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University of Michigan Student Claims Union Activities Got Her Fired

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So, here’s a sticky wicket. Imagine you’re a graduate student in engineering at a top-tier research university.You’re working long hours toward your Ph.D., teaching classes and trying to balance your own research workload, as well. You decide to advocate on behalf of yourself and your student-colleagues and push for a union, allegedly drawing the attention and ire of the administration.

Now imagine you are fired.

Such is the case of Jennifer Dibbern at the University of Michigan. According to the Detroit Free Press, Dibbern arrived in Ann Arbor in 2007 to pursue her doctorate in semiconductors after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She then became involved in the Graduate Employees Organization, part of a network of unions that have formed at colleges and universities from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst to the University of California, Irvine. (For more on graduate student unions, you can check out the National Association of Graduate Student Professionals.)

Dibbern.argues that she was a strong student who had won teaching awards and had her research praised. Dibbern said her supervisor sent her an email suggesting her outside activities were taking away too much time from her research, but she disputes that claim.

Here, then,  the sticky gets tricky.

Michigan officials are prohibited by student/employee confidentiality laws from commenting on the specifics of Dibbern’s situation. I wonder if there might be some way for her waive that, and if the university would even take her up on it. I’m also curious how subjective these types of decisions are, and how widely the expectations of a graduate student’s work-research hours vary by department within a particular university.

Earlier this month at East Carolina University, the adviser to the student newspaper was fired after a photograph of a nude streaker at a football game appeared on the front page. Paul Isom, a university employee, said he’s fighting his termination as student media director (the Student Press Law Center and other First Amendment advocates are protesting his firing).

What’s similar about Dibbern’s and Isom’s situations is that in both cases we only have one side of the story. East Carolina officials have also said they are precluded from sharing relevant details about their decision because of employee confidentiality. Isom has offered to waive any rights in that area provided he be shown any “evidence” before it’s made public. I think that’s a reasonable response.

Are the graduate students at your college or university unionized? Do you believe student-employees need union protections?