The latest dispute in higher education, highlighted by a recent three-day walkout at the University of Chicago, is whether graduate students in private universities should be allowed to unionize. A federal government ruling made this possible in 2016, but that policy may soon be reversed.
As a faculty member, I believe unionization would be a mistake, most of all in the longer run. (I have been overseeing graduate students, using them as research assistants and raising money to support them in varying roles, for about 30 years at George Mason University, where there is no such union.)
One core reason to have unions is to boost the real wages of needy workers. But graduate students are not employees in the traditional sense. They are receiving training, often on very favorable terms.
Typically, a university invests large sums to make those students employable and successful, usually on the academic market; the University of Chicago says it invests more than $500,000 per doctoral student.
If those students demanded and received higher wages for their teaching, the university would not necessarily increase its investment in them at all; it could simply reallocate existing funds. Thus it is misleading to think there is a real bargaining situation here.
Think of a university as an investor in these students, and toward that end it must choose between boosting their academic quality through better training, or paying them higher stipends and teaching wages to ease their immediate financial concerns. The incentive for the university, which cares about its broader and longer-term reputation, is to invest in the quality of those students but pay them smaller amounts (though enough to live on).
In contrast, the incentive for a graduate student union would be to push for higher wages, given that the other university investments are less visible and hard to monitor.
Unlike typical private employers that face unions, a university has a strong incentive to improve the marketability of its graduate students so they can move to something better.
My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith and I have argued that top universities don’t take in nearly enough students and that if they boosted enrollment, they could increase social and economic mobility.
Would graduate student unions favor such proposals or seek to protect the privileged status of current students and discourage new entrants? We don’t know, but I fear the unions could be another special interest thwarting badly needed changes in higher education.
Or say schools found a way to reach thousands or millions of graduate students with online education programs, as Georgia Tech has been doing with great success and in a very inclusive manner. I worry that graduate student unions might view those online programs as limiting their ability to gain teaching experience, or they might demand a significant share of the revenue, which could limit the incentive of universities to attempt such experiments.
In general, when considering this issue, ask yourself a question: When it comes to bringing about change, do today’s universities have too many veto points or too few?
Some researchers have pointed out that graduate student unions don’t seem to have harmed the public universities that allow them (such unions, which are permissible in many states, would not be affected by the federal government’s decision). The evidence may be compelling in the short run, but the real costs are likely to come later, by slowing down or preventing beneficial changes to the U.S. system of higher education. Furthermore, state labor laws dramatically limit what public employees can negotiate for. Unionized graduate students at private universities would not face similar restrictions.
I also worry about the political implications of such unions. Once a union is present, it will be hard for graduate students who wish to teach to stay out of it. Yet such unions, as they would be regulated under federal law, could support political causes, and today’s private universities are already highly politicized. Is the cause of freedom of expression really helped by forcing graduate students to financially support, with their union dues, political positions they may disagree with?
I recognize that worker unions have done a great deal of good in American history. I just don’t think today’s private universities are the right place for them.