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Ian Leahy, and Chris Pocs, both graduate students in the Physics Department at the University of Colorado Boulder, cheer on speakers Feb. 8 at Farrand Field during a rally organized by the Committee on Rights and Compensation.
Ian Leahy, and Chris Pocs, both graduate students in the Physics Department at the University of Colorado Boulder, cheer on speakers Feb. 8 at Farrand Field during a rally organized by the Committee on Rights and Compensation.

A task force investigating compensation for graduate student faculty that was formed nearly a year ago at the University of Colorado Boulder has made its final recommendations, but a member of the graduate student union said he questions whether the university is committed to the actions it outlines.

Executive Vice Provost for Resource Management Ann Schmiesing announced in an open letter Tuesday morning that the Graduate Task Force on Stipends and Benefits, made up of officials from the United Government of Graduate Students, the graduate school and the university, suggested a number of changes, including a 100% fee waiver for “eligible graduate student faculty,” possible dental coverage, an expansion of mental health coverage, the possibility of extending health coverage to spouses and dependents and changing stipends to compensate for the higher cost of living in Boulder.

“Eligible graduate student faculty” includes those that work more than eight hours per week for the university, earning four credit hours or more.

A draft study, released in May by the same task force made similar suggestions to the final report dated Aug. 28 based on top priorities for graduate students.

Both reports did, however, temper expectations by recommending certain changes only if budgetary constraints allow, and Schmiesing mentioned this in her open letter.

“As the task force report points out, implementing these recommendations depends on budget availability, exploring ways to improve the current graduate student appointment funding model and addressing concerns raised during the public comment period,” she wrote. “Approximately one-third of graduate funding currently comes from research grants, the budgets for which are often determined years in advance.”

As for what will be done with the recommendations, Schmiesing said further deliberation will take place.

“To this end, then, in the fall semester, Graduate School Dean Scott Adler and I will engage in substantive discussion and analysis with deans, chairs and directors, UGGS leaders, faculty advisory committees and budget officers, so that we can determine what is feasible over what time frame and develop a plan of action,” she wrote.

A statement from university spokeswoman Deborah Méndez Wilson reiterated Schmiesing and Adler’s intention to work on an action plan, and said the two have “already begun discussing a path forward with campus leaders to determine what recommendations from the task force report are financially feasible over the short, medium and long term.

“The university values all graduate students and appreciates their many contributions to our teaching and research mission,” Méndez Wilson said in her statement. “In addition to the budgetary requests made in the report, Vice Provost Schmiesing and Dean Adler remain committed to identifying strategies to support graduate students.”

The report’s suggestion of a 100% fee waiver, in addition to the recommendations of expanded health care and tying compensation to cost of living are things graduate students and organizations like the Committee on Rights and Compensation, a graduate student advocacy group and union at CU, have been seeking for some time.

However, Alex Wolf-Root, a spokesman and organizer with CRC and a graduate student in philosophy, said he views the recommendations as noncommittal.

“It seems pretty clear that they’re not committed, barring significant pressure, to actually implement a full fee waiver anytime soon,” said Wolf-Root. “The actual recommendation (in the report) talks about, if there’s money over two to four years, which to me doesn’t sound that serious.”

When it came to expanding medical care, the report recommended the graduate school “explore the options” for dental coverage or “examine the feasibility of” allowing dependents or spouses to be covered.

The Committee on Rights and Compensation has, in the past, put pressure on the university to address its grievances. In February, hundreds rallied at Farrand Field to protest the requirement that graduate student faculty pay fees.

According to the report, fees for graduate students at CU average nearly $1,800 — 9% above the average for other members of the Association of American Universities.

The report also states that stipends at CU, while above the average for 19 other AAU members, when adjusted for the cost of living are nearly $4,000 below average.

Stipends were previously addressed in 2016, when, according to the report, other factors including cost of attendance were calculated in. Since that year, the report said, stipends increased by just over 27%.

“During the past four years, in partnership with UGGS, the university has made significant financial investments in graduate student faculty compensation,” Schmiesing wrote in her letter.

This investment, according to Wolf-Root, only came after the Committee on Rights and Compensation worked to bring the issue to the regents and the provost. He said the statement from Schmiesing minimizes what “graduate students collectively can do.”

Sarah Fahmy, the president of the United Government of Graduate Students and a member of the task force, said its recommendations represent “significant progress” in addressing issues among the graduate student population.

Over the course of the 2018-2019 academic year, she said, the group held “several listening sessions for graduate students” and poured over data from CU and other AAU schools, after which it identified the three highest priority issues of stipends, fees and health care.

“We also recognized other important issues that went beyond the scope of the report — issues that we plan to continue addressing beyond the task force report,” Fahmy said in an email. “It is a comprehensive report that will definitely serve as a guiding document.”

Some other issues brought up by the task force were parental leave, affordable housing, raising the insurance subsidy and student faculty workload.

Schmiesing also mentioned workload in her open letter, stating she and others will follow up on the issue, “not only to determine if there are any workload inequities, but also because reinforcing these norms could positively impact graduate students’ ability to proceed through their degree program in a timely fashion.”

“As we engage in discussion and analysis, we will be mindful that students on graduate student faculty appointments are first and foremost students,” she said.

While he noted that workload and time management are “huge problems” for graduate student faculty, Wolf-Root said Schmiesing’s statement that they are “students first” isn’t realistic. He added that the vast majority of his time at CU is spent teaching and working.

“It’s a dual role, and I respect that it’s a dual role … it’s really going to vary person to person,” he said. “But even for students who are students first, who are taking a full class load and also doing research for the university in the lab or being a teaching assistant, the fact that they are a worker alone should give them the rights as workers. Even if they also do have the requirements of students.”

In terms of next steps for UGGS and how the graduate school will proceed, Fahmy said the organization will continue working with the graduate school.

“UGGS has always worked in very closely with the Graduate School, and we have always valued their support and advocacy,” Fahmy said in an email. “We trust that we will continue collaborating to address our priorities and work on implementing the recommendations with graduate students best interest in mind.”

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