A recent article in the Chicago Reader sums up well the problem facing graduate students across the country: It is “the university as corporation, [the model in which] some university heads are calling themselves CEOs, graduate students are more than ever an exploitable source of cheap labor, and most Ph.D.s are doomed to a lifetime of multiple, low-paying, part-time jobs.”
While some universities move to amend the situation, the University of Chicago administration, once again, follows rather than leads. Provost Thomas Rosenbaum’s recommendations on graduate funding in February, while providing some additional funding opportunities, failed to address key financial issues for students—instead treating them as if they were employees of the University. (Though where that line rests is unclear. At an open forum in March, Rosenbaum consistently described departments as “hiring” rather than “admitting” graduate students into their Ph.D. programs.) Issues of increased pay for all teaching and T.A. positions, as well as the provision of appropriate benefits like health care for student employees, remained unresolved.
Committees organized by the provost’s office on some of these issues are now beginning to meet, including one on graduate teaching and one on advanced residency fees. (Ph.D. students here must pay a quarterly advanced residency fee once they finish taking classes, and the fee has increased at a yearly rate much higher than that of regular tuition.) There is reason to believe that some small and important changes will result from the committees’ work. The provost’s office has already announced a suspension of the annual increase in advanced residency fees for the 2008-2009 academic year. It is also likely that the teaching committee will recommend, and the administration approve, a slight raise in pay for next year. But the issue remains that these committees are ultimately unaccountable to those whom they will most affect, and their membership, progress, and discussion have gone largely undisclosed to the student body. This closed-door, non-democratic process is unlikely to create the changes truly demanded by the situation. At this point, even a 50-percent raise in pay would mean that U of C graduate student T.A.s and teachers would still make less than half the compensation given for equivalent amounts of work at our peer institutions. Any raise should be understood as an indication of the power students can wield when we organize. But until we have gained a genuine voice in the decision-making process of this university, we cannot expect the administration to take the actions that are obviously necessary.
This has become even clearer during the last quarter. The University has paid massive sums to gain real estate throughout Hyde Park, even footing the bill for a new home for the Chicago Theological Seminary in exchange for the ability to house the new Milton Friedman Institute at the seminary’s current location. In such acts, the words of administrators to graduate students prove themselves to be truly hollow. Graduate students are repeatedly told not to be concerned because they are a “priority,” that their teaching is “valued,” and that it’s merely that the budget is “complicated.” Meanwhile, real increases in wages are slow in coming while the money flows to support the production of theories that will no doubt justify the administration’s continued suppression of teaching wages.
Given all this, it remains evident that graduate students, and student employees more generally, cannot rely on the current institutional mechanisms to bring about fair working conditions and compensation. There is a demonstrated need for an ongoing and sustained organization that truly involves student employees in the decisions affecting them and that can pressure the University to take progressive action on these issues, rather than weakly following its “peers” and providing paltry justification for maintaining its status quo.
To this end, I would encourage all student employees (grad and undergrad alike) to consider becoming involved in Graduate Students United (GSU). GSU, together with the Graduate Council’s Graduate Funding Committee (GFC), has worked throughout the past year on the financial issues important to grad students. Most recently, the groups helped put on a campus-wide Teach Out to demonstrate both the number of classes taught by graduate students, as well as the number of faculty members who support raising teaching pay. But as GFC continues its work primarily on funding issues through Graduate Council, GSU is taking a much needed step and forming a student employee organization to deal more substantially with the concerns of student employees. Signing up as an official member of GSU gives you the ability to shape the agenda for organizing on student employment issues. Joining together to build a student-employment organization gives us all greater collective power and the ability to make student labor recognized as a serious stakeholder here at the University. Such power is necessary if we are to make lasting changes for student workers on our campus.
Megan Wade is a M.A. student at the Divinity School. She is a member of Graduate Students United.