Respect for Differing Perspectives on Unionization

By | November 21, 2016

The following message was sent by Dean Paula McClain to all master’s and Ph.D. students in The Graduate School. 

Dear students,

As you know, the SEIU has filed a petition asking for an election to determine whether master’s and Ph.D. students at The Graduate School want to form a union. Last week, President Brodhead wrote to all of you to give Duke’s position on graduate student unionization. I am writing to address some concerns I have been hearing since then.

In the past week, a number of students have come forward to express their concerns about how contentious the organizing process on campus has become. Some international students reported that union representatives told them that if they did not vote for the union, their immigration status would be in jeopardy. Other students told me that flyers they posted expressing opposition to the union were defaced or torn down. Still others reported that a meeting they scheduled to discuss the merits of continuing without a union was interrupted by union supporters, including some students.

As we would do with any student complaint, we are investigating each of these allegations to determine whether university policies, which apply to all members of the Duke community, were violated. To be clear, no student—whether for or against the union—will be punished by Duke for expressing their viewpoint in a manner consistent with Duke policies. No student will lose his or her immigration status based on how he or she votes in a union election.

As an academic institution, we cherish robust debate and foster an environment where all students feel safe to express their opinions and to have their voices heard. Whether or not to form a union is an important issue, and we fully expect that there would be strong opinions on all sides and that the debate would be spirited. What we did not expect—and must not accept—is the use of intimidation, threats, or coercion to limit free debate on the issue.

While I do not believe a graduate student union is a good idea for students or the university, I certainly respect each student’s right to feel otherwise and to share their opinion with others. What concerns me is that the environment on campus has become increasingly adversarial even before a union election is held. I would like to encourage everyone to respect each other’s right to express ideas from all perspectives. No matter where we stand individually, we must respect each student’s right to learn about the issue, express their opinions in open discussion, and reach their own decisions.

We want all students to feel supported as they navigate this process. To that end, if students have concerns about anything on this front, or feel that they are being mistreated by other students or by people outside the Duke community—whether they are for or against the union—please feel free to contact me directly ( or get in touch with the National Labor Relations Board at 336-631-5201.

I hope each of you have a happy and safe Thanksgiving!


Paula D. McClain, Ph.D.
Dean of The Graduate School and
Vice Provost for Graduate Education