Sunday, September 20, 2020

LETTER: Graduate employees too vital to skimp on compensation

May 6, 2015

As the MSU Graduate Employees Union is undergoing contract negotiations, I would like to present my concerns as a Teaching Assistant and member of the MSU community. 

As graduate employees, our quality of life is influenced by our salary, our benefits, and our environment at work. Because we teach one-third of the classes at MSU, undergraduate students are also directly impacted by our working conditions. 

If we’re constantly worried about how we’re going to pay our rent, how can we be there for our students? If we don’t have access to the treatment we need for our own health problems, how can we be there for our students? And if we have to work in an environment where we are being harassed or our progress toward our degree is being impeded, how can we be there for our students?

We care about T.H.I.S. (tuition, healthcare, inclusivity, salary) because we care about our graduate student peers, and also our undergraduate students, their education, and their personal and professional development. 

We were in their position just a few years ago, and we know how hard it is to learn when you have a distant or stressed-out instructor and we don’t want to be that. If MSU cares about its undergraduate student education, they need to compensate for the value of the work their instructors, including TAs, do.

The salary of almost half of our TAs is at the minimum it can be, which is close to or below the poverty line. The administration told us “how can you compare yourself to the poverty line when you’re only working 20 hours a week?” 

Despite what our appointments indicate, none of us are only working 20 hours a week. But even if we were, the time that we spend teaching our students, giving them feedback on their assignments, meeting with them one-on-one, responding to their emails, holding out-of-class review sessions, must be worth more than poverty. 

Graduate TAs provide a valuable and essential service to the university—teaching. The fundamental purpose of higher education—a service that students pay for in tuition dollars—is being met with indifference and disrespect.

The changes MSU has proposed will disproportionately affect, and place undue hardship, on TAs who have medical conditions or take prescription medication, it will place undue hardship on TAs who have children, and it will place undue hardship on TAs who still have classes to take after they complete their comprehensive exams. 

We need to keep our tuition waiver so we can complete our degree on time and not have to pay out of our empty pockets for our tuition. We need to keep the health coverage we have, because if we don’t, in a few months, we could find ourselves with higher copays, higher out-of-pocket maximums, and lower prescription drug costs, and we cannot afford that. 

And for those of us who have children, we need that dependent coverage subsidy—especially because they don’t want to give us any help in the way of childcare. It is not acceptable to tell graduate students that they just shouldn’t start a family in graduate school, or that they shouldn’t start graduate school if they already have a family. 

We cannot limit access to higher education to a subset of individuals who fit into a narrow definition of what a college student should be.

Finally, the issue that is nearest to my heart is that I am required to report any student who discloses an experience of sexual or relationship violence to the university and to the police even if they ask me not to, and even if it is not in their best interest or safety to do so. 

We understand that the objective of having all university employees be mandatory reporters of sexual misconduct is to protect the community. But not all employees have the same responsibilities to the university or the same relationship to students. 

Mandatory reporting closes the communication lines between students and their educators in a way that can be harmful to the students. Federal regulations only recommend mandatory reporting for those employees whose role gives them the authority to address and remedy sexual violence on behalf of the institution, and graduate students do not have this authority. 

However, when we requested that, if we are to be mandatory reporters of sexual misconduct, we be compensated for a mental health first aid workshop, the administration told us that was not our responsibility as TAs. 

So we as graduate students are requesting to be exempt from having mandatory reporting status. It’s not because we don’t want to be “responsible” or that we don’t care about our students—it’s because we do care, that we want students to feel safe and comfortable talking to us or someone, and we don’t want to make decisions for them and report without their consent, which we know can be harmful in their recovery.

We want students to report. We’re not saying that sexual misconduct should never be reported, but the decision to report should not be placed on peers, graduate students, and other educators who are often seen by students as safe to talk with about personal issues. 

The reasons victims don’t report can often be addressed with counseling before a report is made, not by forcing a report on them. That’s what the counseling center, the Sexual Assault Program, Safe Place, and support groups do—and that’s where we should be directing victims first. It should be mandatory resources, not mandatory reporting.

All we, as graduate students and TAs want to do is help our students and complete our own degrees, and we will not accept anything from the administration that will impeded our ability to do so.

Apryl Pooley is a PhD candidate studying neuroscience. Reach her at pooleyap@msu.edu.

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