Does the University favor graduate student unionization?
The University is not in favor of graduate student unionization because we do not believe that having a graduate student union would serve the interests of graduate students or the University.
Why does the University hold this view?
We think that graduate students are first and foremost students. Graduate students come to the University for a world-class graduate education, not for the financial support the University provides through assistantships to allow them to pursue that education while minimizing financial hardship. The University is committed to promoting the success of all its students, including graduate students, while at the University and in their future careers. Research and teaching by graduate students are critical parts of the education and development of graduate students as experts in their domain. The mentoring, support, and advising provided by faculty that are critical for the success of graduate students are wholly different than a typical employment relationship. Employment is designed primarily to serve the company, not prepare people for success in their future endeavors, while graduate education is focused on the development of the student for the future. Therefore, we think that having the relationship between the University and its graduate students impeded by a union contract would not be in the best interests of the students or the University.
We also think that the notion of a one-size-fits-all contract across all graduate students represents a poor and potentially disruptive model for structuring the relationship between graduate students and the University. Graduate students in different disciplines have different needs for education, training, and support. The possible sources for funding of graduate students also differ significantly across disciplines. For these reasons, different graduate programs in different schools have different requirements and expectations, and accommodate student needs differently. Trying to define standardized rules for all graduate students under one contract would be very complex and unlikely to serve graduate students effectively.
Finally, while we continue to strive for improvements, we believe that we currently have a system that works well for the great majority of our graduate students. Based on many conversations, and on some recent survey data from the Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG), we believe that we are meeting the needs of our graduate students as a whole. Our system of university governance has many ways in which graduate students can raise concerns and suggest improvements formally and informally at the department, school, and university level. The GPSG is an important voice for students, as are other graduate student organizations. Moreover, individual students can approach faculty advisors, department chairs, program directors, ombudspeople, and other administrators with concerns and questions. This collaborative model is an effective and collegial process that serves students well while preventing unnecessary conflict. If unionization occurs, much of this system is likely to change, as a third party would stand between the students and the University. Where there are issues to be discussed or problems to be solved, we think that we can work on these issues directly without waiting to see what might emerge from the unionization process and what priorities a union might have.
Should I sign a union card?
It is important for students to be well informed before making any decisions about actions that they may take – like signing a union card. A signed card is a legal document that could be used to initiate a set of legal steps as outlined in the “Union Basics” section of this Web site. Once signed, it may be difficult or impossible for you to rescind your endorsement of the union, so we encourage students to ask questions and learn as much as they can before they sign. Feel free to e-mail email@example.com with specific questions. A wealth of information about unions is available online, and we provide links to additional information in Further Reading.
Is this related to what is going on at other universities (Penn State, Duke, Penn, etc.)?
There are important similarities and differences. Of course, the concerns that graduate students have are somewhat different at different campuses. Also, unions at public and private institutions are governed by different laws and procedures. This is another reason why we think it's important for students to be informed and make decisions in the context of the specifics of the situation at Pitt and of their own individual situation.
How does the University financially support its graduate students?
Pitt has many different kinds of graduate students. Most of Pitt’s approximately 9,500 graduate and professional students pay tuition for the education that they receive. Some of these students receive financial aid to reduce the tuition that they pay and all are eligible for health insurance.
Most PhD students at Pitt are supported by the University. The exact nature and amount of support depends on the program and the type of academic appointment. Students typically receive a tuition scholarship, a stipend, and health insurance coverage through their appointment as a teaching assistant, graduate student assistant, or graduate student researcher. The stipend may provide support for two or three semesters of the year, and is typically guaranteed for four or more years, provided students remain in good academic standing. In addition, the University generally covers the costs of supported students’ comprehensive health insurance plans for the entire calendar year, including summer, regardless of a student’s appointment status for summer. This health insurance plan (which would be categorized as platinum-level, were it available on Affordable Care Act Marketplace) has very low out of pocket costs.
As an example, for the 2017-2018 academic year, support for a teaching assistant appointed in Arts and Sciences — the home of the largest number of Pitt graduate students — is worth approximately $45,970 for an in-state student and $60,660 for an out-of-state student. Over five years, this appointment is worth approximately $229,850 for an in-state student and $303,300 for out-of-state student (in FY18 dollars).
