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Op-ed: Making the case against graduate students unionizing

Apr 9, 2022

Recently, some of our graduate students who work part time in academic positions have advocated partnering with the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America to form a union.  

Indiana University believes a graduate student employee union is not in the interests of our graduate students or of our state. We are not anti-union – we work productively with AFSCME and CWA, who represent some IU staff – but unionization is counterproductive to addressing the critical needs of our students. This is most effectively and successfully accomplished through their faculty advisors, academic departments and schools.

IU’s graduate student employees are first and foremost graduate students. They are at IU for an education. Paid academic work is a key part of that education for some, but it is only a part. That is why student academic appointments are part time, so that work is balanced with other academic activities like attending class, conducting research and writing dissertations.

Our more than 10,000 graduate students work closely with faculty and with each other. In fact, many of our graduate students come to IU because of the opportunity to work with particular faculty or in a specific department or lab. The relationships among graduate students and with their faculty advisors are often the most important and enduring in their professional lives.

Injecting a union into these relationships would create the antithesis of why students pursue their graduate degrees – changing the focus from full-time education to part-time work. In essence, it would alter their status from students to employees.

The approximately one-fourth of our graduate students who work in part-time academic positions benefit from an expanded educational experience, working closely with their academic mentors in teaching undergraduate classes and supporting critical initiatives within their home departments and schools.

IU invests on average about $51,000 per student academic appointee in the form of stipends, tuition, fee waivers, insurance and other benefits – for part-time, 10-month positions. That is before a recently approved 5% stipend increase takes effect – the result of the university’s commitment to listening and acting to support the needs of our graduate students. Our university, schools and academic departments are dedicated to maintaining open and active dialogue with IU’s graduate students to ensure that their evolving needs are addressed.

We are concerned that graduate student employees advocating for unionization would be harmed by a reclassification from student to part-time employee. Among the harmful impacts would be the elimination of academic freedom protections and insurance coverage and tuition waivers that are available only to staff employees who work full-time.

In our view, this does not serve our students. A union for graduate student employees will only be an obstruction as we work together to create opportunities for all of our students and the state we are privileged to serve.

James C. Wimbush is dean of The University Graduate School; vice president for diversity, equity and multicultural affairs; and Johnson Chair for Diversity and Leadership at Indiana University.

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