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NLRB’s Higher Education Actions Could Reduce Academic Freedom, Raise Costs

The Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions, chaired by Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), and the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), today held a joint hearing entitled, “Expanding the Power of Big Labor: The NLRB’s Growing Intrusion into Higher Education.” The hearing explored the potential consequences of the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) efforts to expand its jurisdiction over religious institutions, university faculty, and graduate student assistants.

“Without question, the NLRB’s activist agenda is out-of-step with the needs and priorities of middle class Americans,” said Rep. Roe. “Approximately 23 million workers are struggling to find full-time jobs, while roughly one out of every two college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. Perhaps dissatisfied with its efforts to reshape America’s workforce, the NLRB is now exploring actions that could bring significant changes to private higher education institutions.”

“The board’s efforts to expand authority over private postsecondary institutions would make it more difficult for colleges to offer a quality education at an affordable price,” Rep. Foxx said, adding, “A proliferation of union contracts on college campuses would severely limit an institution’s flexibility, potentially putting union bosses in charge of everything from how professors are evaluated for tenure to the subject matter and number of courses each faculty member may teach.”

“I am a scientist by profession, not a lawyer or a labor relations expert,” said Dr. Peter M. Weber, Brown University Professor of Chemistry and Dean of the Graduate School. “I do not know much about the National Labor Relations Act or about the ‘duty to bargain.’ What I do know is that in private universities such as Brown, engaging in collective bargaining about issues at the core of the academic curriculum would wreak havoc with academic freedom.”

The NLRB’s actions not only threaten academic freedom, but religious freedom as well. In recent years, the NLRB has applied an intrusive test to determine whether certain Catholic universities maintained ‘substantial religious character’ to be exempt from federal labor law.

As Dr. Michael P. Moreland, Vice Dean and Professor of Law at Villanova University School of Law, stated in his testimony, “It is ironic that the 200-plus Catholic colleges and universities in the United States – which have had a mission for generations of teaching not merely Catholic theology but also business, science, literature, medicine, and law – are now threatened with being put under the thumb of NLRB oversight for it… It is ironic that Catholic universities’ embrace of academic freedom and inquiry now gives cause to the Board to conclude that they are not ‘really’ religious institutions.”

While these developments alone are troubling, many have concerns the NLRB’s growing intrusion into higher education will invite even more dramatic changes to colleges and universities. As Rep. Roe noted during the hearing, “It would be foolish to consider each of these issues in isolation. Instead, they should be viewed in the broader context of the NLRB’s activist agenda.” Labor attorney Walter C. Hunter, co-chair of the higher education practice group at Littler Mendelson, P.C. explained that the board’s agenda includes:

  • An ambush election scheme that “deprives universities of their rights to articulate their position, it deprives employees of their rights to be fully informed and deprives employees who might be opposed to the unionization effort to research the issue and discuss the same with their colleagues,” and
  • Proliferation of micro-unions that “could raise costs of administration, decrease efficiency, reduce effectiveness and result in an unfair and inconsistent treatment of employees.”

Rep. Foxx concluded, “Above all, the NLRB’s activism in America’s higher education system would have a detrimental effect on students, who, in addition to costlier tuition, would likely face reduced academic opportunities…We all share the goal of helping to ensure more students have access to an affordable postsecondary education. Congress has a responsibility to closely monitor federal actions that might hamper that goal by contributing to the problem of soaring tuition and even compromising education quality.”

To learn more about this hearing, read witness testimony, or watch an archived webcast, visit www.edworkforce.house.gov/hearings.

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