What are the similarities and differences between Columbia and Cornell?

Date: December 2016


Dear Deans,

Graduate students at Columbia recently voted for union representation by the United Auto Workers. Are there similarities and differences between Columbia and Cornell that we, Cornell graduate students, should consider if an election is held here at Cornell?

Inquisitive Graduate Student


Dear Inquisitive Graduate Student,

Thanks for your question about the similarities and differences between Columbia and Cornell that may be useful for graduate students to consider. 

At Cornell, the decision to select CGSU/NYSUT/AFT as the exclusive bargaining representative for graduate assistants will be decided by graduate students who are eligible to vote in the semester in which an election is held, should the union produce sufficient signed, valid authorization cards to trigger an election. 

It will be important for all eligible voters at Cornell to vote in such an election, as the majority of ballots cast will determine the outcome; about 1400 eligible voters did not cast ballots in the Columbia election. 

There are a number of academic, structural, and governance differences between Columbia and Cornell. Academically, Columbia is structured differently than Cornell. Many of Columbia’s PhD programs in life sciences, engineering, computer science, urban planning, and some others are each administered by various schools other than their Graduate School. Columbia’s decentralized graduate program administration may be reflected in varied student experiences, policies, and procedures across Columbia’s graduate community. 

Unlike Columbia, Cornell’s Graduate School provides centralized policy and oversight for the overall Cornell graduate student experience, while Cornell graduate fields and special committees provide the academic program and mentoring tailored to the intellectual aspirations of each graduate student within the overall policies and requirements of the Graduate School. 

Graduate education governance at the two universities has some differences and similarities as well. Cornell has two voting, student-elected Trustees on our Board of Trustees, one undergraduate and one graduate/professional. Columbia has no students on its Board. On the other hand, both Cornell and Columbia have two voting graduate student members on our Graduate School governance bodies. (At Cornell, it is called the General Committee.) 

There may be differences and similarities between Cornell and Columbia’s elected student leadership as well. It may be useful to ask Cornell’s elected GPSA leadership about their understanding of Columbia’s elected graduate student leadership and their relationship with the Columbia University administration compared to the Cornell GPSA’s regular access to and collegial and productive communication with Cornell’s administration, given the executive committees of the Ivy graduate assemblies meet regularly to share ideas and learn from each other.

In addition, the specific context for the union representation election that occurred at Columbia is different in a few ways from what would occur here during Spring ’17 semester, while the pre-election Agreement between CGSU/NYSUT/AFT and Cornell is in place. (The Agreement runs through May ’17.) To hold an election, CGSU/NYSUT/AFT must demonstrate they have signed authorization cards from at least 30% of the prospective bargaining unit, a typical requirement for petitions seeking union representation elections.  

Unlike Cornell, the eligible voting population for the Columbia union representation election included all student employees who provide instructional services, including undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants, and all graduate research assistants across several Columbia schools, and was a vote for representation by the UAW. In contrast, the Cornell Agreement defines the Cornell bargaining unit (and thus, the eligible voter population) as Ithaca and Geneva campus-based graduate students enrolled in the Graduate School, who hold appointments in the semester of the election as TA, GRA, RA, or GA, and would consider (if the election occurs) union representation by CGSU/NYSUT/AFT.

There may also be differences in other aspects of graduate student life that are important for students to consider, such as the differences between living in New York City vs. Ithaca, or the general culture at Columbia University compared to Cornell. 

Thanks for your efforts to be a well-informed voter.

Warm regards,


Barbara A. Knuth 
Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School