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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

UW-Madison expanded its work policies Tuesday to now cover graduate students who serve as research assistants.

Graduate research assistants now covered under new GAPP guidelines

UW-Madison updated its work policies Tuesday to accommodate graduate students who serve as research assistants,  addressing concerns related to work conditions, hours and duties. 

The refurbished Graduate Assistantship Policies and Procedures now includes similar, yet distinct, procedures for all graduate teaching, project and research assistants — 80 percent of all graduate student employees in fall 2019. 

An initial draft for the policies was published in 2019, but no workplace protections existed for research assistants, according to Teaching Assistants’ Association co-President Robert Christl.

After repeated complaints from students and the TAA, policies now state that a full-time appointment as a graduate RA constitutes as a 40-hour work week, and RAs are not required to approach a supervisor before filing a work complaint. 

“[The policy change] successfully formalizes practices that were already established at UW-Madison, and offers guidance and transparency for RAs and their supervisors,” said graduate school Dean William Karpus. “I appreciate the dedication and collaboration of the work group, which included graduate students, staff and faculty from across campus, in developing this document.”

Plans for the new GAPP began in 2017 when Karpus and Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Laurent Heller commissioned a working group to develop measures that would cover all graduate students. 

Karpus noted that the graduate RA policies would better encompass the “results-driven, not time-driven,” style of graduate students’ workload. The new GAPP states graduate RAs’ work “may vary greatly across disciplines and individuals” and “cannot be precisely measured in relation to a given period of time.”

“I don’t know how you can define overwork without defining reasonable work,” said TAA co-President Sara Trongone.

TAA publicity committee member Anna Meier said the new policies point in the right direction, but still had concerns regarding supervisors’ abilities to “neutrally evaluate their own behavior,” when referencing GAPPs new work complaint policy.

While past legislation annulled its legal union status, the TAA now intends to talk more with UW-Madison administrators by creating an independent committee separate from the Associated Students of Madison, who currently serve as intermediaries between graduate students and the university. 

The new GAPP policies came a day before the Cap Times published an article highlighting the long-standing mistreatment of UW-Madison graduate students. 

Aside from the mental and emotional tolls endured on a daily basis, the article cited many instances of abusive behavior, including a reference to the suicide of a seventh-year engineering graduate student last semester — which exposed a toxic culture within a UW-Madison professor’s lab.

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Students noted the updated GAPP reflected progress, but that policies needed further refinement related to their work duties and safety, as well as a greater need for students to become involved in the conflict-resolution process with university officials. 

Ultimately, the TAA aimed to reassert itself as the primary voice for graduate students to properly address their grievances and burdens, according to the article. 

“Most graduate students are doing okay. Most faculty want the same thing we want — for us to be happy and healthy and successful and protected,” said Physics Graduate Council Student President Susan Sorensen. “But when it comes to student safety, most of us is not enough.” 

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