Meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Wednesday, April 25, 2001
President Rupp convened the meeting at 12:12 p.m.
2. David Helfand, chair of the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (ECFAS), reported that ECFAS was dealing with a number of issues and would be seeking faculty feedback on them.
President Rupp noted that he could not agree with the point that the university should not take a position on graduate student unionization. He observed that it would be incorrect to suggest that the university has no interest in the matter and expressed the belief that it would be irresponsible for the university not to give it serious consideration. Unionization of students cannot be seen as a trivial matter and, as president, he has no choice but to vigorously press the position that is in the best interest of the university and its students in the longer-term.
President Rupp went on to note that the fundamental question being considered by the institution is not whether employees should be unionized, but whether students should be unionized. He reminded faculty that the university has a 30-year history of working successfully with unions and that graduate students were unionized at only one other private institution—New York University (NYU). He reminded faculty that the decision that students could unionize at private universities came about as a result of a five-to-three split vote of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
In response to a question from the floor, Vice President David Cohen noted that the stipulation of the covered group currently excludes research assistants uptown, at Nevis and at Lamont. He indicated that it was unclear to him why graduate students in the basic sciences programs or in DEES or Physics should somehow be differentiated in this matter. Professor Norma Gram asked if research assistants are unionized anywhere else. Vice President Cohen noted that, in public institutions, state rules determine who is and who is not in a graduate student union. He noted that many exclude those working only on their dissertations, and research assistants in science laboratories have tended to be viewed in this way. He went on to say that, if Columbia were to unionize, Columbia and NYU will be breaking new ground as they will be the only institutions governed by the National Labor Relations Act rather than by state law.
Professor Paul Anderer commented that the question of unionizing graduate students is one that needs serious faculty deliberation, with everyone feeling comfortable to speak out freely about the matter regardless of perspective. He noted that just because we do not have a consensus about the situation does not mean we should not have an open and deliberate discussion that explores all of the points of view. Acting Dean Lindt also expressed her deep desire that the conversation not become divisive, but she noted that it was critical for faculty to be fully informed about what would happen if the union is approved. She said that a major concern for her was that those expressing negative views on unionization or speaking out on what will happen if the union is approved not somehow become demonized. Provost Jonathan Cole agreed that faculty and administration must be able to speak out without fear of criticism on matters of national educational policy. He expressed his personal belief that unionization of graduate students would move us from a mentor/colleague model to one of supervisor/employee.
Professor Elaine Sisman observed that the faculty’s desire to engage in a wide-ranging civil dialogue on the topic seems to run counter to the circumstances in which it now finds itself. Another faculty member noted that she had come from a unionized training program and thought it was important for faculty to hear that it had been a terrible experience. She asked when there would be an opportunity for junior faculty to speak out on the issue. President Rupp reminded faculty that a large part of the difficulty they were experiencing in trying to have a meaningful discussion is because the terrain for the discussion is being defined by an entity entirely external to the university. A faculty member rose to ask why the move for unionization is occurring now. Vice President Cohen noted that the impetus for unionization is not the result of an internal drive, but rather grew out of pressure from the United Auto Workers seeking to increase membership. He acknowledged that graduate education at Columbia was not where the institution believed it ought to be and that the institution had begun making changes with the first iteration of the Graduate School Enhancement Plan in 1997. A good deal more has been done since then, and even more is planned. Professor Alice Kessler-Harris noted that more than 500 students had signed cards to hold an election, and she viewed that as a sign that at least some students had grievances. She noted that she had come from a unionized public institution where things seemed to work and said that it was not yet clear to her why the public/private institution distinction was so critical. Provost Cole reported that we do have a mechanism to represent the interests of graduate students—the Graduate Student Advisory Committee (GSAC). It has been in existence for some time, and has served effectively to express graduate student concerns to the Graduate School and to the broader institutional administration. Acting Dean Lindt agreed that good things have been coming out of such discussions and that she relies on GSAC to help her in thinking about graduate student needs.
Professor Gene Litwak said that be thought that the first thing that needed to be done was to clarify whether graduate students were students or employees, that it was important to make that distinction. Then, if it is determined that they are employees, the second question to be considered was whether or not they should be unionized. It seemed to him premature to have a vote for unionization first. Professor Richard Bulliet noted that he was a bit perplexed by the inconsistency of the administration’s position. It demonstrates strong institutional support for unions in general, but not for unionization of students. He asked whether unionized students at Columbia will somehow really be different from those at Berkeley and other public institutions. For him, the key question to be answered is whether being governed by the NLRB rather than by state law will somehow mean that the circumstances will be different at Columbia. He believes that faculty should make up their minds based on the comparison of the status of unionized graduate students operating under NLRB oversight as opposed to those governed by state law. President Rupp indicated that that analysis would be done and provided to the faculty. It was also mutually agreed that both the ECFAS letter on the subject of unionization, and the President’s response, would be circulated to the faculty.
a) Professor Rebay rose to speak to the matter of the ongoing presidential search. He expressed the view that the selection of a new president was among the most critical considerations for an institution. He reminded faculty that Henry King, the chair of the search committee, had invited them to actively participate in the process and he urged his colleagues to respond to the invitation and let the committee know their wishes.
By consensus, President Rupp adjourned the meeting at 1:57 p.m.
Roxie R. Smith