The National Labor Relations Board ruled in July 2004 in a case involving Brown University that graduate students who teach and conduct research in connection with their educational programs at private universities are not employees under federal labor law, and therefore have no right to union representation. The NLRB ruled that graduate teaching and research assistants "are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university." In addition, the Board stated that permitting students of private universities to organize would have a "deleterious impact on the overall educational decisions" by the university on a whole.
Based on the Brown University decision, a petition by the United Auto Workers seeking to represent approximately 1,900 teaching and research assistants at Columbia was also dismissed in August 2004.
The NLRB decision in the Brown case reversed its 2000 ruling which held that graduate assistants at New York University were employees with the right to union representation. In reversing the NYU decision, the Board noted that the NYU case had itself reversed 25 years of precedent holding that students who performed services in connection with their academic programs were not employees under federal labor law.