On Monday, May 13th, around 50 graduate student workers joined Underpaid at UT in a “grade-in,” occupying the office of Maurie McInnis, Executive Vice President and Provost at UT Austin. The graduate workers held the space from around 10 AM until 1 PM. The grade-in came as a followup to the organization’s May Day rally, where a large group of graduate students, professors, and other allied students & community members delivered a petition to the UT administration and marched around campus in solidarity with the demands.
According to a press release from the group:
The grade-in is being held to demonstrate the importance of graduate student workers to the UT Austin community and demand that the university fully cover the cost of tuition for graduate student workers.
At the nation’s top universities, graduate student workers receive full tuition waivers and stipends in exchange for working as Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, and Assistant Instructors. At UT Austin, tuition benefits for graduate student workers do not cover the full cost of tuition. Many graduate students are forced to pay more than $1000 per semester in tuition fees, even though they were awarded tuition waivers with their letters of admission. The average UT-Austin graduate student worker is paid about $15,000 per year. That $2,000 is a significant amount of overall pay. Further, these tuition costs are billed at the start of the Fall semester, before graduate student workers receive benefits. Students are forced to make these payments over other financial obligations at risk of losing their continuing registration.
“Now during final seasons, we are responsible for reviewing, proctoring, evaluating and inputting the final grades of tens of thousands of undergraduate students. It is time that the university recognize this work.”, said Erika Slaymaker, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology, and member of the group Underpaid at UT.
This protest follows a rally held on May 1st, where close to 500 University of Texas at Austin graduate students, faculty, staff, undergraduate students, and members of the greater Austin community rallied on the UT campus to protest low graduate student worker wages. One of the immediate focuses of the event was a petition demanding that UT Austin’s budget council find a way to cover the Tuition Reimbursement Benefit (TRB) gap by the fall 2019 semester.
The University of Texas at Austin has appointed a task force to address the low graduate student stipends. However, recommendations from previous task forces have been ignored. In 2004, the Commision of 125 recommended that graduate student stipends be “as high as those at the nation’s other premier graduate schools.” Since then, graduate student wages have remained stagnant while the cost of living has sky-rocketed.
The University of Texas at Austin Provost has $50 million of soft money—funds that are not allocated to specific activities or conditions. It would cost the university just over $2.5 million to cover the TRB gap for all graduate student workers in Fall 2019. There is no reason that the University should be unable to cover this gap while working towards a more long-term and sustainable solution to waiving graduate student workers’ full tuition and paying them living wages.
While the petition made a preliminary demand for the adjustment of the TRB to meet the price of tuition, the group’s broader objectives encompass issues of wage equity, demands for free tuition, physical & mental health care, and childcare access. Provost McInnis responded to the petition, which was signed by 3,776 people, and deflected much of the responsibility for dealing with the graduate worker’s demands onto colleges, departments, and the Graduate Education Task Force. The email did not indicate a willingness to meet the demand to cover TRB gaps. Underpaid at UT responded to McInnis’s statement and its claims in a followup statement:
We are disappointed and dismayed by Provost McInnis’s May 8th response to our petition. In her response, Provost McInnis:
Refuses to meet our demand to cover TRB gaps beginning this fall.This is an urgent need for graduate workers, many of whom are being forced to cover up to $1,071 of the TRB gap themselves. 65% of UT graduate workers are already paid less than $18,000 a year, well below the university’s $25,000 calculation of the cost of living in Austin.
Asks us to put our faith in yet another task force. We support comprehensive solutions to the crisis of graduate funding at UT, and we are grateful for the efforts of our faculty and staff allies sitting on the Task Force. However, the Graduate Education Task Force will not submit recommendations until December 2019 and there is no guarantee of whether or when those recommendations will be implemented. Over the past 15 years multiple task forces across the university have identified the urgent need to raise stipends to competitive levels, yet graduate workers remain paid at rates significantly behind peer institutions.
Deflects responsibility to colleges and departments for covering TRB gaps. This is a university wide problem that requires a centralized solution. As the University Budget Council sets both the graduate tuition and TRB rates, there is no reason that a gap should exist or be passed on to individual departments and students.
Declines to meet with graduate workers to discuss possible solutions. Provost McInnis and the University Budget Council are the key stakeholders with power to mobilize existing discretionary funds to cover the gap this fall, while a sustainable solution can be identified.
Over the course of the grade-in, graduate student workers took to social media to boost the action and provide their own perspectives on the University’s failings in compensating their labor.
If you’re on or near campus today come join us protesting for adequate compensation for the work we do for @UTAustin especially the fact that our letters said they would cover our tuition but we are actually required to pay$150-200 dollars every semester https://t.co/7StD765kRE
— Bruce Boville (@BruceBoville) May 13, 2019
— Claire Sloan (@kleer_cooley) May 13, 2019
In response to news reports which quoted the University’s response without context or challenge, Underpaid at UT posted some further responses on social media.
1) The TRB is set by the University Budget Council, which Provost McInnis is on. They could solve the Tuition Reduction Benefit Gap THIS SUMMER if they want to and don’t need a task force to tell them how to do this.
2) Task forces have met in the past and their recommendations have not been implemented. For example, in 2004, the University gathered together citizens to form the “Commission of 125”. Check out their 12th recommendation. (Since 2004, graduate pay has remained stagnant) pic.twitter.com/bhrE7B2U8A
Over the course of the grade-in, the graduate student workers graded tests, papers, and quizzes, responded to student emails, worked on dissertations, and more. They received donations of coffee, fruit, pizza, and more from other students and faculty. In a couple of livestreams, the graduate student workers discussed their experiences and the types of work they put in.
View the first livestream here.
View the second livestream here.
If the University continues to be unwilling to meet the demands of the graduate student workers, this struggle is likely to intensify and escalate over the coming months. From the statements of Underpaid at UT, it seems that the University’s attempts to co-opt energies into controlled institutions like task forces–which they can easily ignore while using to demonstrate their “commitment” to “progress”–no longer have purchase. As graduate student workers get organized independent of the University, there remain potentials for greater experiments in collective actions, transformations in consciousness, and inter-organizational connections which push the struggle beyond just the bounds of the University.
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