Priorities, Protests and Payment: A primer on (under)funding at the University of Chicago

No one attending graduate school in the Humanities, Social Sciences, or Divinity School divisions thinks that they will get rich. This is a choice that is made for the love of knowledge, of mind, of understanding and assisting global and local neighbors. However, those of us making this choice also don’t expect to be living in poverty, unable to pay our bills, or working so much that we lack the time to properly conduct our research–particularly since we attend a prestigious university with the 13th-largest endowment in the country, an endow­­­­ment that earned an additional $1.5 billion just last year.

But stories of poverty, under-funding and long-delayed research are exactly what one hears from University of Chicago graduate students in these divisions. One mother told of how she is only able to support her son because she qualifies for WIC (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children), a program designed to help low-income families. Another father was forced to take charity from his church to pay his rent. Others have pointed to the fact that they pay more money to the University to cover their rent than they receive from stipends or teaching pay. Often, the killing blow isn’t dealt until newly-graduated students are faced with $200,000 dollars of debt while the average junior professor paycheck is $45,000 per year.

These issues were supposed to be remedied with the new Graduate Aid Initiative (GAI). When President Robert Zimmer launched his daring and uncertain new fundraising initiative in January of 2007, he claimed to be responding to the noncompetitive and inadequate state of funding at the University. After months spent looking at graduate student needs, the University implemented its first new graduate funding program in nearly ten years. The GAI offers incoming graduate students to the Social Sciences and Humanities divisions (the Divinity School was excluded from the full GAI) $19,000 a year for five years, plus two summer research grants of $3,000 each.

But other than finally extending health coverage to all students in the divisions for the first five years of graduate school–a standard offering at most peer institutions–no financial assistance was offered to the approximately 2000 current graduate students whose funding falls far below the cost of living. Students who began at the University before 2007 were denied the increased stipends and summer grants offered in the GAI, despite the fact that roughly half of Ph.D. students in Humanities, Social Sciences and Divinity Departments get by on less than $12,000 a year and a quarter of students receive less than $5000 annually.

President Zimmer’s new funding initiative, designed to fulfill the needs of graduate students and enhance the University’s prestige, became instead the catalyst of graduate resentment. Students questioned the logic of their exclusion and the consistent answer was that there wasn’t enough money to include current students. When pushed for further explanation, the administration pointed out that the new GAI did not use current University money, but rather rested on future fundraising. The answer, then, was not necessarily that there wasn’t enough money, but that no priority was placed on raising the necessary money to assist current graduate students. The school appeared to be betting on its future, not its present–a harsh judgment on those currently underpaid and overworked. And, truth be told, the cost of meeting the needs of current students would turn out to be far less than the admittedly nonexistent $50 million needed to implement the GAI for incoming students.

At several open forums designed to address current students’ questions about the new GAI, students began venting with new energy the old complaints of low teaching pay, rising costs of living, rising rents, and overall low financial support from the University–the very issues which motivated Zimmer’s launch of the GAI. When it become clear that the University was in no hurry to step up and try to fix these problems, students began to organize themselves. The two most notable organizations are the Graduate Council’s Graduate Funding Committee (GCGFC) and Graduate Students United (GSU).

In May of 2007, leaders of the GCGFC presented to Zimmer a series of demands collected from a survey conducted of over 500 current students–an effort the administration failed to make on its own. The proposal asked for the GAI to be extended to all current graduate students through Year 5 (that is, the same increase in stipends and opportunity for summer research grants) as well as raises in teaching pay, increased health care for all students and a lowering of advanced residency tuition. It was a win for these students when Zimmer agreed to form a committee composed of students, faculty and administration to investigate problems related to graduate funding and present recommendations to Provost Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum refused to comment on any specific actions he might be considering, but suggested that no single issue was “off the table.” Soon, however, the students would find out that Rosenbaum’s word was not as reliable as one would expect.

