This spring, the University announced changes in funding to competitive prize lectureships in which graduate students can teach a class for pay in addition to their graduate stipend. In previous years, the University offered $5,000 to teach a quarter-long class under the prize lectureship. In March, pay for prize lectureships was cut to $2,000.
Graduate student and co-president of Graduate Students United (GSU) Andrew Seber, who is in the history department, was applying for the Von Holst Prize lectureship when the University announced the change to lectureship funding 36 hours before the application was due. The lectureship was expected to pay $5,000.
“The University is disincentivizing people [from applying] to the prizes because it is no longer worth the amount of work that teaching the lectureship is. It’s really embarrassing because this is exploitation. We should actually be getting paid more for these lectureships, but instead, the University has tried to say that any of this extra money that we used to be entitled to for our extra labor is now something that we should feel lucky to have,” GSU communications director Laura Colaneri said.
This change has come to light at the same time as other modifications to graduate student funding. In October 2019, the University of Chicago announced a new framework for doctoral degree programs in the Division of Social Sciences, the Division of the Humanities, the Divinity School, and the School of Social Service Administration. Part of this framework included a policy that would designate teaching by Ph.D. students as Mentored Teaching Experiences (MTE) rather than paid labor.
“Over the past couple of years, the University has been trying really hard to insist that we are not employees of the University as a direct response to our unionization,” Colaneri said. “Instead of saying that we were being paid for these jobs, [the University] started saying it was a ‘mentored teaching experience,’ which is part of their legal argument that we’re being trained and that we aren’t doing labor.”
In June 2019, UChicago graduate students went on strike to protest the University’s refusal to negotiate a contract with GSU. In response to the protests, the University wrote in a letter addressed to all University students that “unionization would fundamentally alter the decentralized, faculty-led approach to graduate education that has long been a hallmark of the University of Chicago.”
The letter also claimed that “…doctoral education is most impactful when faculty work directly with students without a third-party mediating and defining those relationships.”
The new funding model was announced after thousands of graduate students went on strike nationwide, many bargaining for higher wages; graduate students at Columbia University recently ended a 10-week strike after they reached a tentative agreement that guaranteed an increase in pay for Ph.D. students. Stipends for graduate students in the United States range from approximately $9,000 to $60,000 yearly; a psychology stipend at Portland State University pays $9,220, while a computer science stipend at the University of Massachusetts Amherst pays $62,000. The guaranteed minimum stipend for Ph.D. students at UChicago is $31,000 annually.
GSU believes that the new framework for the doctoral degree program is a direct response to the unionization effort of graduate students.
“In 2019, after the union went on strike, there was a movement by the University to severely limit the amount of teaching work that graduate students did in order to protect themselves against disgruntled workers who had too much labor, so they started calling them Mentored Teaching Experiences,” Seber said.
“I wouldn’t be shocked to find out if this entire change has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of graduate education, but [is] something advised by their lawyers in an attempt to quash our unionization effort,” Colaneri said.
The new Ph.D. funding model has also changed the number of hours that graduate students are allowed to teach.
“[The University] is really limiting our ability to personalize our experiences here. It means that we can’t pick up extra work in order to make extra money to help make ends meet and that we have less flexibility,” Colaneri said. “And that’s explicitly because they don’t want us to be teaching extra. Any time that we teach extra, we’re doing work, not being trained.”
Seber noted that cuts to graduate funding make it more difficult for lower-income students to feel incentivized to teach college courses.
“The whole philosophy behind graduate student organizing in general is that when you actually have these jobs paying good salaries, you attract people who aren’t just rich to do the work,” Seber said.