Provost, GSRAs say dismissal warranted

By Paige Pearcy, Daily News Editor
Published January 19, 2012

Following the termination of former graduate student research assistant Jennifer Dibbern, University officials and GSRAs who worked with her claim the act was justified, while Dibbern and the Graduate Employee’s Organization assert she was fired for advocating for unionization rights for GSRAs.

A group of five GSRAs who worked with Dibbern under Engineering Prof. Rachel Goldman’s supervision in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering sent an e-mail Wednesday to University President Mary Sue Coleman, University Provost Philip Hanlon and Assistant Vice Provost Frances Mueller, stating that Dibbern's claims were defamatory.

“These allegations are all COMPLETELY FALSE (sic),” Adam Wood, Justin Canniff, Emily Robb, Mike Warren and Eric Zech wrote in the e-mail, which was obtained by The Michigan Daily.

“As students that are advised by Professor Goldman, and former academic colleagues with Ms. Dibbern, we can attest to the complete dishonesty with which these accusations are being made,” the GSRAs wrote.

GEO and Dibbern said at a press conference yesterday that she was fired from her research work after speaking openly about supporting the unionization. Dibbern claims that her research work was how she supported herself and she would not have been fired if GSRAs were allowed to form a union.

In the e-mail, the GSRAs wrote that the University should publicly denounce GEO and Dibbern’s assertions.

“We understand that the University is prohibited from commenting on academic performance, but these claims are not academic performance related,” the GSRAs wrote. “They are pure slander and should be discounted publicly by the University.”

At the University’s Board of Regents' first meeting of the year yesterday, Hanlon said he reviewed Dibbern’s past academic records and supported Goldman in her decision to terminate Dibbern for academic reasons.

“I have personally reviewed the academic records in this case, and I’m convinced that the academic decisions made by the faculty were justified, correct, and appropriate, and that the decisions were made on academic grounds,” Hanlon said. “I think that the faculty department followed a thorough and fair process, and I want to offer my strong support for them.”

In an e-mail sent to Dibbern in August and acquired by AnnArbor.com, Goldman expressed her dissatisfaction with Dibbern’s progress in the lab and asked for more dedication to her research.

“I realize you have many other things going on but an increase in your focus on research is urgently needed,” Goldman wrote. “This will probably require you to decrease your involvement in non-research related activities.”

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the University does not endorse GEO’s claims. He added that after Dibbern stopped working in Goldman’s lab, the University continued to provide GSRA benefits to Dibbern as scheduled, until her position expired on Dec. 31.

“From the University’s perspective, many of the allegations that were made at the press conference were just wrong,” Fitzgerald said. “She was paid her stipend, her health benefits and her tuition waiver through the end of the year as it was scheduled even though she was no longer in the lab earlier than that.”

During the public comments section of the regents meeting, Engineering graduate student Stephen Raiman, founder of Students Against GSRA Unionization, Victor DiRita, medical school associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral studies, Physics Prof. Finn Larsen, and Cagliyan Kurdak, associate professor of physics and director of the applied physics program, spoke against GSRA unionization.

Raiman said many of the individuals who initially agreed to sign GEO’s petition did not receive enough information before signing. DiRita, Larsen and Kurdak discussed that characterizing GSRAs as employees would harm the relationship between the GSRAs and their advisers, and ultimately be detrimental to the GSRAs.

“I understand that some of the students view the GSRA union as a possible resource to address conflicts between the adviser and the graduate student,” Kurdak said. “(But) by interjecting the union into such situations, many cases that could have been resolved to the benefit of the student’s career may automatically be escalated to the point that there can be no real solution that benefits the student.”

Members of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, the University’s lead faculty governing body, released a statement yesterday demonstrating their support of the University’s opposition to granting GSRAs the right to unionize.

“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,” the statement read.

On Monday, former University President James Duderstadt wrote a letter expressing his concern against GSRA unionization to Julia Stern, the administrative law judge who will decide on the GSRAs’ right to vote next month.

“Adopting such a practice in Michigan, which would stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the nation, would seriously handicap and damage our state universities in their efforts to attract the outstanding graduate students and research grants necessary to maintain our programs in disciplines critical to this state,” Duderstadt wrote.