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Graduate Student Voices: A response to the Graduate College

Graduate Student Voices (GSV) responds to a letter from Dean William Graves of the Graduate College
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Photo by Andrew Dunstan on Unsplash

In the Iowa State Daily on Sep. 14, Dean William Graves of the Graduate College wrote an op-ed in response to recent publications about Graduate Student Voices (GSV) and our efforts to bring a vote to unionize (Biong, 2023a; Biong, 2023b; GSV, 2023). We appreciate Dean Graves’ service to ISU graduate assistants (GAs) and respect his administrative perspective regarding unionization. However, his response misrepresents graduate worker experience and the current GA demographic at Iowa State University. Some of Dean Graves’ comments on GA life and what unionization can offer grad workers are misleading, even false. As such, Graduate Student Voices wants to offer our knowledge and perspectives on the issue to clear up possible misunderstandings.

First, Dean Graves’ message clearly continues to frame us as “students first and foremost,” disregarding the logic that GAs balance grad student life with our lives as employees of ISU. GAs are both students and workers, both learning new skills and contributing work for the betterment of the university. Our contributions go far beyond knowledge-making for our self-improvement or for certain sectors of the economy. Our contributions as graduate workers are much more direct and finite. Alongside faculty and staff, our contributions make this university function. Dean Graves’ op-ed overlooks the substantive contributions GAs make as workers on a daily basis at ISU.

We grade. We proctor tests. We teach classes. We supervise undergraduate laboratories. We work overextended hours in research labs and contribute directly to the success of our advising professors. We represent Iowa State in scientific publications and conferences across the world and share new knowledge and research locally as a part of extension programs. We are the spokes in the wheel that keep nearly all of the colleges at ISU functioning. Being a student does not negate the work and contributions we offer the university as employees. Our assistantships pay us to complete work for ISU, labor taken for granted despite its necessity to maintain the university’s international reputation as an institute of research and higher learning.

Second, Dean Graves’ message does not appeal to the current demographic of graduate assistants. We come from all over the world, with differing means but similar needs. Many GAs rely on their assistantship stipend to provide for themselves and their families. Assistantships are graduate workers’ main income when grants and fellowships are not available. Assistantship contracts often disallow outside work and income, but this factor remains unspoken by the dean. International students are especially vulnerable in these situations because their student visas depend on their assistantship status. Like any employee in the United States, GAs have the right to bring up concerns and seek better conditions from their employer.

Dean Graves highlighted services and opportunities that graduate student workers are offered at ISU, but this top-down resource structure is not currently serving all graduate student workers at Iowa State. For this, we would like to highlight statements made about stipends and what a union CAN do for Iowa State graduate student assistants.

Dean Graves’ summary of our stipend payments is misleading. He states ISU stipends compare “favorably” to other universities in the region. Iowa State uses the MIT livable wage calculator based on full-time work to justify the part-time rate of graduate assistants. This assumes that GAs do not have dependents and receive a full tuition waiver. Dean Graves states that GAs receive “up to 100% tuition coverage,” which is true for the majority of PhD assistants. However, most master’s GAs pay 50% tuition while on assistantship. Dean Graves does not share that ISU does not compare favorably to other major universities in this regard. Additionally, while acknowledging that GAs do not generally receive a full-year appointment, Dean Graves shares the larger 12-month figure anyway. Even more worrisome, ISU Colleges like the College of Liberal Arts and Studies have recently changed their stipend contract structure, now splitting 10-month stipends into two separate semester contracts. This payment structure further dissociates the Dean’s comments from the reality GAs face but more significantly creates instability for graduate workers trying to prove employee status when looking for leasing or mortgage options.

In regards to what a union can do for graduate assistants, it is true that union power has been drastically reduced in the state of Iowa. However, GAs’ bargaining rights with a union still cover numerous issues important to graduate workers. Our colleagues at the University of Iowa (COGS) have advocated for a number of critical issues, including most notably an increase to base pay for a livable wage amidst rising inflation. Here’s what a graduate student union can negotiate:

  • Base wages/stipends (Mandatory)
  • Overtime pay
    • RAs are often scheduled for more than 20 hours a week by advisors.
  • Incentive pay for certain shifts, additional duties, years of service or other factors
  • Hours and work schedules; breaks and lunch periods
  • Vacation, sick leave, bereavement leave, holidays or other time off
  • Grievance procedures for resolving workplace problems
    • i.e. legal support and protection to address bad interactions with professors/advisors, harassment, etc.
  • Health and safety provisions for workplace

(The University of Iowa Labor Center, 2018)

Together, as graduate student workers, our voices will continue to grow and support our diverse graduate community. We respect the dean and Graduate College administration for their service and recognize the continual challenges the Graduate College faces as we operate a public university more and more like a business. With this understanding, Graduate Student Voices will push forward in our mission to congregate more voices and better the quality of life for all graduate student workers, staff and faculty at Iowa State University.

We are posted outside of Parks Library from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays and from 1-2 p.m. Thursdays. Stop by and talk to us!

If you would like to support GSV efforts, or if you are a current ISU graduate and would like to sign our current petition to hold a vote, you can contact us at [email protected] or visit our website.

  • Graduate Student Voices
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Comments (3)

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  • L

    Larry Thomas | Nov 28, 2023 at 4:36 pm

    The. Inmates want to run the asylum.

    Reply
    • J

      Josh | Nov 28, 2023 at 11:56 pm

      I think they just want to be recognized as workers and receive more pay to keep up with inflation

      Reply
    • R

      Ryan | Nov 29, 2023 at 1:29 am

      That’s some weak trolling, Laaaarrrry.

      Reply