What Do Graduate Employee Unions Have to Do with Academic Freedom?

By Michael Verderame

Only a minority of graduate employees in the United States have collective bargaining representation, and for that lucky minority, collective bargaining agreements rarely contain explicit protections for academic freedom. Existing contract language at strong and long-established unions such as my own provides due process protections and guarantees against arbitrary termination; these protections, however, fall very short of securing genuine academic freedom. Graduate employee unions have reasonably focused on economic priorities to ensure continued access to graduate education: improved stipends, health care, and childcare, and security for tuition waivers. However, as academic freedom and shared governance increasingly face renewed challenges from the corporate university, the need to secure academic freedom protections in a binding labor contract has never been more pressing. 

Because of our unique position, I’d argue that graduate employees are the most fruitful site for efforts to organize around academic freedom, as a first step towards the goal of securing meaningful academic freedom for the entire higher education teaching corps. Tenured and tenure-stream faculty have all too often trusted in institutional governance and faculty handbooks as sufficient to protect academic freedom, while the precarious nature of contingent employment means that many non-tenure-stream faculty are quite reasonably afraid to demand protections for their academic freedom. Ironically, because of our peculiar status as simultaneously privileged and disempowered, graduate students are uniquely well-positioned to be on the cutting edge of the battle to secure academic freedom. Victories for graduate employees can translate into victories for all sectors of the academy.

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