EdBoard: On graduate students organizing
In June, Carnegie Mellon issued a one-time bonus of $1,500 for "all eligible faculty and staff" to address the "impacts of inflation" and rising costs of living. The message from president Jahanian on the matter does not enumerate who is considered "eligible," but the selective distribution of the bonus has earned administration the ire of those excluded — in particular, that of graduate students. Posters have gone up around campus airing this grievance, which include an online petition.
While we are glad to know that faculty are receiving a much-needed financial boost, graduate students are no less core to our school's operation. They are the backbone of Carnegie Mellon's top-tier research, and every undergrad can thank a graduate student for making their courses run smoothly. They grade, teach, and provide one-on-one assistance in office hours. Classes would simply not be possible without the work they do.
We ask a lot from our graduate students. The pursuit of their degree also serves as their income, and they work tremendous hours to fulfill these responsibilities. How can we expect graduate students to maintain the level of work output we ask of them when they're worrying about making ends meet? Many are international students as well, who have to contend with the stress of securing visas on top of all this.
In some classes, you might spend as much (if not more) instructional time with a graduate student TA than with the full-time faculty member who is actually teaching the course. It is imperative that graduate students are being fairly compensated, because the quality of their work environment corresponds to the quality of our learning environment.
This week, The Tartan is publishing an op-ed written by Jimmy Lizama, a Ph.D. student in the Dietrich English department, who points out that graduate students in the humanities are at a particular disadvantage. According to a 2022 report by the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA), graduate students in Dietrich make, on average, only $27,000 dollars per year from their monthly stipends. He argues that this, in addition to the lower post-graduation salary prospects in the humanities, precludes those from lower-income backgrounds to pursue graduate degrees, severely limiting the diversity of people studying these fields.
In the op-ed, he urges graduate students in Dietrich college to consider unionizing in order to advocate for themselves. Unionization in one college can also pave the way for university-wide organization efforts.
There are some structures in place to advocate for graduate students, such as the GSA; Lizama also points out the success of the English Graduate Student Collective, which successfully negotiated a wage increase among other benefits. However, Carnegie Mellon graduate students are not represented by any formal union, unlike those at many other peer institutions.
In the fall of 2021, graduate students at Columbia went on strike and succeeded in negotiating a new contract with administration that included better pay and health benefits; the previous spring, graduate students at NYU saw similar success. And as we've just seen with the end of the writer's strike, organized labor is an extremely powerful way for workers to gain leverage in the workplace.
We support the efforts of Lizama and the Dietrich graduate students, and we hope to one day see full union representation of all our graduate students.