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Graduate School dean talks unionization, cites existing engagement with students

The sun reflects on the water as it sets on the Graduate College.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

In light of recent unionization efforts from Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU) and increased pressure on University administration to address them, The Daily Princetonian sat down with dean of the Graduate School Rodney Priestley on Wednesday, March 8 to discuss unionization and the Graduate School’s institutional response. 

Priestley has been in the role of dean since June 1, 2022. He continues to serve as the associate director for the Princeton Center for Complex Materials (PCCM) and the Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CBE). He also runs the Priestley Polymer Lab. He previously served as vice dean for innovation in the Office of the Dean for Research and the director of graduate studies for the CBE department.


Priestley clarified that the recent 5 percent raise in graduate student stipends was not in response to unionization efforts, but had actually been proposed in fall of 2022. PGSU initially claimed that the University had offered a $5,000 raise, which the group characterized as “the first of our union wins.”

“The proposal for the 5 percent stipend increase that was announced last week was submitted to the Priorities Committee of the University last fall,” Priestley said. “It was deliberated and debated within the Priorities Committee, which includes graduate students … It was endorsed by the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees in January [2023].”

He added that students found out about the raise earlier this year because the new stipend amount was being put into offer letters sent to admitted graduate students. Additionally, “current students generally find out about that information during the re-enrollment process.” 

In response to the recent unionization drive on campus, Priestley emphasized that it is the students’ right to unionize. He explained that the Graduate School is prepared to work with students, but that the School wants them to make an informed decision. He stated that this includes graduate students being “able to make this decision without pressure from any member of the campus community,” including students, staff, faculty, and peers of students. 

He noted that the institutional response is summed up in the documents sent out to graduate students last week, which included a memo from Priestley, an FAQ about unionization, and a comparison of what the Graduate School currently offers students to student demands. 

“My position remains unchanged. I’m willing to engage with graduate students on any topic that they find of interest to them,” Priestley said. “Whether or not it’s part of a demand for a union or not, I took on this role to ensure that I can provide the best environment for our students, and that's what I will continue to do.”


“There are things that we’re working on that haven’t been made public yet that we will continue to work on, because we think they are great for our graduate students, their experience here, and for the Graduate School overall,” he added.

He stated that one of the things that set the Graduate School apart is the engagement it has with its student body. According to Priestley, each department has a graduate student committee, and students sit on committees that hire Graduate School staff, including the search committee that hired Priestley.

“I would say our students have a tremendous amount of voice and engagement with the Graduate School, and that has led to a lot of impact and a lot of outcomes,” Priestley said.

PGSU has been touted as a way for graduate students to influence University policy in an organized fashion.

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Priestley cited the construction of the Meadows Apartment Complex as one outcome of graduate student feedback, stating, “That's not something that comes out of just purely engagement within Clio Hall or the Graduate School. That comes out of a taskforce report that included graduate students that were advocating for more housing and responded to that.”

He added that not many other institutions are in the position to house most of their students. “All first year graduate students live together in a dormitory style setting, which allows us to offer a similar kind of residential experience for graduate students. That is tremendously unique,” Priestley said. 

Despite this, the ‘Prince’ found that housing has been a key ask in the unionization effort. PGSU’s website includes proposals for housing that is “better” and “fairer,” including affordable housing — a demand expressed by graduates at a rally in support of unionization earlier this month. 

Rooms in the Old Graduate College cost a minimum of $5,917 per year for a walk-through double. At University-sponsored Lakeside Apartments, costs vary more significantly: studio apartments cost $999 per month, one bedrooms cost a minimum of $1,458 per month, and the most expensive multi-room apartments, which students can rent individual rooms within, cost $3,756 per month in total. Thirty percent of Lakeside Apartment rooms are unfurnished.

For graduate students living off-campus, prices in Princeton are high compared to the national average. Zillow gives an estimate of $3,400 for the median monthly cost to rent an apartment in Princeton. 

Regarding the cost of housing in Princeton, Priestley stated, “When we propose the stipend increase for our graduate students, cost of living, including housing, is taken into account. That calculation is above the cost of living estimate in the Princeton area, and in Central Jersey.”

He continued, “We believe that the stipend we provide is one that does allow our students to be able to afford housing within the area. Those calculations have led to our students having either the first or second [highest] average stipend in the country.”

“But again, that’s not something that doesn't happen without our student voices,” Priestley continued.

The stipend raise that Priestley referenced has been called insufficient by some in PGSU. “The raise received last year barely offset, if at all, the tremendous increase in cost of living, which was seen across the States and globally in the past two years,” Aditi Rao, a graduate student, wrote to the ‘Prince,’ on behalf of PGSU. 

There are other issues related to graduate student housing. Students in the Visiting Student Research Collaborators (VSRC) program are not guaranteed housing, as they are not enrolled graduate students at the University. The ‘Prince’ previously found that VSRC students struggle to find affordable housing when visiting.

Priestley stated that students had never brought this issue to his attention, including during his office hours.

“We’d be happy to look into this issue and to see how we might be able to be of help. In general, it is something in which a faculty advisor who’s hosting the student may offer some assistance, but the Graduate School would be happy to have those conversations with those faculty,” Priestley said. 

When asked about complaints from some international graduate students concerning difficulty with finding work in the United States, Priestley discussed the creation of the Grad Futures Professional Development Program, which provides training to students to aid them in finding careers after graduation. He stated, “These efforts are only growing. There’s been a lot of positive feedback about the Grad Futures Program from graduate students as well as alums.”

“We have new experiential programs that we are developing in which the graduate school pays for the internships. We help develop the partnerships and then we pay for the internships ourselves,” he said. “I have talked to some of our international students about some of these challenges” 

The Grad Futures Program is separate from the Curricular Practical Training (CPT) courses, which offer certification to international students for pursuing work in their area of study. At a recent PGSU rally, Nancy Tang, an international graduate student, claimed that only 16 departments offer a summer Curricular Practical Training (CPT) course and hoped that the University would create more.

When asked if there were plans to expand CPT, as it is currently up to the individual department to decide whether to provide it or not, Priestly stated that “Departments, by their very nature, decide what they believe is beneficial for their academic program and the training of their students. That is the current policy at Princeton, that the faculty and those departments know best and should be able to make that decision of whether or not CPT is appropriate.”

He added that the Grad Futures Program’s experiential component is expanding with the goal of all students being able to participate. While he could not recall any students coming to him with concerns about this during his office hours, he emphasized that “there is alignment” between graduate student demands and Graduate School programs. 

He added, “We would like to work on this, but we recognize that there is a structure at the University that we have to respect; but we think there are potential solutions forward that at least we can make the case.” 

Priestley ended the interview by again emphasizing students’ right to make a decision about unionization, but added that the Graduate School believes students currently have a voice in University affairs. He reiterated his willingness to engage with students to create a better Graduate School experience and added that many graduate school programs would not happen without student input. 

“I think this is something that our students should be proud of and something they should look to in terms of thinking: what else could we build together? How else can we build a graduate school that is really distinctive and unique?” he said.

“Over the 123-year history of the graduate school, that relationship has been able to come together and develop something that I think is really special … I look forward to supporting our students in the future and making sure they have the best possible experience in graduate school, because that’s what we want to develop,” he added.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect a number of clarifications regarding Priestley’s statements.

Olivia Sanchez is a staff News writer for the ‘Prince.’

Please send any corrections to corrections[at]