This year, faculty and graduate students from Maryland’s public four-year colleges and universities are once again asking the Maryland General Assembly to pass legislation that would allow them to secure collective bargaining rights. We hope that administrators from the University System of Maryland will finally abandon their longstanding obstruction of teachers and researchers looking for ways to counteract the university system’s unilateral decision making.
Graduate students and faculty have been lobbying for this right for more than a decade. During the 2023 legislative session, University System of Maryland administrators testified against this legislation. A charitable reading of their testimony might characterize it as problematic or half-truths. The phrase “intellectual dishonesty” also comes to mind. Del. Kirill Reznik and Sen. Benjamin Kramer both characterized it as “disingenuous.”
Those strong words were directed at the leaders of Maryland’s deeply respected university system. What prompted such a response?
The leadership has been locked in a multiyear campaign against graduate student employees who are seeking collective bargaining rights. Last year and again this year, the graduate employees have been joined by faculty. The proposed legislation would require employers to negotiate with their academic employees. Collective bargaining is a widely recognized democratic right, already granted to most other Maryland state employees, including non-academic university staff and faculty and staff at community colleges in Maryland. Faculty and graduate employees at universities throughout the United States also have this right.
So why does University System of Maryland leadership keep fighting against it?
Every year, testimony from the leadership has the same basic contours: Graduate student employees are students, not employees; graduate employees are already paid well; collective bargaining would overwhelm the university system’s budget and destroy its ability to fund all sorts of other laudable line items, etc. With the addition of faculty to the bill, the leadership now argues that faculty “shared governance” is robust and makes collective bargaining unnecessary.
These arguments are indeed disingenuous. Employees at many peer universities in states as disparate as Florida and Michigan have collective bargaining rights. These universities have flourished and have not gone bankrupt. Graduate students are highly trained yet poorly paid workers and University of Maryland campuses increasingly rely on them to perform critical educational and research tasks.
But, frankly, the most concerning element of the testimony was the misleading way those in leadership use data to support their arguments.
For instance, in 2023, Dr. Steve Fetter, assistant provost and dean of the University of Maryland College Park Graduate School, argued that the average graduate stipend is “now equivalent to $37 an hour,” or close to $74,000 per year. This was certainly news to graduate employees in College Park who live so near the poverty line that they often qualify for food stamps and who work multiple jobs to afford rent.
But the only way Dr. Fetter could reach this seemingly generous hourly salary is by including graduate tuition remission in the total salary figure. Graduate students cannot eat tuition remission; to include this as part of their salary is an accounting trick.
University leaders also failed to note that graduate employees are only supposed to work 20 hours per week and many only receive their stipends on a nine-month basis, though they devote 12 months to their academic work. This brings the total yearly earnings for most graduate employees to the range of $25,000-$33,000. University system leadership knows this. But instead, they tried to portray graduate employees as ungrateful workers with plush $37 per hour jobs.
Dr. Alison Wrynn, the university system’s senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, also made misleading statements about “shared governance” — the idea that faculty, students and staff meaningfully participate in governing universities — claiming it makes collective bargaining unnecessary. As evidence, those administrators pointed to a single question on a 2022 university State of Shared Governance Report.
But this survey says almost nothing about what faculty believe about the state of shared governance on campuses. The survey was completed by university senate chairs at each university, with very little consultation with other faculty members. This year, the Council of University System Faculty, which advises University System of Maryland Chancellor Jay Perman, and is itself part of the system of shared governance, put this issue to rest. It voted in favor of collective bargaining rights for faculty and graduate students, renewing votes it had taken many times in the past two decades.
The survey cited by Dr. Wrynn did not ask faculty whether they are satisfied with shared governance on the university’s campuses. The free responses of the University Senate leaders in the report repeatedly show concern that faculty are left out of many of the most important decisions, especially financial decisions. To present this survey to legislators as evidence that collective bargaining is unnecessary is indeed problematic. Even University of Maryland College Park Provost Jennifer Rice, when questioned at the hearing, was unable to offer concrete examples of mechanisms that ensure faculty have a meaningful say.
The disingenuous way the administrators approached their testimony is an object lesson about why we are fighting for collective bargaining: Administrators often act in bad faith when their plans for the university’s institutions are challenged.
Louiqa Raschid is a professor in the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, and has appointments in the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies and the Department of Computer Science. Luka Arsenjuk is associate professor of cinema and media studies in the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. They both served on the Executive Committee of the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (2021-2023).