Compensation is a major concern for graduate employees at CU Boulder, but it’s far from the only issue we face. In addition to financial stressors, navigating the politics built into a research institution as a graduate employee can be simultaneously comical, bewildering, and maddening. There are grave problems with bias in social and professional inclusion. Graduates, as both employees and students, are particularly vulnerable to retribution for demanding that their issues be addressed. University adminstrators continue to obfuscate data that may help us identify and address the biggest equity problems our campus faces.
The 2014 Social Climate Survey
In 2014, CU Boulder issued a “social climate” survey, to which 1,603 grad students responded1. This was a big survey that investigated various topics. Among the stated goals of the survey was quantifying the extent of discrimination and harassment on campus, particularly for graduate students. CU administration has still only released extremely limited data from this survey. It is only after pressure from CRC and UGGS that the university has committed to release partial information from the 2014 Graduate Student Climate Survey2. We are still awaiting the release of more detailed data obtained from the survey.
The disparity between questions asked in the survey and what little response data have been released gives the impression that the administration is hiding results that could look unbecoming of the university. Furthermore, failing to release these important data excludes us in the rank-and-file from a data-driven approach to improving our campus. It is therefore one of CRC’s primary demands that the administration release comprehensive summaries of survey results. The variety of issues identified by indivuduals who took the survey will help us place meaningful experiences into cohesive context to facilitate meaningful change.
We applaud Ann Schmiesing, Graduate School Dean and Vice Provost for Graduate Affairs, for committing to release more results from the 2014 survey and to an accelerated timetable for a follow-up Graduate Student Social Climate Survey. We hope the new survey builds on lessons learned from the 2014 counterpart, and its results are presented with maximum transparency while preserving confidentiality. We also maintain our call for third-party review of the 2014 survey to dispel concerns regarding delays and anomalies observed in the presentation of survey responses.
Many graduate employees receive their primary funding through university appointments: teaching assistant (TA), research assistant (RA), or graduate part-time instructor (GPTI). However, the allocation of appointments within departments often lack transparency. While there are university-wide criteria for what type of work goes with what type of appointment, the process varies across departments and lacks consistency. Graduate employees are sometimes misclassified, e.g. paid as a TA while performing the work of a GPTI. Campus policy states that graduate employees cannot be classified below Student Assistant VI, but some university employers may still try to do this3.
An additional concern is that many departments do not provide employees with 50% appointments. Graduate employees may have to scrape together multiple teaching and grading positions to add up to something close to even a 30% appointment. Some appointments are as low as 15%. Tuition remission is scaled to appointment percentage. Employees with appointments at below 25% do not get full tuition waivers, yet still need to be enrolled in 5 credits to be considered full time students (see table below)4. Even those with 25% appointments often have to pay tuition because courses are often 3 credits each, making it necessary in practice to take 6 credits to meet the minimum enrollment requirement.
|Hours Employed per Week||Tuition Coverage||Appointment Percentage|
|6||3 credit hours||15%|
|8||4 credit hours||20%|
|10||5 credit hours||25%|
|12||6 credit hours||30%|
|14||7 credit hours||35%|
|16||8 credit hours||40%|
|18-20||9-18 credit hours||45-50%|
In many cases graduate employees work substantially more than what their stated appointment level implies. While graduate employees can keep track of hours worked, many do not feel comfortable speaking out if they are working more than their stipend covers. In one case, a graduate student was given an extra 6% to develop an entirely new class. The hours spent on this far exceeded a 6% pay increase. This is one example of misclassification of hours worked and of graduate employee exploitation.
Admission Letter vs Offer Letter
When you were admitted, you may have received a wonderful offer for a 4-year stipend. Know that your admission letter is NOT LEGALLY BINDING. If a department faces a funding crunch, there is nothing to prevent it from refusing support to its graduate employees. The lack of a “just cause” provision in our hiring agreements means we are employees “at will” whose contracts can be terminated at any time, for any reason.
