Statement from President Brodhead on NLRB Vote for Graduate Students

To the Duke community:

I write regarding a proposal that concerns all masters and Ph.D. students in The Graduate School who are also teaching and research assistants at Duke. This past week, the university received notice that the Service Employees International Union has filed a petition on behalf of this group for an election at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and an election may now be held at Duke.

As the NLRB has considered this question in the past, it has held for many years that graduate students should be considered primarily as students. However, in a decision on August 23, 2016 involving Columbia University, the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities could be considered as employees. This decision may give certain graduate students the legal right to organize a labor union for purposes of collective bargaining, and graduate students at various universities in the United States are considering this ruling and its meaning for their campuses.

I encourage the entire Duke community to become informed about this important issue through the information posted at this website. Furthermore, if an election is held at Duke, I encourage all eligible graduate student assistants to vote. The question of whether graduate students at Duke will be unionized will be determined by a simple majority of those who vote—not a majority of the total number of eligible students—but the outcome will be binding on all current and future students of The Graduate School who hold an assistantship.

The university will in no way intrude upon the right of any individual voter to consider this issue and vote on it. I and the rest of the administration hope that members of the university community will debate this question and express their views in a free and full manner in anticipation of a possible vote.

That being said, since graduate education represents an integral part of the academic mission of a research university, the university necessarily has a view about this potential development. Having been a graduate student myself and having spent my entire career as a faculty member and university leader, I write to express the perspective of the university on this question. In their roles across the university—as teaching assistants, lab assistants, graders, instructors, and section leaders—graduate students contribute in many ways to the university. However, graduate students are not selected to join the university community on the basis of their aptitude for these tasks, and their continued relationship with the university is not predicated on how well they fulfill these roles. Rather, these responsibilities serve the important purpose of training and providing practical experience for the future careers of our graduates.

All this is to say that Duke’s relationship with its graduate students is quite different from that of employer to employee, and we do not believe that representation of students by a non-academic third party, focused on just one piece of a student’s experience, is in the best interest of students or the university.

At Duke, we are proud of our graduate students and the myriad ways they contribute to our university community, and we are proud of the strong support we provide to further their intellectual development and professional growth. We hope that faculty can continue to interact with students flexibly and creatively, with an eye to what makes the best sense for each individual with regard to teaching, learning, mentoring, research, and career development—a freedom that could be lost when these matters are ruled by binding collective agreements.

As we consider the implications for Duke, we remain willing to engage in good faith with students on any issue of concern. Above all, we urge the community to become informed—and, if an election is held, we urge eligible students to vote in this consequential decision.



Richard Brodhead