Massachusetts Daily Collegian

GEO: An open letter to Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy


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Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

Dear Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy,

On Friday, Sept. 4, the University of Massachusetts welcomed thousands of first-year students to their new home. Many of these students will take up a number of leadership positions on campus throughout their undergraduate experience. Dozens, if not hundreds of them will become resident assistants and peer mentors. So it is quite disturbing that while the Graduate Employee Organization – the union that represents and protects thousands of graduate student-workers – welcomed these future leaders with information about the ongoing fight for the basic, common-sense right of RAs and PMs to not be fired without “just cause,” you welcomed thousands of new graduate student-workers by making light of the poverty wages that the administration continues to pay our graduate student-workers.

While GEO was advocating for the fair working conditions of undergraduate student-workers, you addressed hundreds of incoming graduate student workers at the graduate school’s first-ever comprehensive Graduate Student Orientation. As you well know, your words speak directly to a variety of constituencies. So when you told the congregation of graduate student-workers that they had “taken an oath of poverty, for the next five to seven years,” you announced to every graduate student-worker, past, present, and future, to the incoming and returning undergraduate students and to all faculty and the extremely marginalized University support staff, that the chancellor of the state’s “flagship” institution is content with the poverty wages that the University pays its graduate-student workers. These workers conduct the University’s world-renowned lab research, teach the overwhelming majority of undergraduate student courses and just about all of their discussion sections.

As the body that represents the collective bargaining interests of graduate student-workers, the GEO works very closely with the graduate school, department faculty and administrators to make UMass the destination of choice for people all over the state, the country and the world. Unfortunately, we are also keenly aware of the arguably criminal practices of discrimination and sexual harassment that characterize the experience of far too many graduate student-workers in just about every UMass school, college and department. These discriminatory practices often involve threats and intimidation around access to the poverty wage assistantships that too many faculty and administrators see fit to leverage for power and exploitation.

Sadly, we cannot say that we are surprised at your apparent endorsement of the poverty-wages UMass pays its graduate student-workers. Your words mirror the negotiating position advanced by the administration during its last contract negotiations with the GEO. Whereas the GEO fought to bring graduate students-workers out of poverty, proposing a 15 percent wage increase over the next three years, the administration fought to keep graduate student-workers deep in poverty, offering a mere 9 percent increase over the same period. With a chancellor who willfully strengthens the stereotype that graduate student-workers deserve poverty wages, the GEO’s ability to negotiate a 10.5 percent wage increase over three years is a remarkable feat.

We are not writing this letter to draw attention to a political gaffe or a public relations error. We are writing to make you aware of the harmful message your words conveyed. Regardless of your intent, you can be certain that your words have had the effect of emboldening those who would – and do – exploit, discriminate and abuse their positions of power through access to poverty wage fellowships and assistantships.

We demand a candid, serious, and public dialogue with GEO and the entire UMass community about the poverty wages that you endorse, and that far too many faculty and administrators believe graduate student-workers deserve.  We believe that you owe the entire UMass Amherst community answers to some very pressing questions:

  • Do you believe graduate student-workers deserve to live in poverty?
  • What is the necessary minimum wage that the University needs to pay its graduate student-workers to lift them out of poverty?
  • What are you doing to reach this minimum pay?
  • Do you believe some faculty and administrators currently utilize access to graduate poverty-wage funding as a way to discriminate and coerce graduate student labor?

We invite you to respond to these questions through The Daily Collegian, so that the entire UMass community can participate in this important dialogue.

Sincerely,

GEO Staff and Leadership

8 Comments

8 Responses to “GEO: An open letter to Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy”

  1. Kris on October 5th, 2015 7:55 am

    The inflation rate has been above 3% only twice in the past ten years. On what planet do graduate student workers who are getting paid while receiving a free education deserve a raise using taxpayer money that is greater than the inflation rate?

  2. Zac Bears on October 5th, 2015 2:28 pm

    Citing rates ignores base numbers, which are far too low.

  3. Anonymous on October 5th, 2015 3:13 pm

    RE: Kris – who says they are receiving a free education?

  4. despina on October 5th, 2015 3:48 pm

    Dear Kris,
    Rather than arguing that because we are all held down by the political economic decisions of people who have enough money that it doesn’t matter to them what the inflation rate is, I would challenge you to ask yourself what we could do to lessen the wage/wealth gap that exists in our society by helping each other up.

    After all, if we can figure out how to pay graduate students a living wage, maybe then we can move along to paying everyone else enough to keep them warm and fed. We’re all stuck in this leaky boat together, and we won’t do particularly well shoving each other overboard when we could try and work together to plug the holes that are threatening to drown us all.

    Good luck to the GEO and may you have the energy to keep fighting the good fight.

  5. Kris on October 5th, 2015 6:06 pm

    Zac – There is a reason the authors, and yourself, do not include base numbers. Because when you factor in all the benefits, such as housing and living stipends, as well as free education, no reasonable person would agree with you. If the union got 15% over the next three years, do you think they’d say, “Hey! A liveable wage! Now we can just get inflation adjusted raises from now on!”? No. They’d only settle at 15% the next time because they know they can get that, and they’d ask for more. That’s how negotiations work, that’s how unions work.

