November 10, 2010

The Fine Line Between Student and Employee

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Last week’s decision by the National Labor Relations Board to reconsider its position on allowing graduate student unionization awakened parties on both sides of an old debate: Should graduate students be considered employees, students or some gray area in between the two? Obviously, there is no easy answer, but the NLRB’s ruling will have a dramatic impact on every university.

Graduate students are defined by the fact that they attend an institution of higher education. The primary reason that they are at a university is to learn and conduct research, with “teaching” largely an afterthought. On the other hand, most graduate students pursuing a Ph.D. at Cornell are required to teach for at least a semester as a condition of their degree. This suggests that while their main identity is that of a student, to some extent they must be considered employees. Therefore, it is evident that graduate students cannot be singularly defined as students or employees, but rather must be some murky combination of the two.

Regardless of whether or not graduate students can be legally defined as employees, we have to consider how their potential unionization would affect the relationship between the University and the graduate student body. As a institution designed to produce knowledge, ensuring the free flow of ideas between professors, teaching assistants and undergraduates is essential. A mutual trust is vital to this flow of ideas, as it cultivates a sense that the University is united in its goal of producing knowledge and spurring progress. In an educational community where the success of the institution is dependent on the unhindered stream of ideas, though, unionization by graduate students creates a potentially hostile relationship that can compromise the mission of the university.

A productive working relationship and educational environment requires cooperation and trust on the part of both graduate students and the universities they attend. Graduate students unquestionably deserve to be fairly compensated. But they also have a vested stake in the university fulfilling its mission. The adversarial relationship that could be created by collective bargaining may only hinder a university’s educational mission, thereby detracting from graduate students’ overall educational experience — the reason they are at a university to begin with.

Nevertheless, the university in question must hold up its end of the bargain. Graduate students are an integral part of any university’s research and educational capabilities, and must be compensated justly and competitively. Unlike corporations, which have a legal obligation to maximize profits, the strength of a university is dependent on a healthy, productive relationship among all of its educational constituencies — including graduate students who teach.