Tuition Waiver Proposals Scrapped In Face of Grad Student Protests

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OVER THE PAST MONTH, graduate students at
the University of Illinois have engaged in a
concerted struggle to halt proposed
changes to the campus tuition waiver policy.
Under the current system, graduate
employees working between 10 and 26
hours per week automatically receive a
tuition waiver. However, at a labor-management meeting in
January, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO)—a
union representing 2,700 graduate workers across campus—
was made privy to a series of recommendations developed
by University administrators aimed at radically transforming
the manner in which tuition waivers are distributed.
Under the new recommendations, graduate students on
25% appointments (10hrs/week) would no longer be eligible
for a tuition waiver and the minimum tuition generating
appointment would be fixed at 33% (13hrs/week).
Deans of schools and colleges would also be empowered
to impose caps on the total number of assistantships that
departments could offer. In addition, private donors and
corporations that fund research positions would be
expected to cover the cost of graduate employee tuition in
addition to salaries. Finally, students in professional degree
and terminal Master’s programs would be barred from
attaining waiver-generating appointments altogether.
If implemented, these recommendations threatened devastating
consequences for the quality and accessibility of
education at the University of Illinois. Over six hundred
graduate employees currently hold assistantships of less
than 33% and would be severely impacted by any effort to
eliminate tuition waivers. Cash-strapped departments—
particularly in the Fine and Applied Arts—would be forced
to either continue offering 25% assistantships without a
tuition waiver or increase their basic tuition-generating
appointment to 33%, resulting in an overall decline in the
total number of positions offered. For graduate employees
who rely upon the availability of assistantships as their main
source of income, these changes would put their continued
presence at the University in serious jeopardy. To make matters
worse, decreasing the total number of assistantships
would result in larger class sizes and workloads for faculty
and graduate employees, undermining the overall excellence
of undergraduate instruction at the University.
In fields like Social Work and Library and Information Science,
graduate employees were particularly concerned about
the recommendation that students in terminal Masters and
professional degree programs be prohibited from attaining
tuition waivers altogether. Without access to waiver-generating
appointments, the cost of graduate study in these fields
would skyrocket, forcing students to pay out-of-pocket or
leave the program. Inevitably, in all of these cases, workingclass
students and people of color would be disproportionately
impacted with advanced degrees becoming the preserve of
the wealthy few—a clear contradiction of the University’s
supposed land-grant mission and diversity initiatives.
With these concerns in mind, graduate employees
across campus mobilized to challenge the recommendations
and demand a voice in the decision-making
process. Within a matter of days, over 1,000 people had
joined a Facebook group devoted to counteracting the
proposed changes. Through the site, graduate students
were able to share information about the recommendations
and their potential impact on specific departments.
Students began contacting Department Heads, Deans,
and administrators en-masse, demanding accountability
and greater transparency. Elected officials from the Graduate
and Professional Affairs Committee held administrators’
feet to the fire by raising the concerns of their peers
in various venues. Concerned faculty—many of whom
were learning about the recommendations for the first
time—also began expressing their fears about the unforeseen
consequences of implementing such proposals in
departments that are already underfunded and overextended.
These organizing efforts converged in a public forum
facilitated by the GEO on February 11th at the YMCA. Over a hundred members of the campus community
came together at the forum to discuss
their concerns and develop a plan of
action. Shortly after, the Provost’s Office
announced that they were retracting two of
their recommendations including the proposal
to set the minimum waiver-generating
appointment at 33% and the proposal
to render students in terminal Masters and
professional programs ineligible for tuition
This decision is a tremendous success
for graduate students and their allies
across campus. However, the struggle is
far from over. On one level, we are aware
that three recommendations remain, each
with potentially damaging effects on the
quality and accessibility of education.
But, more importantly, the battle over
tuition waivers raises critical questions
about how decisions are made at the University
of Illinois. While administrators
agreed to retract two of the most unpopular
recommendations, they reserved the
right to develop policies behind closed
doors that could radically alter and harm
graduate student experience. What we
really need is the one thing that administrators
will resist giving to us—a seat at
the table in the development and implementation
stages of all future proposals of
this nature.

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