Op-ed: Are grad students treated fairly?

How should the university properly compensate graduate students?

By The TUSGA Executive Board

What do you call someone who stands in front of a class, gives lectures, leads discussions, grades papers and holds office hours? You would probably define that person as a teacher, who is an employee of the school, right? It sounds pretty simple. Unfortunately for graduate students across the country who do all of the above, the legal standing is less than clear.

According to the most recent National Labor Relations Board decision in 2004, graduate students at Brown University were considered to be “primarily students,” and thus did not have the right to collectively bargain. Yet, some state laws permit collective bargaining at state universities. The NLRB has announced that it will review the 2004 decision in light of efforts to unionize graduate students at New York University.

While this fight has taken on a national scope, Temple has one of the few graduate student unions in the country – and the only in Pennsylvania – the Temple University Graduate Student Association. As the school year starts for professors and students alike, TUGSA will be busy renegotiating our contract for the next four years.

Amid tightening state budgets for education, this year will prove to be difficult, and we want to take this issue to the community and ask for support.

As members of the Temple community, we want to stress that we do not view our struggle in isolation. The fact of the matter is that if you are a student at Temple, you have probably taken a class taught by or assisted by a graduate student. A full third of general education classes are taught by graduate students acting as either assistants or as the primary instructor. When you add in adjuncts, who also have very tight workloads, that number jumps to more than half of all classes.

Often these graduate teaching “assistants” are thrown into teaching as the sole instructor of record very early on. Their assignment varies by department, but it may not be in a subject they are specialized or familiar with.

The issue with second-or -third-year graduate students teaching courses of 40 students on their own is that we are often taking a full load of classes ourselves, not to mention presenting academic research at conferences. Teaching is, of course, something that we should take seriously as academics, and Temple relies on competent and attentive teachers.

Yet, we feel that the administration does not have its best interests in the teaching process.

It is unclear how the administration determines what assignments add up to a full teaching assistantship of 20 hours per week. Graduate students, who collectively are entrusted with the education of an increasing number of undergrads, have little to no say in the process of determining our hours. Despite the gains in healthcare and wage compensation TUGSA has made through years of collectively bargaining, this is an issue that still needs to be addressed.

The interests of the graduate students are the interests of the undergrads and the Temple community as a whole. If grad students are overworked, this directly impacts the quality of education they can give. To those only concerned with the bottom line, the interests of all students are sacrificed.

Overall, this is a fight for a better quality of life for graduate students and the undergrads that depend on them. It will not be won at Temple alone. TUGSA stands in solidarity with the struggles for workplace democracy for these reasons.

At the same time, we cannot ignore that our demands are connected to a larger set of issues surrounding increasingly unsustainable state funding priorities.

At the state level, Gov. Tom Corbett slashed Temple’s budget by 30 percent in 2012-2013, on top of a 20 percent cut in the year before. It is no wonder that in-state tuition has also increased by 2.8 percent to $13,406. Yet Gov. Corbett has opted to build two large new prisons, Phoenix East and West, erected adjacent to the location of the State Correctional Facility at Graterford in Skippack Township, Pa.

The $2 billion per year that Pennsylvania spends on incarceration is $500 million more than it spends on universities. For Philadelphia public schools, supported in part by state budgeting, the disparity is shocking. The city spends $150,000 to educate one child from kindergarten through senior year, while taxpayers would pay more than twice that amount – about $330,000 – to incarcerate a person for only 10 years.

We can do better for our entire education system.

TUGSA is part of the mission to fight for better education and priorities for students. We invite the Temple community to join us.

The Temple University Graduate Students Association is the only graduate student employee union in the state of Pennsylvania. TUGSA can be reached at union@tugsa.org.

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