Graduate Assistants Urge UGA to Drop Fees

United Campus Workers of Georgia members rally for fair wages and an end to fees for graduate instructors at the Georgia Capitol in February 2020.

Dear President Morehead, Provost Hu, Vice Provost Walcott and Vice President Nesbit,

Over the past two years, members of the Graduate Student Association (GSA) and the UGA Graduate Committee of the United Campus Workers of Georgia (UCWGA) have worked persistently to eliminate the Special Institutional Fee (SIF) to improve the graduate workers’ precarious financial situation. 

We want to thank the UGA administration and graduate school for hearing our calls and taking the first step to address this issue. Although the fee still exists, the 4-5% stipend raise announced last spring will reduce the financial burden of the SIF. This reduction will improve graduate students’ performance in research and teaching, and ultimately help us live better, healthier and more secure lives with less stress. It is nice to know that the UGA administration cares enough about its employees to address our concerns. 

While we are sincerely grateful for the stipend increase, there are problems with this solution to the SIF. If the stipend increase was truly intended to offset the SIF, as updated 2020-2021 contracts for graduate students in several departments indicate, it should have been a flat, equivalent amount instead of a percentage increase. Due to the stipend increase being percentage-based, some graduate students will not receive enough to completely offset the SIF, while others will receive more than the SIF. Additionally, some graduate students received a 5% raise, while others received only a 4% raise, further demonstrating the inequity of this solution. This solution thus fails to reflect how each graduate student contributes equally to the success and operation of UGA. Moreover, it reveals the administration’s troubling misunderstanding of the root problem and the sometimes vast discrepancies in graduate worker stipends. 

Relatedly, UGA ascribes much discussion of mandatory student fees to a Mandatory Student Fee Advisory (MSFA) Committee. Due to its infrequent meetings, the makeup of the committee itself and its supposed inability to discuss the SIF, the committee has little real power to address problems with fees. This committee currently meets only once a year and consists of three undergraduate students, one graduate student and four UGA staff members. Last spring, members of the committee received a 50-page packet of information with intricate financial details three days before the meeting. This short time frame and lack of guidance is inappropriate for students unfamiliar with these issues, provides no time to seek feedback from their respective governing bodies and demonstrates the superficial role of students on this committee. 

A similar committee at the Georgia Institute of Technology highlights the UGA committee’s failures. Their committee consists of four undergraduate students, four graduate students and four staff members who met six times over the course of the 2020-21 school year and publicly posted recordings of the meetings online. The committee submitted two proposals to Tech’s former president that resulted in the Board of Regents (BOR) incorporating a portion of the fee into tuition, thereby reducing it for graduate students. The relative shortcomings of UGA’s committee represent the larger problems with UGA administrators’ lackluster advocacy for graduate workers. 

There are also important communication problems between the UGA administration and graduate workers. Although [graduate school dean Ron] Walcott initially replied to the UCWGA’s Graduate Committee in late 2019, he did not respond to subsequent emails that raised equally important questions and concerns. Additionally, GSA passed a resolution calling for the SIF’s elimination in spring 2020. Despite this being the official UGA graduate student governance body, the graduate school and all other UGA administrators failed to contact GSA’s Student Advocacy Committee, who wrote the resolution. Whether it concerns the SIF or UGA’s response to COVID-19, graduate workers have regularly expressed frustration with UGA’s lack of consideration and attention. It is time for graduate workers to be respected as an integral component of UGA’s workforce. 

Finally, the stipend increase fails to address a fundamental problem with the SIF. As it stands, graduate workers, who otherwise pay little to no tuition to the university, must pay back a portion of their hard-earned stipends for a fee that serves as tuition by another name. No worker should have to pay to work.

The above problems reveal why the stipend increase is only the first step in addressing our concerns. In an attempt to continue improving graduate student life, we issue the following demands:

• Review all departments to determine which graduate students did not receive enough of a stipend increase to completely offset the SIF. Institute another stipend increase to completely offset the SIF for these departments during the next fiscal year.

• Increase graduate student representation on the MSFA committee.

• Increase the number of MSFA committee meetings throughout the year.

• Improve communication with graduate students. Such improvement includes not only better dissemination of ideas, but also more opportunities for graduate students to share their concerns with administrators, especially when making policy changes that affect graduate students. 

• Actively advocate for the repeal of the SIF to the BOR by working with students to provide a model for phasing out the SIF in 5 years.

• Request greater funding from the BOR.

We look forward to receiving a response by Aug. 18.

This letter was written by Bryant Barnes, Kathleen Hurlock, Justin Simpson and Alejandra Villegas, who are members of the UGA Graduate Student Association and the Graduate Committee of the UCWGA.