    Anonymous – Because that’s who this union represents, research assistants and the like. I know because I was a member of this union.

    Despina – Your comment is very confusing. When you are a full time student, and you are working part time on the side to make some extra money, why would you get raises that are greater than inflation, when your funding comes from public funding, and why would you get paid a living wage? If you are working 20 hours a week, should your wage be double that of someone making a living wage working 40 hours a week? Also, very nice of you to put graduate students, who can afford to be perpetual students, ahead of the homeless… I did figure out a way to help the homeless. It’s called volunteering.

  6. Enku Ide on October 6th, 2015 2:19 pm

    For my MA, (Sociology, UK, 2012) I did focus groups with graduate students to better understand the labor process as it relates to us as grad student instructors. What came out, at a non-union university, was crushing poverty, job insecurity, and healthcare insecurity. One participant, in tears, said she had to wear a ‘middle class mask’ and then go home to poverty. Another student actively joked about taking a ‘vow of poverty’ by coming to graduate school. What was the difference between the former and the latter? The latter still had parents who could, and did, support him. Graduate school was just a continuation of ‘young adulthood,’ and not a ‘real job.’ The Chancellor’s remarks could only come from someone so removed from the realities of our lives (and by ‘our’ I don’t just mean graduate students, but graduate students from working class backgrounds) that he can fight against our wage increases on one day and then laugh at us for being poor the next. Even worse, he invited us to laugh along with him. I could not. I almost had to leave the room. I could hardly believe, in that moment, that he was repeating the same line that caused me such anguish in my data. Many of us will be working on our graduate degrees well into our 30s and will emerge with significant debt and little in the way of savings, no property, and no guarantee that we will have (or even a good chance at getting) a job that will provide us any of these things. His infantilizing and classist statement said to me – “you aren’t welcome here, and you don’t belong here,” a statement I’ve heard in subtle and overt ways since I arrived at UMass 3 years ago. Hearing it from the Chancellor was just another kick in the gut.

  7. Jessica on October 12th, 2015 12:11 am

    Kris, I hate to break it to you, but not all graduate programs offer a “free education”. The stipend provided for some programs covers typically tuition and fees and maybe a little money left over. Master’s programs almost always require applicants to pay entirely out of pocket, and even some PhD programs require the same. Not all PhD programs have housing covered. You want base numbers, I’ll give you some. I’m a psych major and plan to go on to grad school this fall.

    Clinical PhD candidates are expected to be working on their classes, master’s thesis/doctoral dissertation, working in their mentors’ lab to conduct research that may/may not be used for their thesis/diss, attending clinical rounds so that we can meet basic license requirements for this state (which, surprise surprise, not all programs prepare you for), as well as teaching classes to undergraduates. Most programs state that candidates will have no time to work outside of their program.

    Suffolk University can only guarantee funding for the first three years, the average time to completion is 5-7 years. How am I supposed to live for the last two years of my PhD without a stipend and unable to work an outside job? Tack on student debt from undergrad and I’d be drowning in debt in a garbage job market.

    UMass Boston (which is one of the cheapest in state universities for psych PhD programs) offers a stipend for 5 years. Tuition and fees are around 15k, and the stipend covers 10k/year. I will probably spend around $500 on books per semester, which leaves me with 4k to live off of for the next year, which will not even cover half a year’s rent for me.

    If we’re teaching classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for an hour a piece, spending three hours per week at office hours for undergraduates with questions, three to six hours preparing material for the course and grading papers, we’re looking at a total of 12-18 hours per week.

    Assuming we’re paying grad students minimum wage for 12 hours per two 15 week semesters, that only amounts to $3060/year before taxes. 8k is a tiny amount to survive off of per year. Even if we’re paying them above minimum wage, the cap for hourly pay for students at UMB is 12/hr, so that would still only amount to 4320/year before taxes. Which, again, won’t even pay a full year’s rent for me. Let alone groceries, my electric bill, internet, phone, T/Commuter Rail pass, car & health insurance.

    It’s not right to take advantage of people like this.

  8. Ryan McKinney on April 13th, 2016 3:22 pm

    I don’t believe graduate student’s deserve to live in poverty, but at the same time graduate school like all education is an investment of both time and money. Before even applying you the student needs to verify you can afford not only the cost of the institution, but the time it will take from your career as well as the cost of that time. Living isn’t free. If the cost of that investment or the the projected return is not viable at this time, you may have put off going to school. It’s not an easy choice, but it’s your choice. Part of funding that education may require working while in school, but it’s a job. From a legal stand point, if you have a job the employer does not have to pay you more than $10.00 per hour (Massachusetts minimum wage). If you think you deserve more that that due to the worth of your labor, then that’s a conversation you should have with your employer. Bullying and demanding that they pay you more because it’s a “right”, is not right.

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