One year ago, GSU publicly launched our Student Services Fee (SSF) Refusal Campaign. Since then, hundreds of graduate workers have withheld payment of the SSF, demanding that it be canceled throughout the pandemic and administration be more transparent about its uses. As the amount of debt owed by participants in this campaign has increased, UChicago administrators finally yielded to the pressure: earlier this week, we won the elimination of the SSF for all Ph.D. students beginning in Autumn 2022.
This announcement came just as an increasing number of graduate students were poised to face retaliation for their participation in this action, with administrators threatening those who owed over $1,500 with administrative leaves of absences, entailing loss of health insurance, teaching appointments, and stipends. This win is a result of diligent student-worker organizing. Whether the University administration responds to another of our core demands—increasing transparency about the collection and use of the SSF—remains to be seen.
We believe current and prospective students should be made aware of one of the most troubling things we have learned as a result of this campaign: the vast discretionary power of the Office of the Bursar, whose secretive staff behave like a debt collection agency. It seems that faculty have lost the privileged stewardship over their departments to faceless algorithms and directives.
Since we began this campaign, we have repeatedly contacted administrators through multiple channels to negotiate, to no avail. Instead, graduate workers have faced an inconsistent and, frankly, scandalous pattern of retaliation. Several grads in the Humanities and Social Sciences were informed by Dean of Students Shea Wolfe and Associate Dean of Students Brett Baker that a hold had been placed on their accounts preventing them from registering for classes or accessing on-campus services. They were threatened with being placed on an administrative leave of absence (which would leave graduate workers without access to their health insurance plan during a deadly pandemic), having their pay withheld, and their employment terminated.
Grad workers facing retaliation have been informed that the power to resolve these issues lies squarely with the Bursar, which supersedes the authority of departmental and divisional administrators. For an office with so much power over our enrollment, employment, pay, and benefits, it is striking that the Bursar has no engagement with the public—the irony being that the Bursar appears to be a part of the Office of Campus and Student Life. We ask the Executive Director of the Bursar or their boss, the Assistant Vice President of Finance and Administration, or their boss, the Dean of Students in the University, to clarify where power lies.
Troublingly, when sent to the Bursar, grads have reported a serious lack of transparency in regard to policies as well as coercive tactics to get individuals to make payments. Though multiple departmental administrators, Directors of Graduate Studies, and Divisional Associate Deans of Students have advised grads that keeping their outstanding fee balance below $1500 would prevent being placed on leave, administrators and the Bursar then walked back on that policy, claiming it did not exist. One GSU member pressed a Bursar staff member to disclose the rules governing their conversation and the procedures for dismissal and was told over a phone call, “We do not disclose the limit that triggers the hold to students.”
Multiple grads have received voicemails from nameless Bursar staff who issued threats of diploma withholding, registration holds, and administrative leave. One student was told they would have their degree withheld if they did not make a payment of $1248 within four days. When the student tried calling the number back multiple times; no one answered. On multiple occasions, grads with ongoing and scheduled medical appointments were told that the Bursar may or may not revoke health insurance or stipend payments as a result of outstanding fees.
One grad stated: “I owe over $1,500 to the hospital and over $1,600 to the Bursar for student fees. I do not live in Hyde Park, but I do live in Chicago, so I am not eligible for the 50-mile waiver. I have been on campus maybe five times since March 2020. When I started withholding, it was a pragmatic refusal to pay for what I saw as nothing. Now, I feel like I am fighting against an organized racket.”
The retaliation GSU members have faced throughout the last several months of this campaign has unveiled an issue far beyond our initial concerns regarding the SSF: the administration’s utter lack of transparency. Our organizing has revealed executives who play fast and loose with people’s livelihoods, who deputize non-executive staff to do questionable and confusing dirty work, who use coercive tactics which are applied discriminately and alleviated on a discretionary basis, and who operate using shadowy policies that either a) don’t actually exist or b) provide cover for unfair labor practices. The fact that rules governing our enrollment and employment are secret has massive implications: clear and consistent policies should be a fundamental priority for every student and staff member on this campus.
As of January 25, 2022, this campaign has won the cancellation of the Student Services Fee for every Ph.D. student across the divisions. We now know that the University had the ability to relieve its workers of the burden of the SSF. Graduate workers continue to organize for the return of Student Services Fees paid throughout the pandemic, a clear delineation of Bursar policies and power, and a moratorium on shady debt collection practices.
The UChicago Graduate Students United (GSU) works to improve the lives of graduate student workers by building collective power in the form of a labor union.
Note: The Maroon independently confirmed the claims made in this op-ed through screenshots of correspondence provided by the GSU.