As another example, in 2017-2018 a supported doctoral student in the School of Engineering will receive overall support from the University including: $42,458 (engineering tuition) + $27,000 (stipend) + $4,443 (health insurance) = $73,901. This support is guaranteed for four years if the student remains in good standing.
Pitt seeks to maintain competitive levels of stipends and benefits for graduate students. This is important both to support our current students and to enable us to continue to attract the best students in the world. Combined, Pitt’s stipends and insurance are highly competitive with those at other major research universities. Over the last five years, stipend levels for Pitt graduate students have increased by 13.6%, which is significantly more than the rate of inflation (6.7%) and more than increases in faculty and staff salaries during this time period.
What roles can graduate students play in the University’s governance?
Graduate students already play many important roles in University governance, ranging from the departmental to the University-wide level. Graduate students serve on more than 30 University-wide committees, including the University Planning and Budgeting Committee. This critically important committee, chaired by the Provost, makes recommendations to the Chancellor about University-wide budgetary issues. Graduate students are also represented by six voting members on the University Council on Graduate Studies, a committee that makes recommendations to the Provost about all issues related to policies affecting graduate students, as well as the creation of new graduate programs. These are just two examples of ways in which graduate students currently participate in some of the highest levels of University decision making.
Other committees -- including University Senate standing committees like Benefits and Welfare; Equality, Inclusion, and Anti-Discrimination Advocacy; Educational Policies; and Budget Policies -- provide opportunities for graduate students to participate in University governance and influence policy. Membership on these committees is managed through the Graduate and Professional Student Government and the Vice President of Committees. In addition, graduate students serve on search committees for senior administrators, which includes searches for the Chancellor, Provost, Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences, academic Deans, Director of the University Library System, and directors of selected University-wide centers.
What is Pitt doing about graduate student concerns?
Pitt has many programs and opportunities for graduate students through University programs and through the support of the GPSG. We have created a Web site to try to get more students information about the programs that might interest them. Some examples include a new initiative on supporting graduate student teaching, the recent creation of new fellowships for humanities students, and changes to the parental accommodations policies that were implemented a few years ago. These and other programs were developed by the University in response to student concerns and questions. Nathan Urban, the new vice provost for graduate studies, has begun to talk to students and student groups to better understand their concerns and to develop new ways to enhance the lives and successes of Pitt graduate students.
If graduate students do not have a union, will the University listen to their concerns?
As a University, we are committed to our graduate students and we are committed to a shared governance system. Current faculty members and many academic administrators were grad students at similar institutions to this one, and so we understand and are sympathetic to the challenges of being a grad student. We would not be working here at a University, and working with graduate students, if we did not see graduate education as core to our mission and one of the most important contributions of a research university. We also have a commitment to a shared governance model for the University. The University Senate and various University- and school-level committees represent ways in which, collectively, graduate students have an opportunity to work with faculty and staff to make the University a better place for student education and development. Moreover, we recognize that many graduate students, and not just students in formal leadership positions, have opinions that should be heard. We see advantages to having many formal and informal channels by which the opinions and ideas of students can influence University policy and practice. Forcing many of these ideas to be channeled through a union seems like an artificial and likely ineffective mechanism for this process.
We also believe that, in many respects, the interests of graduate students and the interests of the University and its faculty are well-aligned. We want our graduate students to become successful researchers and teachers. This is the purpose of graduate education at the University and is one of the ways in which the situation of graduate students differs from that of employees who are permitted to form unions.
How else can students work to get the University to address issues important to graduate students?
Graduate students can raise issues and suggest changes at many levels across the university. At the University level, Nathan Urban, the new vice provost for graduate studies, is reaching out to graduate students to better communicate about programs and opportunities offered by the University, as well as to hear from students about their questions and concerns. The GPSG is also an important way for students to collectively engage with the University. At the level of schools and departments, there are many venues for such engagement but these mechanisms vary considerably by program.
If I have questions or concerns, what should I do?
There are many people in your department or graduate program who are available to help address your needs, but if this is not working, or if you just are not sure whom to ask, feel free to contact the graduate studies office. Whether your questions are about unionization or about other issues related to graduate students, you can reach the graduate studies office by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will try to connect you with the right people to answer your questions or meet your needs. Depending on the issue, you may also wish to contact the Graduate and Professional Student Government. The GPSG is an important voice for students, as are other graduate student organizations.