Opinion open letter

An open letter on the considerations to be made about MIT graduate student unionization

We are writing as interested faculty, not at the request of the MIT administration. The possibility of MIT graduate students forming a workers’ union will be determined by an upcoming vote April 4–5. We fully support the right of graduate students to decide whether or not to unionize. At issue is the question of whether our students and our Institute would be better served by a relationship that positions students as “workers” in an industry-like organization or as academic partners and rising colleagues who, in the course of their educational program, contribute to our shared teaching and research missions. We urge our community to consider this question openly, broadly, and with the utmost care. In our view, unionization would represent a fundamental change in the academic partnerships between faculty and graduate students and could put at risk the critically important relationship between graduate student mentee and faculty mentor, potentially jeopardizing the leadership roles that our students and faculty hold in advancing the future of science, technology, and scholarship.

The relationship between workers and management in a unionized environment, as laid out under the National Labor Relations Act, reflects organizational structures drawn from the history of labor relationships in industry. Such a structure would position graduate education quite differently from its historic role in academia. By its nature, a unionized environment emphasizes the common experiences of workers over their individuality; it reduces flexibility in favor of a highly structured relationship between manager and workers.

We believe that such industry-framed relationships are ill-suited to the nature of and rapidly evolving opportunities in graduate education, where individuality and flexibility are necessary to foster a dynamic trajectory for graduate students as they move from undergraduate degree holders to full participants in discovery and teaching. Interposing a bureaucratic and potentially oppositional relationship of “workers and management” could undermine the success of this critically important step in career evolution. We welcome our graduate students into our programs as partners and colleagues in the pursuit and transmission of knowledge, and we feel that the best way to do so is with an unwavering commitment to the development of policies, programs, and a culture that will support collaborative, flexible, and, above all, collegial interactions.

We believe, and many have articulated, that graduate students choose to come to MIT because of the departmental and faculty advisors who will work with them individually, as caring mentors, to develop foundational knowledge and to identify topics at the forefront of their field for a thesis. In many cases, students do their thesis work by becoming research assistants (RAs), and they receive stipends supported by grants from federal, nonprofit, or for-profit organizations. For graduate students, the primary value of an RAship comes from the training process and how it prepares them for a lifetime of contribution to society. The team of mentor and student, interacting together in a partnership and as collaborators, is critical for this training process to be effective.

In preparing graduate students for a professional career, MIT also introduces them to the education of others, often by having students serve as teaching assistants (TAs). In this role, again, graduate students serving as TAs are mentored by the MIT faculty and often receive specialized training that creates a positive experience for both the TAs and their students. MIT graduate programs integrate research, communication, and disciplinary training, and no matter what profession graduate students ultimately pursue, the training they receive in these areas greatly helps them further their careers.

MIT’s graduate students do different kinds of research and teaching depending on their disciplines and subdisciplines. We afford autonomy to the faculty of each graduate program, within generally accepted parameters, to allow them to design programs that address evolving critical topics and rapid breakthroughs in research. Innovation at speed is one of our greatest assets, and that speed requires flexibility and interdisciplinary variation. Unionization, with its externally imposed and uniform requirements, risks hampering the development of individual graduate students; it might also impede our ability as a university to adapt to new opportunities and challenges.

Excellent, internationally recognized graduate programs and support for our students are central to our mission; they are not optional accessories. Graduate students represent the future of our disciplines — and of MIT itself. We compete to bring to our campus the world’s best students and faculty; there are no contributors more important to our mission and ambition. As the training ground for tomorrow’s leaders, graduate education plays a particularly critical role in the continuous reinvention of our disciplines and our universities, which means that the question now under consideration is of the utmost importance. Is unionization in the best interests of our graduate students and their education?

Because of the risks of constraining the individuality, flexibility, and collaborative partnerships of student-faculty relationships that enable us to be leaders in research, science, and education, we believe that unionization is not in the best interests of our graduate students and their training. We believe that those relationships, and the leadership roles of our students and MIT, should not be placed in jeopardy unless there is overwhelming evidence that it is necessary.

Phillip A. Sharp
Institute Professor and Professor of Biology

Alan D. Grossman
Professor and Head, Department of Biology