FAS Holds Meetings for Faculty to Discuss Graduate Student Unionization

UPDATED: October 6, 2016 at 3:50 p.m.

Responding to suggestions from the Faculty Council, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is hosting town hall sessions for professors, administrators, and the University’s labor representatives to discuss graduate student unionization.

In an email to the Faculty obtained by The Crimson, FAS Dean Michael D. Smith wrote that the recent National Labor Relations Board decision granting undergraduate and graduate student teaching and research assistants the right to form a union “has raised many questions among the faculty.”

For faculty and administrators, there is ambiguity surrounding the unionization effort. Just as many undergraduates were unaware that they now have the right to form a union, Smith said he was unaware they were considering unionizing.

“This is news to me,” Smith said in an interview. “Up to this point I hadn’t heard that there were undergraduates organizing or thinking about unionizing.”

Smith’s email went on to state that “discussion sessions” would be held “at the suggestion of the Faculty Council.” The four sessions will be held in each FAS division—Arts and Humanities, Science, and Social Sciences—and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Three of these sessions have already occurred, while the Arts and Humanities event will be held Oct. 11.

Smith said faculty members “didn’t have enough understanding of the issues that are going on here, how they should be thinking about this, not from the point of view of me telling them what to think, but what information is out there that they can get access to.”

The idea for the discussions arose from a Faculty Council conversation, according to Japanese History professor David L. Howell, a member of the Council. Calling them “town halls,” Howell wrote in an email that the Council wanted to provide a space for faculty to ask questions and “generally get a better understanding of what [the NLRB decision] means for students, faculty, and the university.”

“I think it’s important for faculty to have access to as much information as possible. No single perspective—whether that of union organizers, the administration, or anyone else—should monopolize the discourse,” Howell wrote, speaking from his own perspective. “I see the town halls as part of a broader conversation.”

While representatives from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Office of Labor Relations, and the Office of the General Counsel were invited to attend, graduate student union spokesperson Jack M. Nicoludis said students were not invited or directly informed of the meetings.

“The administration has called for open conversations about graduate unionization but these meetings are only an opportunity to spread their messaging,” Nicoludis wrote in an email.

Nicoludis called the meetings an example of administrative interference and anti-union campaigning.

“We should be free to discuss unionization with our fellow graduate workers without pressure from our supervisors,” he wrote. “We want faculty to see that it is grad workers who decide whether we unionize, and that they should not take part of the administration’s anti-union campaign.”

FAS spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven declined to comment on which administrators attended the town halls, although Smith said he did not attend the first two.

Nicoludis added that the union effort's neutrality pledge campaign geared toward faculty, circulated since last spring, has more than 100 faculty signatures. The pledge urges them to refrain from “public statements, one-on-one meetings, distribution of literature, or any other active campaigning or activities intended to affect the free choice of graduate workers” and to call on administrators to do the same. A different neutrality pledge that can be signed by anyone has "many hundreds" of signatures, he said.

Members of the union effort recently put together an FAQ document geared toward faculty on their website. One of the questions is, “Is Harvard’s administration really promoting an ‘open conversation’ about graduate unionization?”

“There will be plenty of other events I’m sure moving forward that can allow both sides to present their side of the argument,” Smith said.

“We need to make sure that we’re really hearing from everybody and not just a small percentage of graduate students,” he added, referring to union organizers.

—Melissa C. Rodman and Jonathan G. Adler contributed reporting for this article.

—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Yared.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:

CLARIFICATION: October 6, 2016

An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that the Graduate student unionization movement has circulated one neutrality pledge. In fact, it has circulated two, one of which is specifically geared towards faculty.