David Yaffe-Bellany

After students teaching in six graduate school departments voted on Thursday to unionize, faculty members have taken a variety of stances on the issue, with some expressing disappointment in the result and others celebrating alongside students in their departments. 

In the months leading up to the election, the University actively opposed graduate student unionization, arguing that graduate teaching requirements are a part of Yale’s graduate education and thus do not constitute employment. Though seventeen out of 21 faculty members approached by the News declined to be interviewed. Still, faculty members and administrators interviewed said they believed students’ decision to unionize across several hand-picked departments was not a victory because the strategy of choosing micro-units was undemocratic, and unionized students pose a challenge from an academic standpoint.

“Many of my colleagues across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences continue to believe that graduate students are primarily students and that making professors the formal legal supervisors of graduate student teaching fellow ‘employees’ would be detrimental to both undergraduate and graduate education at Yale,” FAS Dean Tamar Gendler said. “The questionable unionization process that Local 33 has pursued only reinforces these concerns by disenfranchising an overwhelming majority of the Graduate School.”

Roughly 300 students participated in Thursday’s elections. The nine voting departments — Math, Sociology, History, History of Art, English, Geology and Geophysics, Physics, Political Science and East Asian Languages and Literatures — were selected to ensure that most, if not all of the participating micro-units would vote to unionize, according to psychology professor Frank Keil.

Outliers included the Physics Department, which voted against unionization, and the Political Science and East Asian Languages and Literatures departments, where numerous challenged ballots due to unclear voter eligibility left the election results undecided.

Keil said he was surprised that even with what he called the “cherry-picking” of micro-units, Local 33 did not win decisive victories in three out of nine departments. He added that most of the students and faculty he has spoken with are displeased with the election’s outcome and expressed cynicism about the movement’s agenda.

“They see it as an unfair process that ultimately may create unnecessary bureaucratic and procedural swamps, siphoning off funds that could better serve graduate education in other ways, and at odds with the clear pedagogical mission of being a teaching fellow,” Keil said.

Psychology professor Marvin Chun suggested that the unionization process might become an “administrative distraction for all” that diverts resources away from the University’s efforts to directly address graduate students’ educational and personal needs. He said he worried that the best interests of the entire graduate school student body are not represented through the fractionated voting strategy and mixed election results.

The election’s outcome highlighted the extent of the disagreement among graduate students on the question of unionization, said Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Lynn Cooley. Only graduate students currently teaching were eligible to vote, and Cooley acknowledged the elections did not include the voices of most graduate students.

“I respect all student views on the issue and recognize people can disagree,” Cooley said. “Unfortunately, in the run-up to the vote, I received a number of queries from graduate students concerned about intimidation, angered they were ineligible to vote and confused about the union’s position on dues and other matters.”

Former Yale Law School Dean and current law professor Anthony Kronman GRD ’72 LAW ’75 said he is strongly opposed to graduate student unionization, citing his personal experience as a Yale graduate student. He said the line between graduate students’ duties as students and workers can be blurred, despite Local 33’s insistence that academic conflicts would be settled in informal and conciliatory ways.

Unionization also poses administrative challenges for the University, Kronman argued. He used the hypothetical example of a professor deciding to change an undergraduate course’s method of assessment from a final paper to short essays, which might potentially provoke action from graduate student teaching assistants who had agreed to teach the course with a lower workload. Kronman said disagreements of this kind may threaten professors’ academic freedom.

“I would describe [the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’] spirit as individualistic and independent [to] the extent that students are encouraged to develop their own ideas, own programs of research and to learn to think for themselves and hopefully become original scholars and teachers in their chosen fields,” Kronman said. “For any group of graduate students to be collectively represented by any body like a union, which purports to speak on their behalf as a group, runs against the grain of that cultural ideal of individuality and independent-mindedness.”

Keil said he hopes unionization does not become a permanent fixture at Yale or spread to other universities, adding that the “balkanization” of academic units within the University could threaten interdisciplinary teaching and research.

Still, there are many faculty members who support Local 33, and Kronman said that while many of his colleagues have expressed concerns, he knows many others feel strongly that graduate students should be able to exercise their right to unionize.

“The graduate teachers of Local 33 rejected University administrators’ arrogant attempt to divide them from other University workers with the claim that intellectual work was incommensurable with more traditional unionized jobs or collective representation,” history professor Jennifer Klein said. “Instead, graduate students embraced their connection with others in American economic and social life, and in essence pledged to build a progressive politics with them.”

Local 33 elections were held at two polling places: Dwight Hall on Old Campus and Founders Hall on Prospect Street.

Correction, Feb. 27: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article was published under the headline “Professors condemn Local 33 vote.” That headline does not fairly or accurately capture the breadth of faculty responses and has been updated accordingly, as have the first two paragraphs.