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::By Zak Stambor

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Chicago Journal ::

Graduated aid

Chicago expands its Graduate Aid Initiative, but not as far as some students would like.

“First we took our classes / Then we wrote up our MAs,” sang Joe Grim Feinberg, AM’06, a fifth-year anthropology graduate student and Graduate Students United (GSU) member, at a March 12 rally outside Swift Hall. “Then we took exams / And we proposed to dissertate. / Then we did our research in the field so far away. / Then we looked into our pockets / And we found we had no pay.”

Feinberg’s song, “Ballad of the Marooned Dissertation Writers,” kicked off the day’s protest against the University’s decision not to extend its Graduate Aid Initiative to students who matriculated before the 2007–08 academic year. That funding plan, which President Robert J. Zimmer announced last February, committed $50 million to graduate-student support over six years.


Students protest the Graduate Aid Initiative’s exclusion of some current students. 

The initiative, designed to improve Chicago’s competitive advantage against peer institutions—and to shorten the amount of time required to complete a PhD—gave most 2007–08 incoming graduate students in the humanities and social sciences a five-year package that includes a $19,000 stipend, $2,000 in health benefits, plus $3,000 for two summers of research. Although the plan also included up to four years of University-paid health insurance for humanities and social-sciences students who had matriculated since 2003, the current students felt short-changed.

Three months after the initiative’s announcement, Provost Thomas Rosenbaum convened the Working Group on Graduate Student Life in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Divinity School (the Div School was not a subject of the 2007 initiative) to further examine current and future graduate students’ concerns—such as improving health care accessibility, quality, and cost. This February the group released its report, which spurred the administration to commit an additional $4.9 million over five years to support pre-initiative graduate students. (For all related reports, see the Office of the Provost.)

The working group’s report acknowledged graduate students’ concerns about funding differences within their own units, across the University, and among peer institutions. The problem, the report suggested, is systemic, stemming in part from Chicago’s decentralized, tiered funding structure, in which many departments allocate packages on a competitive basis. When the working group compared specific package details, such as teaching pay, to peer institutions it found stark disparities: teaching assistants at Chicago’s peers are paid an average of $5,868 for an 11-week course, while most TAs at Chicago get about $1,500 for a nine-week class.

To lessen the gap between students pre-initiative and post, Rosenbaum, along with Deputy Provost for Graduate Education Cathy Cohen and Vice President and Dean of Students Kimberly Goff-Crews, released a follow-up to the working-group report with 17 pages of “action steps” that will begin taking effect in 2008–09.

Starting in autumn 2008, the initiative will expand to cover matriculating doctoral students in the Divinity School. In addition, the Div School, along with social-sciences and humanities departments, have the option to reduce the number of new graduate students admitted in 2008–09 and to use the reallocated funding to increase current students’ stipends. Current humanities and social-sciences students will also get more support through the immediate addition of 15 dissertation-year fellowships; bringing the 2008–09 total to 95 (with a goal of adding 20 more by 2013–14). More current students will also be eligible for summer research support, with the number of Provost Summer Fellowships rising from 25 to 100 in 2008–09, and from 15 to 50 in 2009–10 (the number goes down as students not covered by the Graduate Aid Initiative decrease). Last summer the provost inaugurated these competitively awarded fellowships to give pre-initiative students additional support to concentrate on program requirements.  

Beyond the funding plans, the provost will appoint committees to evaluate the teaching compensation structure, the out-of-pocket tuition students pay during advanced residency (years five through 12 of study) and its yearly increase, and international graduate-student support services. University administrators will review students’ health-insurance programs and health-care systems to optimize their resources. And they will work to involve more students in the process, including developing regular surveys.

Despite the action steps, a February 26 Chicago Maroon report that the working group vastly overestimated the cost of extending full benefits to all current students added fuel to the protesters’ fire. The article, based on a graduate student’s independent analysis, found the cost of extending the benefits to already-enrolled grad students was nearly $24 million less than the committee’s numbers. Even though the working group recognized that the Maroon was correct about the miscalculation, Cohen, the deputy provost, says the additional cost is still too high. To add current students to the full funding plan, she says, would have cost nearly $20 million in 2007–08 and $14 million in 2008–09. 

That response angered protesters. “Our faculty are the fifth-best paid in the nation,” shouted Eli Thorkelson, AM’07, an anthropology second-year, quoting the 2007–08 American Association of University Professors’ faculty-salary survey. “Why don’t we compete with our peer institutions on [teaching assistant] pay? It seems clear that they can afford it.”

Alison Winter, AB’87, an associate professor of history and working-group chair, agrees that addressing teaching pay is “desperately urgent.” But the problem, she says, is complex. Because the pay is integrated into students’ overall financial packages, the University must figure out how increasing pay affects students’ stipends, since teaching activities differ by division and department. For instance, some teaching assistants grade papers or lead discussion sessions; teaching interns learn how to lead undergraduate seminars and do not grade papers; and writing interns hold discussion sessions focused on the written assignments.

With Winter and political-science doctoral student Erica Simmons, AM’07, Martina Munsters, deputy dean of students for student affairs, tried to compare Chicago’s teaching pay to peer institutions. But the group found it difficult to break out a formula that accounted for the amount of work required for teaching, the apples-to-oranges of term lengths, and whether grad students teach in addition to, or as part of, an aid package. 

“We’re taking a different approach than in the past: Instead of doing something sporadic, we’re going to have an annual review of teaching salaries for graduate students,” says Cohen. “One good thing from this mobilization is that we will attend to teaching salaries in a way so that this problem won’t arise again in five years.”

For now, the report leaves students like Brian Clites, a history of religions third-year who served on the working group, feeling “uncomfortable” carrying nearly $69,000 in U of C–related debt. Though he isn’t sure he agrees with everything in the report, he says, “it was well intended.” And change is coming, promises Cohen. “Enhancing the graduate-student experience is an ongoing exercise. There is no endpoint.”