The formation this school year of Graduate Students United (GSU), a group of graduate students seeking to improve graduate employee benefits at the University, has added yet another voice to the chorus of calls for better representation and funding at the University.
GSU was organized in September to present a unified group to advocate for graduate student worker issues.
“The main goal was to build the power of working graduate students,” GSU member Jack Lesniewski said. “Not to be relying on ad-hoc committees or on particular administration at particular points but to have a sustained power and presence that democratically represents the interests of working graduate students.”
Last May, the University’s announcement of total funding for all incoming graduate students in the Humanities and Social Sciences divisions prompted a group of current graduate students to launch the initial planning stages of the GSU.
Although the University’s tuition proposal and enhancements announced earlier this year by Provost Thomas Rosenbaum will provide all graduate students with some benefits, Lesniewski said that many current students detected a lack of collective organization in the graduate student community to voice their concerns over funding issues.
The Graduate Council’s Graduate Student Funding Committee was born out of this frustration, which, along with its parent organization, works to give graduate students greater input on campus policies.
“What we are doing is working as a new organization representing graduate students as workers, which gives us a different kind of leverage and autonomy because there is no established channel for graduate students as workers,” GSU member Joe Grim Feinberg said. “I would like to see our aims not be different but complementary.”
Toussaint Losier, head of the Graduate Student Funding Committee and a member of GSU, said that the two organizations have engaged in several successful joint ventures, including a postcard drive to send comments to the Provost and a rally in the winter. He said that the two groups, while sharing similar goals, have different means toward those ends.
“It’s nice to have an organization like the GSU because the Graduate Student Funding Committee is a representative organ which had to represent the students’ concerns, so there’s only so much it can do,” Losier said. “It’s not an organization anyone can join.” In contrast, any graduate student who pays the yearly dues of $5 can become a member of GSU.
GSU has begun to pressure the University to provide better health care coverage for graduate students. It plans to present the administration with a petition today, signed by 461 students asking for better insurance for all student employees,―both graduate and undergraduate,―and a remission of fees for all students in advanced residency.
“I hope the administration will see this as a statement of what graduate students and other members of the community want to see change,” Grim Feinberg said. “Given the undemocratic structure of the University, we don’t count on them doing what the vast majority of people want, and that’s why we’re organizing.”
Deputy Provost for Graduate Education Cathy Cohen said that she is interested to see whether GSU will operate differently than other graduate student advocacy organizations that already exist on campus. She said that GSU would need to accrue substantial membership before the group could claim to represent the interests of the over 9,000 graduate students at the University, but that she expects that the organization will facilitate communication between University administrators and graduate students.
“I think the more [student groups], the better. It’s a democratic process,” Cohen said.
Presently, GSU is working to build its membership. Without formal leadership positions, all members have the ability to vote and raise concerns before GSU.
Currently, GSU has about 100 members after two weeks of active recruitment, but Grim Feinberg said that the organization hopes to eventually represent graduate students from all 55 degree-giving programs.
The group has already organized two rallies on campus to bring attention to its efforts, and members view the petition as the next step in their overall plan to establish GSU as a reputable student organization.
“What we’re expecting is that this [petition] won’t be enough for the administration, and that’s why we’re doing it as part of a larger plan,” Grim Feinberg said.
With sufficient membership, GSU hopes to enter into collective bargaining negotiations with the University as a means to better working and studying conditions.
“What we’re hoping is that they’ll recognize how widespread the demand is for change,” Grim Feinberg said.
Cohen remains positive about the administration’s responsiveness to student concerns but said that graduate issues involving allocation of resources lack easy solutions that appeal to everyone.
“I’m always interested in hearing constructive ways we can enhance graduate learning at the University of Chicago, understanding the constraints of the University,” she said. “We can’t do everything that everyone asks us to do, and even though we are committed to improving graduate study, sometimes we might disagree [about how to do that],” she said.