Open Letter to Chancellor Herman

February 3, 2009
Chancellor Herman,
We write to thank you for hosting the January 22 Town Hall Meeting on the University budget, and we wish to make a formal request for a meeting with you and other administrators to continue the discussion. It is particularly important for us to bring attention to the implications of any potential budget cuts for graduate employees, who are at once the most numerous and most vulnerable workers on campus. Even in the context of the revenue surpluses of recent years, graduate employees remain contingent workers with minimal benefits and a lack of job security. For many of us, our income falls well below the University’s own estimate of living expenses. Thus, while we are encouraged to hear faculty and administrators acknowledge the need to bear budget cuts equitably, there is also a need to acknowledge that graduate employees have never had an equitable allocation of resources here at the University of Illinois.
As graduate employees are now completely essential to the core work of the University, teaching roughly 25% of all instructional units and 40% of all introductory units, the disparity becomes more urgent to address. Due to the expansive but contingent nature of our instructional role, graduate employees are unlikely to experience layoffs or furloughs as purse strings tighten. However, the number of us making a living wage will fall even further and graduate employees will be forced to make decisions between paying rent and medical bills and, for some of us, whether we can afford to pursue our degree programs at all. Of course, graduate students with children, People of Color, and international students will be most vulnerable to these kinds of pressures. A loss of students from historically underrepresented communities makes the University an exclusive and unwelcoming place, it damages the diversity and caliber of scholarship, and it represents a failure to meet the mandate of a public flagship university.
If the planned changes to tuition waiver policy, including eliminating waivers for programs designated as “Tuition Supported” and raising the minimum waiver-generating appointment to 33% FTE, are implemented, we fear that hundreds of graduate employees will find the financial burden of their graduate study prohibitive and will be unable to continue study towards their degree. Not only will this harm the quality of education at the University, as class sizes and course loads increase, but these changes have the potential to destroy certain departments that persist on limited funds.
Our unique role as both students and employees ensures that our concerns cannot be neatly categorized along with those of other students or University employees. However, we must state clearly that in distinguishing our concerns from those of other University employees, we in no way discount those concerns. We reject any outcome that benefits any group of students or employees at the expense of another, and we stand in solidarity with all students and workers on this campus. Instead, we are asking for an acknowledgment of our unique perspective and direct engagement on the part of administrators with those of us who advocate on behalf of graduate employees. We welcome an opportunity to participate in whatever mechanisms of shared governance we are granted access to.
We recognize and agree with the Chancellor’s statement that the only long-term solution to funding the University is a state tax increase. As we have done in the past, we reiterate here our commitment to work in concert with the University to lobby leaders of state government to address this. We believe that a concerted lobbying effort that prominently features administrators, students, and labor unions advocating for the University can be successful.
We appreciate your attention to our concerns and your good-faith effort to build consensus among all constituents in the campus community. In a climate of economic austerity, people will naturally protect their own interests. Nevertheless, we believe that students, faculty, and University employees share a common set of priorities, that the University’s finances can be managed equitably, and that ensuring open and democratic access to administrative decisions is essential to an outcome that benefits the University as a community.
John Gergely and Kerry Pimblott
Co-Presidents
Graduate Employees’ Organization
IFT/ AFT Local 6300
University of Illinois Urbana – Champaign