The Provost’s Working Group on Graduate Student Life in the Humanities, Social Sciences and the Divinity School completed its report in December 2007, but once again, the students felt deceived. It turned out that despite indicating that nothing was off the table, Provost Rosenbaum had told the Working Group only to investigate changes totaling one million dollars. Thus, the scope of the plan was far smaller than hoped for. Deputy Provost Cathy Cohen explained that including current students in the GAI was impossible, due to a price tag of over $57 million. The lack of a concrete plan for increasing teaching pay and extending health care to all working students (not just those in years 1-5) was also especially infuriating.

Students pressed the Provost to expand the recommendations. On Tuesday, February 19, over 175 students marched from the Regenstein Library to the Office of the Provost asking for him to step up for current students, especially on making concrete recommendations for teaching pay. Thanks to the efforts of these students, on February 21 the Provost implemented a series of new funding items with a total price tag of around $4.7 million dollars, more than four times his initial number.

However, these new recommendations did not address the key issues of current students. All of these funds were allocated to increasing the number of competitive grants. The only mention of teaching pay and health care was an agreement by the University to investigate these issues. Any changes to stipends were pushed onto the departments, where faculty were given the option of reducing the number of future incoming students and using funds allotted for them to instead increase stipends for current students. Seeing how such a reduction of incoming students could dramatically impact the quality of research and teaching on campus, nearly half of the departments in the three divisions chose not to cut incoming students to fund current ones. Student feedback to the Provost’s recommendations was not positive, and in a new survey conducted during the last week of February, in which over 400 current graduate students participated, not a single part of the Provost’s recommendations received a score higher than 5 out of 10.

It has also recently come to light that the quoted $57 million needed to include current students in the GAI is wrong. New calculations–uncovered by a student and recently acknowledged by the administration–reveal that the cost is actually closer to $33 million over four years. Since it is unlikely that any change could be made to the budget for the 2008 fiscal year, if the administration simply agreed to extend the GAI to all current grad students beginning in fiscal year 2009, the total cost would be approximately $17 million–a commitment, on average, of less than $6 million per year for equity. The University has not commented on how such a miscalculation could have happened, raising serious questions on how genuinely the University ever looked at the cost of including current students in the GAI.

Why has it taken so long in the first place to form a committee on teaching pay? Statistics have been handed to administrators and the Board of Trustees demonstrating that teaching pay for the Humanities, Social Sciences and Divinity School has not been raised in seven years. Teaching assistants make $1500 a quarter, four to five times less than they would if they worked at peer institutions. Instructors and preceptors face similar pay discrepancies. Teaching pay obviously needs to be raised, and yet the administration says they need to form another committee to investigate the issue.

The administration has also admitted that the University’s cries of poverty are actually more issues of priority, and Deputy Provost Cohen explained to us that graduate students in these departments are difficult to fundraise for. However, other universities, including Northwestern University, have recently grandfathered current graduate students into their new funding packages. This appears to be the normal practice when funding is increased. Why does it seem so hard for the University of Chicago to keep up with its peers?

President Zimmer, Provost Rosenbaum and the administration’s handling of the funding needs of current graduate students has been disastrous and their excuses for ignoring the hardships of its future graduates are wearing thin with students. Perhaps this is why, after multiple requests and refusals, Rosenbaum has finally agreed to an open forum with graduate students at noon on Monday, March 10th in the Max Palevsky Cinema. Students plan on using this opportunity to directly question the Provost about bad math, lack of prioritization, and in general a dismissal on the part of the administration to take the problems of graduate students seriously enough to think out of the box and solve–rather than table to a committee–the myriad problems created and unresolved by the GAI. Additionally student activists will be promoting further actions, educating students on the details and history of the issue and asking the Provost to attend a planned rally next week.

On March 12, the GSU and GCGFC will be holding a rally on the main quadrangle to pressure the administration to eliminate student poverty. It is ridiculous and embarassing that young scholars on their way to being professors and researchers are forced to spend their time protesting to receive adequate funding just so they will have time to do their research. A year without working a second job, a summer to actually start writing a dissertation, and the security of affordable health insurance are worth fighting for–not only for our own interests, but for the prestige of the University of Chicago as well. This is where priorities and protests and payment all come together: if the school really does prioritize top-notch research and better lives for its students, the bottom line is that it needs to stop the protests by paying out more funding for graduate students. (Joe Bonni, Brian Cody, & Jenn Gregory)

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