Provost’s Letter on National Labor Relations Board Ruling

August 24, 2016

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reversed a position it has held for the past 12 years and decided that students at private universities may be treated as employees for the purposes of the National Labor Relations Act when they are appointed to positions as teaching assistants or research assistants. The decision overturns a 2004 ruling involving Brown University.

Columbia and many of our peer universities have challenged this position. Nearly all of the students at Columbia affected by this decision are graduate students. We believe that the daily activities and the advisor-advisee relationships involved in the scholarly training of graduate students define an experience that is different from that of the typical workplace. Being a graduate student can take many years of intense research, teaching and study. But unlike university employees, graduate students who serve as teaching or research assistants come to this institution first and foremost to acquire through that work the knowledge and expertise that are essential to their becoming future scholars and teachers.

Students whom the NLRB determines are eligible to vote will soon have an opportunity to express their own views on this matter in an upcoming election, on a date to be announced by the NLRB. All those eligible to vote in the election will weigh for themselves the potential benefits and drawbacks of having their interests represented by the United Auto Workers. For my part—and, in this, I speak for my colleagues in the University administration and for many faculty members—I am concerned about the impact of having a non-academic third-party involved in the highly individualized and varied contexts in which faculty teach and train students in their departments, classrooms, and laboratories.

Over the past decade, Columbia’s schools have made great strides in addressing a number of stipend and quality-of-life concerns. We have established a productive dialogue with the Graduate School Advisory Council and with other student organizations that has resulted in enhancements for Ph.D. as well as M.A. students. The University will continue on this path not only because it is right, but also because it helps us attract the very best students in the world.

In the coming weeks, students should inform themselves of the arguments on both sides of this important issue. More information, including answers to frequently asked questions and the text of the NLRB decision and other documents, is available at unionization.provost.columbia.edu.

We look forward to engaging in a respectful and open conversation about the potential benefits and drawbacks of overlaying our academic enterprise with the uniformity and contractual formality of union representation.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, we will continue to ensure that Columbia remains a place where every student can achieve the highest levels of intellectual accomplishment and personal fulfillment.

Sincerely,
John H. Coatsworth