Message from Provost Maltzman on Graduate Student Unionization

Provost explains decision regarding graduate education at GW.

March 9, 2018

Dear Graduate Students, Faculty, and Other Members of the University Community:

On February 28, 2018, President LeBlanc received a brief communication from a group calling itself “GW Graduate Students United” seeking to form a labor union to represent GW graduate students. The group is affiliated with the SEIU Local 500 union. The communication did not specify which graduate students it represents. Nor did it articulate any specific issues or concerns. No petition has been filed to hold an election through the National Labor Relations Board.

As GW’s chief academic officer responsible not only for the graduate educational programs, but also more generally the student experience at GW, I responded at President LeBlanc’s request. On March 6, I informed the group that the university declined its request to be recognized as the representative of GW’s graduate students. I would like to explain why I did so.

First, I want to emphasize my appreciation for the many contributions that the labor movement has made in many industries and over time. In fact, a number of GW employees are represented by unions and we have good relationships with those unions.  

That does not mean, however, that unionization makes sense in all contexts and at all times. I strongly believe it does not make sense for the relationship between the university and its graduate students. Here’s why.

Coursework and classroom learning are of course key to graduate education, but they are not the only elements of that education. Gaining teaching experience, often including course design, working 1:1 with students, and leading sections, or conducting research under the mentorship of our faculty, also serve critical roles in the overall educational experience. The mentoring opportunities a student receives frequently shape a student’s professional career. That is why tuition fellowships and stipends are usually treated as merit-based aid decided in the admissions process. 

A collective bargaining process would insert a third party into the relationship between students and faculty members in key elements of the educational experience. I believe it would inevitably limit the ability of our schools and faculty to creatively support our students and would disrupt the mentoring opportunities that are so important to building world-class graduate educational programs. And, as one who has built a career in the academy and has experienced—as a graduate student, as the director of graduate studies in my department, and as a faculty member—the importance of mentoring relationships between graduate students and their faculty advisors, I am deeply concerned that unionization would have a detrimental effect on those relationships. I firmly believe this would not be in the best interests of our students or the university.

This concern is shared by most top tier research universities, including Yale, University of Chicago, Emory, Duke, Penn, Cornell, and Washington University in St. Louis, all of whom have faced union organizing drives of their graduate students and have similarly expressed their respective concerns regarding graduate student unionization. At each of those universities, graduate students have rejected unionization or the unions themselves have withdrawn from seeking to represent such students after the university made the case that graduate packages are part of a student’s educational experience.  

To be clear: This university is committed to graduate student education and much of this is based upon the creation of teaching and research opportunities. This is precisely why the university’s strategic plan called for the creation of additional competitive packages (see page 27 of VISION 2021) and many of our doctoral students now have packages that are worth over $50,000 annually.      

Furthermore, I view dialogue and discussion with graduate students about graduate education at GW as a key component of enhancing our programs. Currently, student input is received through a variety of means, e.g., through discussions at the department and school level, and through organizations such as the Student Association. Ensuring more student feedback and input can make our programs even stronger.

Accordingly, I have asked my academic team, including school deans, to discuss and develop mechanisms to ensure that graduate students have meaningful opportunities to share their ideas and concerns, and to engage in a larger conversation about how to enhance the graduate educational experience at GW. I view this process as an important piece of President LeBlanc’s efforts to improve the overall student experience at GW.  Updates on the results of these discussions will be provided. Any members of our community with suggestions, questions or comments can also email them to my office anytime at [email protected].

One final thought. The university respects the right, under federal labor law, to seek to organize through the process regulated by the National Labor Relations Act. As I said at the beginning of this message, no petition for an election through the National Labor Relations Board has been filed. If the university receives a petition requesting an election through the NLRB it will fully participate in that process, including making the case that the assistantships that are awarded to GW graduate students should be seen through the lens they were intended to be: teaching and research opportunities that are offered to our best students as an integral part of their educational experience.

Forrest Maltzman
Provost and Professor of Political Science
The George Washington University