Graduate instructors and assistants from the University of Memphis met Oct. 9 in the wake of a letter sent to UofM president M. David Rudd regarding students not receiving enough healthcare and other benefits.

Outcry arose when graduate workers did not receive their stipends on time, and the letter asserts the administration improperly shifted blame to departments when the cause was due to a change in software.

“As far as we know and as far as they’ve told us, there was a software issue,” said Steph Butera, a graduate instructor in philosophy and organizer of the advocacy event. “Then, there was a lot of miscommunication, blame on individual departments when individual departments had nothing to do with it.”

Students at the meeting began organizing and preparing to present their concerns and desires to the provost and the dean of the graduate school, hoping to begin driving change on campus. One of the tools the group discussed using to achieve their goals of increased stipends and healthcare was the UofM’s Research 2 (R2) status.

R2 status is determined by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, and deals directly with research being performed on campus. Within the Carnegie Classification are three tiers: Research 1, Research 2 and Doctoral/Professional University. R1 is the highest designation and indicates the the university had $5 million in research expenditures and had awarded 20 or more research or doctoral degrees. This means that to reach R1, the UofM must increase research expenditures and award more doctoral or research degrees. 

If graduate students and graduate workers cannot afford to both go to school and maintain an appropriate standard of living, the university cannot award those students degrees, thus hurting the chances to become an R1 designated school. Butera pointed to the University of Tennessee as an example of an R1 school that provides a healthcare plan for graduate students.

“They waive the premiums for health insurance for grad workers and offer a plan for grad students,” Butera said. 

Butera also mentioned the argument that graduate workers are part time and only work 20 hours per week.

“The work of grad students contributes to research that ends up being published under faculty members, which ends up getting grants for the universities,” Butera said. “It’s not like you can say we should clamp down on it being only 20 hours; grad student life is much more full and rich and we don’t want to get rid of that. We want to be fairly compensated.”

Joe Comstock, a graduate assistant in the psychology department, attended the event due to poor communication.

“I knew that I was supposed to be getting a tuition waiver, but there was nothing clearly communicated about a stipend,” Comstock said. “I’m here to get more organized with left wing organizations on campus. The fact that comparable universities offer healthcare and we still don’t is not a good plan.”

Spinisha Rains also attended the event, but was more interested in encouraging advocacy than pursuing any one policy.

“I’ve heard stories from other students; worrying about buying groceries, putting gas in their car, racking up credit card debt,” Rains said. “I think that all grad students should be here, because even if it doesn’t directly affect you, you are still a grad student and you have to support other grad students.”

Butera said an upcoming meeting on Oct. 16 with the provost and the dean provides an excellent opportunity for their cause.

“I can’t make predictions, but I think we are going to have a discussion about how difficult it’s going to be to make this happen,” Butera said. “We just hope we’ll be heard and we hope there will be some kind of resolution. I also hope that many graduate students will come.”

The meeting with the provost and dean will be on Wednesday, Oct. 16 at 1:45 p.m. at the University Center Memphis Room B.

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