New Grad Student Rights Affect the Future of Knowledge

Academic Freedom, General Interest

By: Joyce Johnston

I well remember my introduction into the professor-student power dynamic. As a college senior, the tacit deal was that I would write a chapter for my department chair’s upcoming book and he would use his connections to get me a full scholarship to graduate school. True, I was a good candidate — my department’s top student, with excellent GRE scores and magna cum laude grades— but that’s not the point. The point was that I had little choice if I wanted funding.

Even though that incident is now many years in the past, the landscape didn’t change much for graduate assistants over time. Graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) continued to teach or grade papers for their mentor professors to earn meager salaries or tuition breaks. Between taken classes, classes taught and the struggle for economic survival, they had little to no time or freedom to develop their own ideas or encounter viewpoints different from their sponsors’.

Worse, at public universities at least, graduate assistants were stuck in that situation. Receiving funding made them state employees, who aren’t allowed to unionize or negotiate terms for their employment. Grad students at private universities got slapped down, too. In 2004, The National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) ruled that they were students, not workers, and as such, had no labor relations rights. So, on they have toiled for generations, earning a median salary of $31,810 in 2015 when, in the same year, it took $108, 092 to live comfortably in my home city of Washington, D.C.

Until this month. The NRLB has reversed itself and now acknowledges that private college GTAs are employees, entitled to decent health care, some say in their working conditions, and better stipends. The decision has produced a firestorm of response. Universities are concerned about being able to fund fewer students if the present ones are going to cost more, disrupting faculty-student hierarchies and especially about lengthy and expensive bargaining over working hours and conditions if GTAs are allowed to unionize.

On the other hand, consider the benefits for the future of knowledge. Imagine what students could accomplish both in grad school and after if they weren’t burdened by an average $57,600 in debt. And that’s four years ago, in 2012. What if they weren’t spending three hours or more prepping for every class hour they taught, then actually teaching, then grading, and only then starting their own academic loads? Of course, public university grad students are still stuck with that system. But now at least some promising students can now hope to study and teach in conditions that make it much more possible to also learn, write, research and imagine.


Joyce Johnston teaches at George Mason University and has been writing and speaking on digital intellectual property and virtual instruction for more than 20 years. As a non-librarian, but a proud member of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, she has provided updates on intellectual property at its annual conference for the past 10 years and serves on the Executive Committee for the World Conference on Educational Media and Technology (aka EdMedia).

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