Special Campus Memo: Moving Ahead

February 21, 2019
Dear Grinnellians,
 
As you know, over the past few months, the Grinnell community has been engaged in a complicated and often difficult debate about expanded student unionization on campus. Ours is an institution proudly built around a deep commitment to social responsibility, and while I have been deeply disturbed at times by the tenor of the debate and by the ways in which the College's positions and actions have been characterized, I nevertheless value the breadth of viewpoints and concerns that have been a vital part of this discussion. Preserving the characteristics that set a Grinnell education apart has always been at the center of the College's decision-making and actions on this important and complex issue, and in light of our history, values, and resilient sense of community, I believe that it is time for all of us to try to move forward.
 
Grinnell is a unique place. We see this in the deep academic and cultural inquiry that happens here each day, the close partnerships between faculty and students that extend learning outside the classroom, and in the way that we build a sense of community by bringing together diverse perspectives to embrace and appreciate differences. We saw this distinctive culture in action in 2016, when we supported the establishment of the first independent union for undergraduate students in the nation, the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW).
 
The key issue has never been whether Grinnell supports legal rights to unionize on campus. The College has worked closely and collaboratively with union employees at Grinnell for nearly 50 years and supported the groundbreaking creation of UGSDW.
 
Instead, the College's inherent concern has centered on the unintended impact that union expansion could have on the majority of Grinnell students whose positions directly support their educational experience. The College maintains that far-reaching union expansion could limit educational and professional development opportunities on campus in ways that would fundamentally alter the vital relationship between students and faculty.
 
Union expansion is an issue on which reasonable people can and do disagree. But it is also an issue on which people - driven by shared values and united in their dedication to making Grinnell and the student work experience here even better - can work together respectfully to find new solutions. This has been clear to me in the frank conversations I have had with many of our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and trustees, and in the very candid feedback I have received from many of you.
 
I believe that together we can identify and discuss a set of practical, innovative solutions that will make Grinnell stronger and improve learning experiences throughout the College. That is why, in consultation with our Board of Trustees chairperson, I am announcing several important steps the College will take in the near future. In particular:
  1. Possible Selective Expansion of the UGSDW - At the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing last fall, I shared the College's own analysis of student work; which concluded that although a majority of the positions that UGSDW sought to add to the existing union had a significant educational component, others did not. Those positions were more comparable in that regard to positions in dining services.

    Building on that analysis and working collaboratively, I believe the UGSDW and Grinnell can carefully explore ways to expand the union by including a limited number of student jobs that, like positions in dining services, do not have a significant educational component. I appreciate the UGSDW's recent comments regarding its desire to reach a mutually acceptable agreement that widens its membership while not undermining Grinnell's educational mission. The College has expressed a similar sentiment, and we look forward to having a constructive and respectful dialogue about specific positions that could be added in a way that is consistent with this understanding. We have already reached out to the union about this and hope to initiate discussions soon.
     
  2. Financial Support for Student Success - Contrary to allegations made during the unionization debate, the College has continuously increased its financial assistance budget to ensure that students with need-based financial aid packages are not reliant on wages to cover any increases in tuition or fees. At Grinnell, we are proud to be a need-blind institution with regard to admission, and we remain deeply committed to ensuring that the College is accessible to students from every walk of life. We provide one of the most extensive and generous financial assistance programs in the country and continue to meet 100 percent of the demonstrated financial need of every student through a comprehensive system of grants and loans as well as work on campus.

    It is important that we periodically assess various aspects of student financial support. Recently the union has suggested that Grinnell's financial aid is insufficient to meet students' basic needs. With this mind, an assessment is warranted to determine whether the College's current support is adequate to ensure Grinnell is accessible to all admitted students, and can sustain our students' success once enrolled. Equally important, we must conduct such an assessment in the context of balancing revenues and expenses in the short-term while preserving institutional financial viability and sustainability for the long-run.

    For these reasons, Board Chair Patricia Finkelman '80 is appointing a Board Task Force on Student Financial Support and Success to comprehensively address these issues. Led by Board member and alumna Angela Onwuachi-Willig '94, a noted scholar and current Dean of Boston University School of Law, the task force will consider Grinnell's financial support from both student and institutional perspectives. The task force's work will be supported by an advisory committee that will include students, faculty, staff and alumni. It is expected that a report on its work will be presented to the Board of Trustees at the October 2019 meeting.

    A special task force website will be created to serve as a central resource for sharing information about its process and findings. More details about the task force and advisory committee will be shared in the days to come.
     
  3. Improving the Academic Component of Student Experiential Learning - We will continue to build upon earlier strategic planning efforts that, over the past five years, have brought institutional-focus to improving student experiential learning opportunities on campus, which included the creation of a Training and Student Employment Coordinator position in the Human Resources office.

    The next phase of this work will focus on strengthening the educational components of work on campus. Mark Peltz, the Daniel and Patricia Jipp Finkelman Dean of Careers, Life, and Service, will spearhead this initiative to ensure that students' personal growth and professional development are an even more central focus of these opportunities. In support of this effort, the College will be creating a new position to focus exclusively on supporting campus experiential learning opportunities outside of the classroom and making sure these positions prepare students with critical career-readiness skills. Among other things, we will explore ways of improving training opportunities for both students and supervisors, incorporating mentoring and reflection activities, enhancing evaluation processes, and ways to document out-of-classroom educational experiences.
There is a great deal of important work ahead to reconcile outstanding differences and move forward. Consistent with our proud history, our institution can model how to overcome difficult and divisive challenges, heal, and arrive at thoughtful and productive solutions for our community. I look forward to an open and respectful dialogue and continued frank discussions that will do just that.
 
Sincerely,
 
Raynard S. Kington
President
 
An archive of union-related documents and communications, including an updated FAQ page, is available online.

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