Until last August, Jennifer Dibbern was a doctoral student in materials science and engineering at the University of Michigan. At the time, she said, she had an A- grade-point average, was logging 60 hours per week in the lab, and consistently received positive feedback on her work from her adviser.
Ms. Dibbern, 26, also earned teaching awards last year, including one from her department for her "commitment to excellence in engineering education," as well as a research award for images she produced on scanning tunneling microscopy.
Now, she finds herself fighting for her future after, she alleges, she was "unjustly fired" for openly trying to organize a union for graduate research assistants.
The university has disputed her allegations that she was fired from her research-assistant appointment, but a spokesman said officials could not respond in detail to the allegations because the university is precluded from publicly discussing a student's academic record.
On Wednesday, Ms. Dibbern, with members of the Graduate Employees Organization labor union and about 100 other supporters from the university and elsewhere, announced plans to protest the actions university officials have taken in her case. They are urging the university to resolve Ms. Dibbern's situation in a positive manner: Ms. Dibbern is specifically asking for the university to provide her with assistance in helping her find a new career path.
"Over the course of the 2010-11 academic year, I became increasingly involved in GEO and the effort to establish with my fellow research assistants a union that would give us a voice in our work," she said in a phone interview. "When I was elected as treasurer of the GEO, I became a problem."
Ms. Dibbern says that her adviser, Rachel Goldman, interrogated her about union activists and plans and intimidated her with e-mails that asked her "to decrease [her] involvement in nonresearch activity." Ms. Dibbern also said that Ms. Goldman removed her lab notes and personal items from her workspace.
On August 30, Ms. Dibbern said, her adviser called her to her office to discuss research plans, but when she arrived, Ms. Goldman informed her that she was being fired as a research assistant because she was prioritizing outside activities over her research. Despite being fired, Ms. Dibbern said she continued to work, unpaid, for 60 hours a week on assignments given to her by Ms. Goldman. During that time she continued to try to reassure her adviser that she was committed to resolving their issues and expressed verbally, and through e-mails, that she was still committed to finishing her degree and wanted to move forward working with Ms. Goldman.
Ms. Goldman declined to comment through Rick Fitzgerald, the university's spokesman.
Sam Montgomery, president of the graduate-employees labor union, called Ms. Dibbern's firing "a clear case of union busting."
Ms. Montgomery said that the union has, since last summer, been organizing a drive to help graduate-student research assistants form a union of their own at the University of Michigan. She sees Ms. Dibbern's case as one more example of a coordinated effort by the university to bust that union. "The timeline of events regarding Jennifer's case is clearly connected to the timeline of our campaign," she said.
The university disputes the labor union's allegations.
"This is an academic matter," Mr. Fitzgerald said in an e-mail. "While we are precluded by law from discussing publicly a student's academic record, we believe certain of the factual claims being made are unfounded, including the allegation that the student was terminated from a GSRA (Graduate Student Research Assistant) appointment."
Mr. Fitzgerald added, "The university does not condone threats or intimidation of, or retaliation against, graduate students for union activity or any other reason. The university has reviewed this matter and believes that our faculty made appropriate academic decisions."
He also said that the university was not aware of an academic grievance or an unfair labor practice charge being filed in this case.
Ms. Montgomery said that the union had taken several steps to file complaints, including with members of the department, deans, the ombudsman, and the Academic Human Resources office. "At each step we were turned down," she said.
"I want the university to show that they don't support this kind of behavior," Ms. Dibbern said. "My case is a clear example of why graduate research assistants need a union to protect them."