University of Colorado Boulder graduate students are taking to the ground this week to raise awareness of mandatory student fees organizers say hinder diversity in higher education.
Graduate student workers with the Committee on Rights and Compensation are holding four-hour sit-ins at the Regent Administrative Center throughout the week, culminating with a walkout on Friday.
There were 18 students in the first-floor lobby Tuesday morning, all of whom were silently studying, grading papers or, in one case, knitting.
Organizer Alex Wolf-Root said approximately 40 students have been coming to the sit-in in shifts, many sitting next to orange “Fee Waiver Now” signs as they worked.
The group’s campaign for a fee waiver for graduate student workers is based on the principle that workers shouldn’t have to pay to do their jobs, but also on the desire for more diversity on campus, Wolf-Root said.
“Higher education has a huge diversity problem, and it’s worse the higher you go,” Wolf-Root said.
Women and students of color have more debt on average than their white male counterparts, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“By reducing barriers in graduate school, we have a more diverse workforce to show who belongs in labs and leading classrooms and who can go on to be professors and change the nature of higher education,” Wolf-Root said.
University officials preemptively addressed mandatory student fees in a Q&A published last week, but did not name the union, which is not recognized by CU Boulder.
Graduate school administrators are working with other campus leaders and the United Government of Graduate Students to look at waiving graduate student fees, Executive Vice Provost for Academic Resource Management Ann Schmiesing said in last week’s statement.
“Any changes to mandatory fees, including a recommendation for either a fee reduction or a fee remission, requires Board of Regents approval, which occurs in the spring of each year,” Schmiesing said.
A task force formed to investigate compensation for graduate student faculty in August issued a report that, among other things, recommended a full fee waiver for eligible graduate students and changing stipends to compensate for the higher cost of living in Boulder. But the report, as well as a draft issued in May, recommended implementing changes only if budget constraints allowed.
Graduate student Katharine Adamyk said she showed up Tuesday to the sit-in to communicate that workers are not backing down in their pursuit of a fee waiver.
“We hope that graduate workers will see and recognize the power of coming together and standing up for each other and that will push forward into better working conditions in the future,” she said.
Adamyk said fees disproportionately affect graduate student workers with less money, particularly when they have to pay them only a few months — and paychecks — into the school year.
“The first few years of graduate school I had to borrow money from family in order to pay my student fees, and then pay them back later,” she said. “Unless you have that cushion of financial capital, it’s really difficult.”
University spokeswoman Deborah Méndez Wilson said CU Boulder supports students’ right to free expression and peaceful protest.
“We take pride in our students’ thoughtful engagement in important issues, including those that challenge current policies and practices,” Méndez Wilson said in an email. “For example, through dialogue with the United Government of Graduate Students, institutional leaders prioritized four years of stipend increases and other policy and process changes designed to be responsive to our graduate students’ concerns and priorities.”
While pay increases are good, Wolf-Root said, they happen in the context of graduate students who frequently work above and beyond the hours for which they’re paid.
“It’s not possible to do our jobs a lot of the time in 20 hours a week if we want to do well by our students,” he said. “If I wanted I could teach my class at 20 hours a week, but doing so would mean I wouldn’t give as much feedback to my students, or write comments on papers or spend as much time preparing cool stuff to teach.”
Méndez Wilson said graduate students are only expected to work the amount of hours they’re appointed.
“Any student who believes the work they are required to do is not in accordance with the percentage of time of their appointment should immediately address these concerns with the supervisor, director of graduate studies or the Graduate School,” she said.