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Posted on Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 7:03 a.m.

U-M faculty letter: Research assistants are students, not employees

By Kellie Woodhouse


Supporters chant during a press conference for fired Michigan graduate student Jennifer Dibbern outside of Lurie Engineering Center on campus on Wednesday.

Melanie Maxwell I

Hours after former University of Michigan graduate student research assistant Jennifer Dibbern aired her grievances with the school for perceived discrimination due to her attempts to start a GSRA union, university faculty fired back with a statement emphasizing their belief that GSRAs are students, not employees.

The statement, released by the Faculty Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, says that they agree with former remarks from university president Mary Sue Coleman that graduate student research assistants are "in training and are students."

It comes in the midst of claims from multiple GSRAs that some faculty are using intimidation tactics to dissuade students from joining an ongoing GSRA unionization effort.

Dibbern claims she was unfairly fired by faculty advisor Rachel Goldman, a member of the faculty committee that released the following statement:

We on SACUA, who are active faculty members from many different academic fields, in our roles as researchers and teachers, concur entirely with University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman’s statement to the Regents of the University in our firm conviction that graduate students in their role as research assistants/associates are fully engaged academics in training and are students and not employees.

We further believe that the fundamental essence of a university as a bastion of both field-dependent and interdisciplinary study and research depends on this premise.

Our graduate students are scientists, engineers, economists, musicians, artists, architects, urban planners, policy makers, epidemiologists, classicists, mathematicians, linguists, historians, kinesiologists, philosophers and full participants in myriad fields IN TRAINING and highly valued members of research teams.

They are working on their own dissertation projects—making their unique contributions to the solution of over-reaching problems in which they and their colleagues are engaged in their disciplines.

Because they are involved as GSRAs in their dissertation research, they are engaged as full academic partners in knowledge-building who are in training. We support President Coleman’s statement:

“I know I speak for Provost Hanlon as well when I express my concern about characterizing our research assistants as university employees. We believe it could fundamentally alter the relationship between faculty and graduate students. Decisions about who a student studies with must remain with the two people who care most about the outcome — the student and his or her mentor. At highly competitive research institutions such as Michigan, students seek out faculty based on specialized research that aligns with their interests, and they choose the institution based on that particular faculty member.”

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.



Sat, Jan 21, 2012 : 2:34 a.m.

suprise, the A2 staff removed all anti union posts/comments from this story. With the quality of most of their stories, they are the type of lazy workers (the type that dont check their own grammer or spelling or give any REAL facts that are aquired through RESEARCH in their stories) I mentioned the unions protecting in my post. Now hurry and delete this comment also before anyone reads it! Unions are an anchor around the neck of the hard working American and the shield that protects and keeps lazy, drunk, drug using workers safe from termination.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 11:09 p.m.

The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or, more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and, whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students in all cases to behave to him as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability. It seems to presume perfect wisdom and virtue in the one order, and the greatest weakness and folly in the other. Where the masters, however, really perform their duty, there are no examples, I believe, that the greater part of the students ever neglect theirs. Adam Smith. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations If the authority to which he is subject resides in the body corporate, the college, or university, of which he himself is a member, and in which the greater part of the other members are, like himself, persons who either are, or ought to be teachers, they are likely to make a common cause, to be all very indulgent to one another, and every man to consent that his neighbour may neglect his duty, provided he himself is allowed to neglect his own. In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching. Adam Smith. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

Lemmy Caution

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 6:34 p.m.

As a long-time LSA faculty member, I regularly work with Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs) who are unionized via the GEO. I am very happy that this is the case, as it makes everything very clear in terms of expectations, rules, and allows the graduate instructors to participate in collective bargaining regarding wages, benefits, etc. We rarely have GSRAs, because they work in funded labs, but I see their function as very similar to that of the GSI. Some of these people (employed as GSIs) are also working with me on their PhD dissertations. In my experience, their status as unionized employees has had ZERO, I repeat ZERO, impact on our educational/mentoring relationship as they work on their PhDs. I don't know a single faculty member who has had any problem with recognizing graduate student instructors as employees. I think the argument that GSRAs or GSIs should not be seen as employees because it harms the educational relationship between students and professors is not backed up by real experience. I'd like to see a thorough evidence-driven argument for that, rather than the hunches of certain professors. Yes, people wear multiple hats; life is complex. We deal with it. And our students are MUCH happier knowing that the GEO can help them out if there is a grievance (very rare) or a problem with the workplace.

