From Josh Davis, IU PhD candidate
In a recent response to the demands of the Graduate Workers Coalition and their fee strike, Vice Provost Lauren Robel released a statement and plays a bad-faith semantic shell game with the lives of graduate students by arguing over definitions instead of addressing the substance of the issue: We are not paid a livable wage.
The GWC correctly claims we are both workers and students, while Robel argues we are merely students. Graduate students teach classes, do research and support faculty. We are paid a stipend as compensation for this work. Doesn’t this sound like a job?
The stipend graduate students earn varies, but is generally between $13,000 and $16,000 per year. Robel notes some graduate students earn grants and fellowships to support their research and counts that as part of our income. However, this money can’t be used for living expenses and is thus irrelevant to the conversation.
The amount of money we earn is simply insufficient. Even IU’s own cost of attendance calculation is around $22,000 per year, in addition to tuition and fees. Other cost of living calculators — such as the one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that Robel both misquotes and misrepresents — calculates the cost of living in Monroe Country to be around $29,000 per year. Furthermore, we must pay a large percentage — around 12% — of our income back to the university in the form of fees.
These fees, according to Robel, are used to subsidize a variety of IU employees and facilities. However, for unclear reasons, the Provost claims it is unfair for graduate students to ask for the same subsidization benefits. According to Robel, all students must pay the same fees in honor of fairness.
How is it fair to charge graduate students fees to teach on behalf of IU? Faculty, most of whom earn at least four times as much as graduate students, do not pay these fees.
Robel also claims international students must pay additional fees because of the increased administrative workload associated with visas and paperwork. Apparently, the logic that is employed to demand graduate students pay fees does not apply to international students, a disproportionately non-white group — a decision with more than racist undertones.
If all students must pay their fair share, why does a subset of disproportionately non-white students have to pay more? If “fairness” is everyone paying the same fees, why does that not apply here?
In an attempt to justify and obfuscate the challenges faced by graduate students, Robel conflates our income with our benefits to claim we “earn” something like $52,000 a year. Tuition remission has value, as does our health insurance and the rest, but I can’t pay my dentist with tuition remission.
The value associated with our benefits is quasi-arbitrary. IU sets the cost of tuition, and it is IU that remits that cost. According to Robel’s logic, IU could make us all filthy rich by setting the tuition to, say, $888,124 per year and then remit that cost.
Of course, this doesn’t solve our food and housing insecurity issues because it doesn’t change the amount of money in our bank accounts.
Robel’s position is that we are students with part-time jobs.
“This part-time status is necessary in order to ensure that they are able to complete their course work and their required research,” Robel said in her recent emailed report to the GWC, while seemingly admitting that we are totally reliant upon our stipends for income.
In other words, we cannot work to earn enough money without sacrificing our efforts as graduate students. If the university cannot monetarily compensate us enough to survive, then the university is failing us as graduate students.
Graduate students are in a precarious position. We can’t survive on the income we earn, but we also can’t work more. Instead of addressing the issue, Robel is playing games with words. Whether we are students or workers “first” is immaterial, because as students we require money to live.
Robel’s lengthy-but-vacuous, typo-laden and error-riddled response offers thoroughly out-of-touch and casually cruel responses to our suffering.
The “solution” to our income problem the Vice Provost offers is this: Come from a wealthy family that will subsidize you, or take on an additional mountain of debt. This is a burden on any student, but especially so for people of color, women, students with disabilities and other marginalized groups.
It’s hard to see how Robel’s positions on this issue furthers IU’s stated goals of inclusion, diversity and equity.