Issues behind GEO strike take center stage at UI Senate meeting

Issues behind GEO strike take center stage at UI Senate meeting

URBANA — Professors and students expressed frustration Monday with University of Illinois administrators about their handling of negotiations with striking graduate employees.

A series of speakers at the monthly campus Academic Senate meeting said the administration had failed to explain clearly its rationale for wanting to change 2009 contract language protecting tuition waivers for teaching assistants, and should consult more with faculty on an issue so vital to teaching and research on campus.

"This is not business as usual. This is a crisis, and we need to talk about it," said Professor Siobhan Somerville.

Neither Chancellor Robert Jones nor Provost Andreas Cangellaris was there. Jones, who just returned from South Africa on Sunday night, had to attend a board of trustees committee meeting scheduled for the same time. Cangellaris was in Arizona for a conference hosted by Coursera, the company that partners with the UI for online education.

About 50 members of the Graduate Employees Organization did attend. They filled the visitors' section and stood in the back, holding signs and occasionally applauding speakers but otherwise listening quietly.

Vice Provost Bill Bernhard, standing in for the chancellor and provost, thanked senators and other speakers for their "constructive level of engagement."

"During times of stress on our campus, I know the senate floor has often become very contentious and personal, and that has not been the tone today," he said.

"We want to ensure that Illinois has continued excellence in graduate education and research and remains competitive in attracting" the best and brightest graduate students, Bernhard said in his opening remarks.

He also said the campus is committed to providing education to undergraduates during the strike, which began Feb. 26.

The two sides, which have been negotiating for a year, met with a federal mediator on Sunday and are scheduled to meet again on Wednesday.

Bernhard confirmed that striking teaching assistants will not be paid for the days they missed during the strike, but he wasn't sure what would become of that money.

The UI says it wants new contract language on tuition waivers to give academic programs more flexibility as they look for ways to deal with declining state funding. Currently, graduate students who get at least a quarter-time teaching assistantship receive free tuition.

In a message to faculty last week, Cangellaris said the current language, guaranteeing no changes in tuition waivers, was created in 2009 to address concerns about individual students having the terms of their tuition waivers changed during their UI career.

But two arbitration decisions since then have interpreted the language to go "far beyond the original intent," he said. Those decisions restricted the ability of academic departments to reclassify an existing graduate program to "self-supporting," where students pay full tuition. That diminishes the role of faculty governance in the development of graduate education, he said.

But Marcelo Kuyumjian, a graduate student in the School of Music, said the current language doesn't give GEO authority to stop the administration from creating self-supporting programs. The UI already offers 50 such programs, 21 of them approved since 2009, he said. Most are professionally oriented, lasting a year or two, and many of them are online.

The GEO only objected when it appeared departments were trying to circumvent the rules — for instance, trying to hire students in those programs as TAs without offering them waivers, he said.

"Why not keep the current side letter as is, end this strike, and discuss academic programs in the appropriate forum — this senate," Kuyumjian said, to loud applause.

Somerville said she's worried about keeping graduate programs accessible to all students.

"We all know there are difficult budget issues," she said, but added, "I don't understand why the university is taking this position. It's not in the interests of graduate education at this university."

Bernhard said accessibility is important, and part of the goal is to find ways to pay for waivers given to Ph.D. students. One answer is creating revenue-generating graduate programs, he said.

"Thinking creatively about how we can build resources in some areas in order to ensure accessibility in others is part of the conversation," he said.

History Professor Mark Steinberg, who directs graduate studies for his department, said the UI's approach has been "very disruptive" to efforts to recruit top graduate students. Recruits, who usually have other offers, are worried about the UI's financial support for graduate students, he said.

"They're not disturbed by the strike. They're disturbed by what the university is trying to do," Steinberg said.

Other professors were concerned about the overall move to income-producing programs, and worried that the UI is transitioning to be more of a "technical" school rather than a comprehensive university with vibrant programs in the humanities.

Professor Andrew Belmont, who represents the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, said both sides need to use more concrete language "about what the real issues are."

"I feel like I'm watching a tennis game where I can't see the ball," he said.

He said one underlying problem is the way tuition rates are set for different programs, which affects the cost of tuition waivers.

In other news:

— Bernhard said this year's Unofficial St. Patrick's Day observance was "one of the quietest and safest years for this event," with few arrests or medical emergencies.

"We hope this is the start of a trend. This is an event that needs to be discontinued and ended forever," he said.

— The senate approved a resolution stating that any administrative decision to place a faculty member on paid leave is inconsistent with UI Statutes unless the university follows procedures that require senate involvement in faculty disciplinary matters.

— Because of the long GEO discussion, the senate did not have time to vote on two resolutions calling on the UI to take more aggressive action to deal with the appearances of an unofficial Chief Illiniwek at UI athletic venues. The senate will reconvene next Monday.