David Cotton

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 6:20 p.m.

A person that gets paid is an employee. A person can be a student and an employee. But the two parts are separate and distinct. If these students had intern jobs at a business, Warner-Lambert (if it still existed) for example, the employee would be gaining valuable experience. However, their employment would be distinct. The University is simply using its power to treat employees unfairly.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 6:05 p.m.

Well the courts will now have to settle this argument. With UofM's checking account size, I'm sure the Supreme Court could be the end run. Either way, I feel that this contest permanently damages the relationship between grad students and their future. Profs will protect their territory from a potential union member's claims and students will be more carefully selected based on their ideology. Students may also lose their scholarship 'payments' (or whatever you want to call them) thus discouraging or dis-enabling them from getting an advanced degree from this school. No worry


Fri, Jan 20, 2012 : 4:44 p.m.

Yes, I can see it now, "So, what ARE your political views on the topic of the labor movement as it pertains to academia?" "Well, I'm firmly against it because I think it would diminish competitiveness in the sciences, while the gov't's competitiveness initiative has made it clear that we need to perform more noticeably on the global stage." "Hmm, interesting. I'm sorry, I don't believe we can offer you a position at this university. Best of luck in your endeavors."


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 10:06 p.m.

Not much of a problem. Sounds like Jennifer Dibbern, with her many accomplishments and credentials, would be welcomed with open arms at many other institutions, probably including her former, and arguably better, institution of MIT. UMich is shooting themselves in the foot, on this one. It's the people that make the institution, especially top-caliber alumni. If you were a top candidate, would you attend an institution whose faculty play games like this? I wouldn't.

Daniel Reck

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 6:05 p.m.

What's happening here is this: SACUA is using this debate as a platform to air their argument that GSRA's are not employees, which has been a matter of ongoing debate in the past months because of the campaign for elections on GSRA unionization. Graduate Students are NOT protesting based on the issue of whether GSRA's are students, they are protesting because of the retaliation against Ms. Dibbern for her union activism. Whether the retaliation was employment-based or academic in nature is immaterial--in fact, such retaliation is against the law in either case. Misdirecting the debate this way allows SACUA and the University to avoid addressing the fact that it took retaliatory action against a union activist.


Fri, Jan 20, 2012 : 4:41 p.m.

No, Daniel, the GEO is running a smear campaign to make this univ look like crap and call that a reason to unionize the poor souls that are stuck studying/working here. The university is calmly explaining right back to you that it's incredibly unfortunate that your mother never taught you that lying is bad, and it only gets worse when you get caught.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 4:47 p.m.

When was the last time an employee graduated and/or got a degree? These are students, have always been students, and will always be students. Rackham has protocols in place for students to follow for dealing with grievances.

Daniel Reck

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 5:59 p.m.

The first line of my other comment should read "GSI's are considered employees." I can't find a way to edit the typo.

Daniel Reck

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 5:58 p.m.

Graduate Student Instructors are considered students, and they regularly graduate and get degrees. In many departments, it is not uncommon for graduate students to switch frequently between being a GSRA and a GSI in different semesters. So I cannot agree with your logic.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 3:59 p.m.

A student who needs to pay tax on any part of their stipend, in and of itself, does not point to the inevitable conclusion that the student is an "employee." FYI, GSRA's are paid a stipend as part of their student financial aid, not as wage earnings... as are hundreds of other students who are not GSRA's. The IRS (see Publication 970) has a litmus test for how much, if any, of a student stipend may or may not end up being taxable income on the US Income Tax Return. Since stipends are classified as student financial aid, their presence does not in fact establish the "employee" realtionship that is central to this particular conflict. Many undergraduate students, as well as many graduate students, end up with taxable scholarship money that they need to report as IRS income. In and of itself, this outcome does not establish an employee relationship.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 3:50 p.m.

The graduate student research assistants are very expensive compareing with the full time research staff. Most of the graduate students are very well taken cared at UM and other institution. The professors not only have to pay them the tuition bill, medical insurance, also the & 25000 per year living expence. For the good and smart students, they offen have full time staffs work for them, the students get the research credit. For the lazy and stupid students, they still get graduate. They write their thesis with other people's data, or make up something they never actully did the experiments. After all, they are hired for better salary. I know one woman who was paid $56000/year as a fresh postDr. trainee at UM, Medical school, while the others only make about half as she get.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 4:47 p.m.

