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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
UW-Madison and statewide policies, including altering the payment of segregated fees, resulted in several protests hosted by UW-Madison's Teaching Assistant Association calling on the university to alter financial changes.

UW-Madison and statewide policies, including altering the payment of segregated fees, resulted in several protests hosted by UW-Madison's Teaching Assistant Association calling on the university to alter financial changes.

Grad workers speak out about policy changes leading to financial struggles

The atmosphere felt of somber determination as graduate student workers assembled around a conference table on March 22nd to share their deeply personal stories and struggles with a panel of three UW-Madison officials.

The meeting, which was followed by a protest led by the Teaching Assistants’ Association, the graduate worker union, was one way graduate workers voiced concerns surrounding the still developing change to their segregated fee payment method.

In past years, graduate students paid mandatory segregated fees — which pay for services like bus passes, University Health Services and campus projects — after they had received three paychecks. Under the proposed change, however, workers will be required to pay the fees before receiving any paychecks from the university.

If a graduate worker cannot pay, an installment plan is offered for an extra charge. UW-Madison’s peer institutions and some Big Ten schools offer partial or full remission of segregated fees, which is something TAA members hope will become their reality in the future.

Graduate workers, some of whom already struggle financially, said the proposed change would have adverse effects.

“At this point, I basically have no idea how I'm going to pay the segregated fees without asking for help if I don't have a three-paycheck buffer, and it's humiliating,” said Jo Lukito, third year Ph.D student in the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It's another thing I have to worry about at the beginning of the year, on top of taking new classes, learning the names of my 80+ new students and continuing research.”

The TAA asserted UW-Madison has not been communicative enough with graduate workers about the change in the segregated fee policy, among other policies.

“The University has never been inclined to communicate about potentially controversial policy changes, as that would allow more time for resistance to build up,” said Cullen Vens, a Ph.D student and Associated Students of Madison member.

Some graduate workers argued they did not find out about the proposed change until months after it was planned.

“We think that the communication issue stems from the fact that the university doesn’t consider us workers, but as students. In actuality, we do much of the work that keeps the university running,” said Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila, a TA and Ph. D student of Environment & Resources in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. “If the university doesn’t pay us, we can’t pay them back.”

The university said they have had effective communication with graduate workers throughout the process of changing policies.

“UW-Madison leadership has frequent and constructive communication with graduate student employees,” said Laurent Heller, UW-Madison Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration.

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The policy is in addition to other university and statewide policies, including transgender health care, domestic partner plans and international student fees, that negatively affect graduate workers, according to Santiago-Ávila.

Santiago-Ávila, who until a recent policy change included his domestic partner on his health care plan, now has to pay out of pocket for care. International students, like Sociology TA and Ph.D student Youbin Kang, face additional financial barriers, having to pay an international student fee.

“It’s also illegal for me, as an international student, to work in the US outside the university during the summer, so it would be really hard to pay a segregated fee upfront at the beginning of the semester,” Kang said.

A statewide policy that excludes transgender university employees from health care benefits has made education and life difficult for graduate workers and non-graduate workers alike, according to Emma Cameron, a TA and Ph.D student specializing in isotope geochemistry.

“The University’s inaction surrounding trans healthcare has really affected me,” Cameron said. “By doing nothing, they are essentially sending the message that they do not value their workers’ contributions. It really dehumanizes me and other people.”

Because of their shared passion for their work and studies, graduate workers raised concerns about the extensive defunding of public education, which some believe is the root cause of the recent financial policy changes.

Most of the policies related to graduate workers and UW-Madison in general stem from broader statewide policies. The segregated fee proposal stemmed from an audit citing a rule decided upon by the Board of Regents, who are appointed by Gov. Scott Walker.

On a national scale, too, public institutions have been continually defunded for the past decade. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the 2017 school year was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Graduate workers stressed that a decrease in the amount of required fees would not correlate to an increase in fees for undergraduate students. On the contrary, graduate workers said that if some of their financial stress was alleviated, the entire university would benefit.

“Graduate assistants are valued and hard-working members of the university community,” Heller said. “They contribute greatly to UW-Madison’s educational mission.”

Graduate workers and students alike are working together to communicate their opposition to the segregated fee policy. Their effort is evident in the resolution that ASM passed in support of graduate workers.

“It’s an act of solidarity among graduate workers — supporting the opposition to the policy and condemning the lack of shared governance in the decision making process,” TA and ASM Representative Ola Oladipo said.

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