Update on student unionization

October 12, 2018

I write to update you on the status of the important negotiations between the University and the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW). The University is scheduled to begin collective bargaining with HGSU-UAW next week and, in advance of that, preparations have been underway within both the University and the Union.

Harvard is a large, private university offering a broad array of degree programs, and these negotiations will be unique and potentially precedent-setting in important ways. Many will wonder how any changes will affect the academic experience of union members and other students, as well as faculty, both in the long and short terms. At least in the near term, we will continue to operate our academic courses and all other activities as we have in the past. Once a contract is agreed upon, we will communicate any changes that may need to take place.

Harvard is committed to engaging in productive and good-faith negotiations with our new union partners. We know that the process will require considerable attention and effort from the involved parties. Initial collective bargaining agreements are inherently time-consuming, and this will be especially true for a bargaining unit of this size and heterogeneity. In addition, because there is so little legal precedent involving a student union at a private university, the boundaries between terms and conditions of employment and issues involving academic activity are not clear and may be a source of disagreement during the negotiations. While we will work with the union on the terms and conditions of employment for bargaining unit members, I also want to emphasize that, throughout this process, our responsibility is first and foremost to provide the best possible education to all students and to meeting our fundamental commitments as an academic institution.

You may recall in the spring, I shared with you three principles that will guide our approach in these negotiations. They are worth reiterating.

First, we must protect the integrity of our teaching mission. Harvard University, across its diverse schools and programs, is dedicated to providing the best possible education to our students. Decisions such as who is admitted, how teaching occurs, and who teaches, are academic judgments to be made by the University. We are not under any obligation to negotiate with the United Auto Workers about academic matters, and will not do so. We will not agree to terms that will compromise our educational mission.

Second, we must protect the academic freedom that undergirds our research mission. Harvard researchers deepen our understanding of the human condition and the world around us, promote the flourishing of the arts, introduce lifesaving medical breakthroughs, and improve societies and organizations. Research is a collaborative endeavor of faculty, staff and students. In order to play their role effectively, faculty must be able to exercise their responsibility to manage and oversee matters relating to research. Within a context of mutual respect, academic freedom is essential to our faculty’s ability to advance knowledge.

Third, the University must serve all of its students, in every school and academic program – from degree programs to executive and continuing education. Approximately, 36,000 students attend Harvard in any given year. The union will represent approximately 14 percent of them – those who spend portions of their academic career working as graduate student teaching fellows or teaching and research assistants. During the negotiations process, we will remain mindful of our duties and responsibilities to all of our students.

As we enter these negotiations, we do so committed to the well-being and success of all our students, including those who are or will be members of this bargaining unit, and to our faculty who are charged with delivering the best possible education to all students. Their collective best interest is what will drive our negotiations in the months ahead.


Alan M. Garber
AB '77, PhD '82
Provost Harvard University