I know one person who writes grammatically poor English, yet seems to have inside knowledge of the graduate education at the University of Michigan. Your tuition dollars at work.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 3:42 p.m.

Graduate Students are most definitely employees, even if they where not teaching assistance. The state of Michigan and the federal government has determined that graduate students stipends are subject to tax as income, therefore they are considered employees. You can't argue both sides, you have to be one or the other. As long as you are paying income tax on the money you are paid for your training, then you must be considered an employee, subject to all the same rights afforded to every working person.


Fri, Jan 20, 2012 : 4:37 p.m.

Lol. I will happily stop paying income tax if it makes me more of a student. Have you considered that maybe there are reasons for this structure beyond "to make certain that GSRAs are employees so that GEO can more easily unionize them"? Ask yourself, this question: "WHY?" "Why are things set up the way they are?" And then maybe make an effort to actually try and learn, you know, like all of those students...


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 3:21 p.m.

It is just too bad for the faculty that their bosses, the regents, disagree with them on this matter. They have already decided that they view GSRAs as employees.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 3:22 p.m.

If there were only some way that the faculty could band together in order to have more direct input over their jobs! But what could that be?

Dog Guy

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 3:18 p.m.

As graduate students, research assistants are eligible for membership in AAUP, the college teachers' union at U of M. What is the problem with joining AAUP?

Ron Granger

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 3:18 p.m.

History has shown time and again that giving up indentured servants is difficult, and resisted by those with the power.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 5:18 p.m.

Well, if the research assistants do not want to be indentured then they should not sign a contract agreeing to the terms of indentureship.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 3:07 p.m.

Interesting demographics in the photo.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 7:08 p.m.

Like, I'm sure they are just, um, like, sticking up for their bff, LOL.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 2:32 p.m.

Are they paid by the University? Are taxes taken out of their pay? If so, it seems to me that they are employees, just as if they are interns at a private company. If not, then they are students and not employees. That would be my take.

Griffin Wright

Fri, Jan 20, 2012 : 2:41 p.m.

Federal income tax is taken out of our(GSRAs) pay, but no other taxes during the academic year. And no, most of us are not paid by the university at all, but through research grants. Funding agencies, in their grants, provide the funds to cover our tuition, stipend, and insurance. Graduate student instructors, on the other hand, are paid by the university (and they have a union).


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 2:56 p.m.

Yes, GSRAs are paid a salary by the University of Michigan and they pay taxes on that income. They also receive benefits, just like Graduate Student Instructors and like any other employee of the University. Faculty are paid to teach and to conduct research; graduate students are paid to teach and do research. Both are employees, as the Board of Regents has stipulated, and both deserve a fair and balanced grievance process.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 2:01 p.m.

I also find it odd how these university flaming liberals will protest a random company who wont let their employees unionize and have to problem with card check, yet will fight to the end to stop students from unionizing. Typical Liberals, they love equality .... until others are trying to be equal to them.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 4:07 p.m.

I'm a liberal and I support these students. Any other bubbles you would like for me to burst for you, Mr. Blow?


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 2:51 p.m.

How do you know a fish swims in water?


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 2:21 p.m.

How do you know the faculty is "liberal"? Because they work at UM? Have you seen the faculty committee protesting at this random company? Quite an assumption. What kind of "typical" does that make you, Joe?

The Black Stallion3

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 2:04 p.m.

Good post Joe


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 1:59 p.m.

It's easier to abuse a student than an employee, they'll never cave in unionization. Students are just way to cheep of labor. Sick.


Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 1:46 p.m.

If SACUA believes that graduate students do not need the protection of a union then why don't they propose grievance procedures that will protect them when they are treated unfairly by their faculty? The problem for students is that the courts have ruled that they do not have a property interest in their education. The property right is what allows an employee to seek redress in the courts for wrongful termination, including discrimination. We all know that faculty sometimes abuse their power over students but the grievance process is so stacked against them that they never win a grievance. Recognize that the drive to unionize is the feeling that students cannot get a fair hearing of their grievances. Don't just say no. Suggest an alternate solution.

Griffin Wright

Fri, Jan 20, 2012 : 2:38 p.m.

We(GSRAs) do have grievance procedures in place... I know first-hand of several students who have used these procedures with success.

Bob Carlin

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 12:37 p.m.

Well, if they are students, then don't pay them to help faculty members do research. Certainly it's traditional to employ students to assist in research, and it's part of their education. But when you hire people, they are employees, and the employer does have responsibilities to foster the proper working conditions.