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Yale's Treatment Of TAs on Trial In NLRB Hearing

By Jay S. Kimmelman

Today the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will conclude its first week of hearings to decide if Yale University engaged in unfair labor practices against graduate students last fall.

At the end of the 1995 fall semester, 250 graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) instituted a "grade strike," in which grades for fall semester courses were withheld. The strike was designed to force Yale to recognize a legitimate union for TAs, according to the Graduate Employees Students Organization at Yale (GESO).

But instead, the university threatened the TAs on strike with a ban on future teaching, academic disciplinary hearings, negative letters of recommendation and possible expulsion. GESO responded by filing an unfair-labor practice suit with the NLRB against Yale University.

The Hearing

After the charge was filed by the graduate students, the issue of unfair labor practices was investigated by the Hartford region of the NLRB.

"It was viewed that sufficient evidence had been presented to show that these individuals were employees and that the university had engaged in unlawful conduct," says John S. Cotter, acting assistant to the regional director of the Hartford, Conn., office of the NLRB.

Cotter says that because of the highly complex and involved nature of the issue, the hearings are likely to continue on an irregular basis for a few weeks.

A decision by the administrative law judge at the hearing will be subject to appeal to the five-member NLRB in Washington, D.C., Cotter says. An appeal of the administrative law judge's decision is likely regardless of the outcome, Cotter adds.

The board's decision is also subject to appeal to federal court.

The Issue

During the hearing, the university will argue that NLRB precedent should be upheld concerning the classification of graduate students as employees, according to Thomas P. Conroy, acting director of public affairs at Yale.

The university will argue that the teaching done by graduate students is part of their educational process and therefore should not be considered employment as defined by the National Labor Relations act, Conroy says. Teaching is, in fact, required by Yale as a part of its graduate studies program.

"Teaching by graduate students working towards their Ph.D. degree at Yale is an integral part of their academic program that prepares them to become future teachers and scholars in their chosen disciplines," says Thomas Appelquist, dean of the Graduate School at Yale, in a news release. "The graduate students weren't hired by Yale, they enrolled here," Conroy says.

Yale officials claim that an employee status would greatly harm the relationship between graduate students and faculty.

"The productive and collegial relationship would suffer if it turned into an employee-employer relationship," Conroy says.

Leaders of the GESO were in Hartford for the hearing yesterday and were unavailable for comment.

Response and Ramifications

For some, this case is seen as a test case for similar attempts at unionization by graduate student TAs across the country, and there has been both support and condemnation in response to the case.

The American Association of Universities' Executive Committee has publicly voiced its opposition to the graduate students' charge.

An Executive Committee news release reads:

"The proposed filing [by the NLRB against Yale] presupposes a view of graduate education that fundamentally misconstrues the actual nature of graduate education in the United States and could produce damaging alterations in the conduct and financing of this exceptionally effective enterprise.

"[A ruling in favor of the graduate students] would undermine the defining characteristics of American graduate education, characteristics which have produced some of the world's strongest graduate programs."

At least a few Harvard professors and administrators have voiced their support for Yale.

"I believe that the NLRB has been correct in recognizing, for more than two decades, that graduate teaching fellows should not be characterized as employees of their universities, but as students enrolled in degree programs," says Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine in a Harvard news release.

"I very much hope that the board will ultimately reaffirm that long-standing principle," Rudenstine says.

Harvard Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Christoph Wolff says he agrees that a ruling for the students would have negative ramifications.

"I think it would fundamentally alter the landscape, changing the relationships between professors and students," Wolff says.

"The mentoring function of professors is severely affected if students are considered primarily [employees]," Wolff adds.


Students and administrators at Harvard say they don't see similar conflicts at Harvard.

"I don't think our students are in a comparable situation....I don't get the feeling that our students feel in any way that they should push for a redefinition of their status as employees," Wolff says.

The lack of widespread discontent at Harvard can be attributed to the better care and compensation that Harvard provides its graduate students, says Elgin K. Eckert, vice-president of the Graduate Student Council (GSC).

Eckert says that graduate students are compensated and treated even better once they start teaching, as opposed to what she believes is the situation at Yale.

According to statistics released by Yale Graduate School, the annual stipend for graduate students' living expenses in the Humanities and Social Sciences is $10,200. The typical stipend for a student with teaching responsibilities both semesters is $90 more.

Ninety percent of Yale's graduate students do not pay tuition out-of-pocket. Support for tuition does not change in years when students teach.

"Harvard takes much better care of us in most departments once we start teaching. At Harvard, departments really try to give even more when you teach than if you just have a fellowship," Eckert says.

Adam P. Fagen, president of the GSC, also says he believes higher compensation may be a reason for the difference between the two universities. "My sense is that students at Yale are paid significantly less for presumably comparable work than at Harvard. Students at Harvard are treated quite well in comparison," Fagen says.

Dismissal Overruled

On Monday, Judge Michael O. Miller denied a Yale motion to dismiss the case. The motion contends that this case is not significantly different from those that form NLRB precedent.

In previous cases, spanning two decades, the NLRB ruled consistently that the prospect of collective bargaining between students and teachers was "an anathema" and the "very antithesis" of the educational process, according to Yale's motion.

The university argued that since the NLRB has previously denied graduate students the status of employees, the charge of unfair labor practices, which applies only to employees covered under the National Labor Relations Act, should be dismissed.

However, university officials say they are not worried about the ruling against them.

"The motion to dismiss was one aspect of our legal case and the fact that the judge did not accept it is not unexpected at all and we weren't counting on it," says Conroy.

Conroy says that these motions are rarely accepted because the judge frequently wants to hear both sides of the issue.

Members of the GESO are more optimistic about future prospects with this new ruling.

"We can only hope that with this ruling, Yale will finally abandon the rhetoric of denial and acknowledge the work done by its graduate teachers," says GESO spokesperson Robin Brown in a press release.

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