rights of all parties to exercise their individual rights. Thank you for your cooperation and support in this effort.


Richard M. Locke