Academic freedom is one of the most valued rights of academics, whether graduate employees, postdoctoral researchers, or faculty. Strong protections for free inquiry are essential to the mission of a University; when researchers and scholars face reprisal for or restriction upon their right to make controversial arguments, it’s a damage to all of us who benefit from academic debates.
Given the aforementioned importance of academic freedom, it’s no surprise that academic administrators have raised the question of academic freedom in the debate over unionization. In the Columbia case, Ivy League schools jointly filed an amicus brief claiming that unionization intruded upon academic freedom.
It’s an argument that has some resonance. Academics strongly value academic freedom, and wish to ensure that it’s protected. Hearing that it might be interfered with is rightly concerning.
So what are the merits to this argument?
Tellingly, the Ivy League schools were unable to find a single concrete example of unions interfering in academic freedoms over the course of the 40+ year history of graduate unions, raising serious doubt about the validity of the claim. In fact, the contracts of faculty and graduate employee unions tell an altogether different story.
Pennsylvania State System Faculty Contract
University of Montana Graduate Employee Contract
Contracts can provide stronger guarantees of academic freedom. This is demonstrated by Montana’s extension of faculty rights to graduate employees, and by the excerpt from APSCUF’s extensive contract language guaranteeing broad academic freedoms. It’s also demonstrated by peer-reviewed research. Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations produced a landmark study, affirmed by the NLRB’s decision in the Columbia case, that found that “[unionized] graduate students report equal or better levels of academic freedom as do those who are not [unionized]”. Peer-reviewed research demonstrates that graduate students represented by unions feel equally or more secure in their academic freedom than those who are not.
Our union believes bargained and enforceable protections for academic freedom are sorely needed; one need only look at the AAUP list of censured colleges and universities to see that administrators are all too willing to violate principles of academic freedom when it suits their convenience. Those protections can only be truly guaranteed by collective action and bargaining together.