Opinion | Letters to the Editor

Letter to the editor: In provost’s faculty guidelines, an odd bias

Bruce Robbins’ op-ed in Spectator last week brought to mind a rumor that has been circulating recently. Administrators have supposedly advised faculty members in at least one of the science departments to instruct their graduate students to vote against unionization.

That must be wrong.

On Aug. 24, the day after the National Labor Relations Board voted to allow student teaching assistants and research assistants at private universities to be treated as employees—and thus are entitled to form a union, if they so choose—the provost posted a document warning faculty to avoid modes of speech and behavior that can be construed as threats, interrogation, promises, or surveillance—TIPS for short. It would make no sense, then, for administrators to suggest in private that faculty members engage in behavior that has been explicitly ruled out in a public document.

The Provost's TIPS guidelines do display an odd bias, though. While the document warns against the four specific kinds of speech acts that can be considered unfair labor practices, it does reassure faculty members of their right to express their opinions freely, as long as they avoid TIPS. The guidelines offer examples of permitted speech, and without exception the examples express concern about "adverse consequences" that "could" or "may" result from unionization.

For example, it would be permissible for a faculty member to say that “unionization of student assistants could lead to changes in the way that teaching fellows are used"; that "negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement may result in rules and restrictions on teaching fellow usage"; that "departmental and individual decisions on these issues could likely be limited by across-the-board collectively bargained rules"; and that "given such restrictions, many faculty might find it necessary to re-evaluate their use of teaching fellows.”

At no point in the TIPS document is it stated that faculty members have the right to speak of possible positive consequences of unionization. The authors of the TIPS guidelines visibly did not consider the possibility that faculty members might spontaneously speak favorably of the NLRB decision and its consequences for students. Perhaps they assumed that, in alignment with the 1980 Supreme Court decision NLRB v. Yeshiva University, faculty members identify as managers and thus would necessarily adopt an adversarial attitude toward any future student unions.

I am not going to make any suggestions to students regarding the impending union vote. They are adults and are qualified, as well as legally entitled, to decide where their interests lie. Relations may indeed become tense between unionized students and those faculty members who feel they should act like managers; fortunately, the managerial outlook does not seem widespread among my immediate colleagues.

Michael Harris

The author is a professor in the department of mathematics.

To respond to this letter, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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