Graduate-aid study group preps report

By Dan Lambert

Provost Thomas Rosenbaum and newly appointed Deputy Provost Cathy Cohen met with graduate student representatives of the Working Group earlier this month to discuss a forthcoming University-issued report concerning graduate student funding at the U of C.

Rosenbaum formed the group to draft a report that would “explore issues relevant to graduate life for current and future graduate students,” Cohen said. Last year, a large contingent of current graduate students, with significant faculty support, organized to decry a new initative by the University, The initiative was designed to lessen the financial burden placed on incoming graduate students in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Divinity School by providing tuition aid, health insurance, annual stipends for living expenses, and two summer research grants. While graduate students generally applauded the additional aid, many took issue with the fact that benefits would not be extended to current students.

The report—authored by the panel of three graduate students, three faculty members, and Deputy Dean of Students for Student Affairs Martina Munsters—was expected by many campus activists to be released publicly shortly after its submission. But the provost’s office said this week that they will instead gather input on the contents of the report before it is released.

“We plan to release the entire report, along with the provost’s action steps, when we have had a chance to gather input from the many important groups on campus,” Cohen said.

The graduate students who took part in the working group expressed some disappointment with the contents of the report.

“We were also dissatisfied with some of the emphases and content, so much so that we authored our own section to the report that was added to the final draft given to the provost,” said Brian Clites, a third-year graduate student in the Divinity School and co-author of the report. Cohen said that “it was agreed that it would be important for the graduate students to have their own section of the report where they could offer their input…. [I]t was not an afterthought.”

Much of the frustration from graduate students in the Working Group resulted from the limits imposed on the process. “We felt all the faculty were acting on good faith and had the best interests of graduate students in mind, [but] we still were very constrained by what we could do,” Clites said.

One of the major concerns among graduate students involves teaching assistant [T.A.] wages. The current T.A. wage is $1,500 per course. Clites remarked that the next lowest T.A. wage among peer institutions is approximately $4,500 a course. Many graduate students are “appalled the president and the provost will not be moving forward with T.A.-wage increases,” Clites said. He also expressed understanding that an increase in wages is not a simple matter because the wages “are paid from a variety of sources and related to a lot of other pay scales.”

Cohen said she was aware of the T.A.- wage issue. “We need to gather data on teaching remuneration from our peers and carefully develop a systematic approach to address this issue. It is definitely on our agenda,” Cohen said.

Copies of portions of the Working Group’s recommendations obtained by the maroon included several recommended options for increasing financial support, including roughly doubling the number of dissertation-year fellowships and increasing the award amount to $25,000 dollars a year per stipend, plus health insurance. The Working Group also advised that departments should be allowed to temporarily reduce the number of admission offers in a given year, in order to allow the department to reallocate funds among current students. The recommendations also included an evaluation of advanced residence tuition, which has increased at a rate higher than inflation in recent years.

The portion of the report provided also called for the increased monitoring and mentoring of graduate students at various stages of their degrees, and an increase in graduate student representation on departmental, divisional, and University-wide committees.

Earlier this week, Northwestern University announced a plan to provide current graduate students with additional funding. “The few grad students who have already heard about Northwestern’s announcement are furious, mostly because the U of C has consistently claimed that it is unheard of for universities to make funding increases retroactive,” Clites said in an e-mail. The Northwestern plan gives students who have matriculated since fall 2005 an additional summer of funding and converts teaching assistantship funding to fellowship funding. Cohen emphasized that Northwestern operates with “a very different funding plan” to start with and that the plan is not completely retroactive. Cohen also remarked that Northwestern’s plan could be studied for possible ideas.

Cohen and Dean of Students Kim Goff-Crews will hold another forum for graduate students to discuss the Working Group’s recommendations to Provost Rosenbaum on February 6 at 11:30 a.m. in Social Sciences 122.

Cohen expressed hope that these dialogues would allow graduate students’ concerns to be addressed in an open and honest manner. “We know this affects their lives and their success in their programs, so we are taking their advice very seriously,” she said.