Regents proposal offers no wage increase for grad students, slashes reimbursement for quarter-timers

Rally on the Pentacrest
Community members rally against student debt on the UI Pentacrest on Oct. 22, 2014. — photo by Adam Burke

Melissa Zimdars is a graduate student at UI, proud member of COGS and thinks human rights are pretty damn important.

Within the last 10 days both the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS), the University of Iowa’s Graduate Employee Union and bargaining representatives for the Iowa Board of Regents presented their initial proposals for the 2015-2017 graduate employee contract. This contract determines the salaries, tuition reimbursement percentages and insurance plans, among other things, for about 2,300 graduate students at UI.

Over 60 graduate employees filled the meeting room on Monday, Nov. 17, with many having to sit on the floor, to hear the proposed changes to their contracts. Like years past, the Board called for limiting union access to university orientations — a key member education and recruitment opportunity — as well as reductions in previously negotiated paid leave. But while these contract changes are reminiscent of their past initial proposals negotiated every two years, other suggested changes are new and were quite troubling to many of those attending the presentation.

One of the major changes affects all graduate employees with quarter-time or 25 percent appointments at UI — about 33 percent of university-employed graduate students. The change? Instead of 100 percent tuition reimbursement, the Board of Regents is proposing that students begin paying 50 percent of their tuitions (over $4,000 per year). Departments across UI offer quarter-time or third-time appointments, but these levels are most common among M.F.A. students in Studio Arts.

When asked whether this would make Iowa less competitive in recruiting graduate students, UI Graduate College Dean John Keller said that other Big Ten universities were also moving toward this type of tuition reimbursement model; however, he did not provide any institutional examples. Another student followed up by asking whether UI would somehow make up for the decrease in tuition reimbursement in other ways, but Board members responded by saying that individual students would need to pay either way (presumably through loans or other means of income).

Another proposed change — one that inspired a flurry of questions following the presentation — is the Board’s desire to remove the “Letter on Human Rights,” which is a written acknowledgement that both COGS and UI are dedicated to promoting human rights and eliminating discrimination. Thomas Evans, the bargaining spokesperson and general counsel for the Board, described the letter as “redundant” to UI’s human rights policy, while another representative of the Board expressed a desire to not have to edit the “Letter on Human Rights” every two years during negotiations. A graduate employee in the Department of Rhetoric, Rachel Walerstein, expressed particular concern over this change citing UI’s recent attempts to close the campus Center for Human Rights.

And the final major change proposed by the Board limits the number of semesters (to 10 semesters) that graduate employees are eligible to receive funding in the form of UI research or teaching assistantships. While this is a potentially problematic funding limitation for graduate employees in numerous departments across campus, many in the room linked it to general student concern over university funding, particularly departments offering inconsistent or insufficient financial support for graduate employees until they complete their degrees.

The Board did not discuss covering any percentage of graduate employee’s mandatory fees, which Evans said they would talk about later during negotiations, but did make other contractual changes, including a zero percent salary increase for both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years, as well as provisions to provide less employee information with even less frequency to COGS. When COGS members asked for justifications behind some of these cuts and changes, Evans responded that he did not want to engage in a debate at the initial contract presentation.

While these proposals, according to Evans, are not intended to be a response to COGS’ initial Nov. 13 proposal, it’s hard not to view them from that perspective. COGS’ initial proposal included:

  • 100 percent mandatory fee reimbursement
  • 100 percent tuition scholarships for all students
  • 4.5 percent salary increases for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years
  • Expanding UI’s undergraduate Summer Hawk Tuition Grant to graduate students
  • Guaranteeing graduate employee funding through degree completion
  • Increased parental leave
  • Reducing insurance costs for graduate employees with families
  • Expanding UIGradcare to cover transgender care and fertility treatments
    In response to these very different looking contract proposals, COGS President, Jeannette Gabriel, issued the following statement:

    The Board of Regents made a serious mistake with their proposal to COGS today. Instead of showing that they understand and appreciate the contributions that graduate students make to the University of Iowa, they are seeking to drive graduate student employees even deeper into poverty and debt. The Board of Regents has shown they are not concerned about the University of Iowa remaining a competitive institution, and instead have indicated a disregard for human rights, single parents, and the most vulnerable graduate students already living in poverty. We hope that the faculty at the University of Iowa will express their concern to the Board of Regents.

    Ultimately, the Iowa Board of Regents and COGS will negotiate these proposals throughout December and into the spring semester. If an agreement is not reached by the two parties by March 15, 2015, they will be forced by law into arbitration.

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