At the start of each semester, graduate employees sign an offer letter, in which they are also considered an employee “at will”, meaning appointments can be shifted or terminated. The university and your department can change your position, payment, and appointment percentage each semester. These changes have adversely affected many graduates who sign year-long leases and in January suddenly find they cannot afford their home or need to find an additional job to make ends meet.
Rights to Your Work: Intellectual Property and Authorship
While CU is full of big-hearted, honest faculty there are also faculty members who have climbed the ladder by taking advantage of collaborators and their graduate students. In general, the intellectual property rights pertaining to the ideas of graduate students are unclear. Faculty may “borrow” your ideas and run with them, and the degree of offense can range from the innocent assumption by your advisor that a suggestion that you made in lab meeting was an idea of their own, all the way to (a true story) finding out from a journal once you have submitted your article for publication that a nearly identical paper is already in review at said journal and is authored by your advisor.
Graduate students receive little to no training on what degree of work warrants authorship, and this threshold often varies drastically across research groups. This uncertainty can leave graduate students vulnerable to making strong contributions without appropriate credit. Discussions about authorship early in your involvement in a project should be required to mitigate miscommunications later down the line.
Relationship with Advisor
Advisors are meant to be mentors who support graduate interests and career pursuits, yet this is not always the case. Advisors may push their graduate students to contribute to their own research agenda, forcing students in a direction that does not match their professional goals. Advisors may do this by threatening graduate employment, ability to graduate, or ability to continue on as their advisee. These examples constitute harassment and are NOT acceptable. Beyond fulfilling the duties that justify employment at the university (TA, RA, etc.), the work that you do as a graduate student should absolutely align with your own interests, aspirations, and professional development!
Addressing these conflicts can be difficult because of the hierarchy built into the research system. After all, your advisor may have played a large role in getting you admitted into the program, provided you with opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have had in the past, and will ultimately be writing your letter of recommendation.
Across campus, graduate employees witness and/or experience harassment including bullying, intimidation, and violent treatment that can lead to abandoning grad school or worse. The climate survey, results show that 1 in 10 graduate students have faced some kind of harassment during their time at CU, and that this has disproportionately impacted women. The internal culture within departments can also enable harassment; in 2014, the Philosophy department was implicated in a sexual harassment scandal that highlighted years of inappropriate conduct by department faculty. Although the department was aware of these issues, they failed to adequately responded to them5. Because of the strong power imbalance at work for many graduate employees, bringing issues of harassment to the attention of your department can be difficult. While there are official university channels to report harassment6, graduate employees do not have any outside means to help us with these grievances.
You may have noticed that the campus lacks socioeconomic and ethnic diversity. Boulder is 88% white7 and has a high median household income of $69,4078. The campus population is not much better with only 17% of graduate students from minority groups 9.
We have received no data from the Graduate Student Climate Survey on its diversity questions. Instead, the Graduate Student Social Climate Survey results webpage features a misleading graph regarding the race/ethnicity of faculty that we include below. This is misleading because this graph has nothing to do with graduate students, but rather refers to cherry-picked data about faculty appointments. Why does this non sequitur appear in a document that alleges to expose Graduate Student Social Climate Survey results? We have excellent reason to believe that the smoke and mirrors exist because some unpublished survey results so damningly indicate a disparity in feelings of inclusion for minority graduate students.
Diversity is an area that the University has failed to prioritize in a meaningful way. There is a specific office to address these concerns, The Office of Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement10. At no fault of that office and similar groups, the system in which they exist has prevented them from implementing effective changes. Graduate student groups, such as the Graduate Student of Color Collective (GSCC)11, have been more effective in addressing these issues on campus.
What should I do if these issues impact me during my graduate career?
Don’t suffer silently if you face the above issues. Unfortunately, lots of other graduate students are experiencing similar problems. Finding supportive voices from your peers can go a long way.
While direct communication with the individual that is hindering your ability to progress as a grad student and professional may be the ideal path forward, the power dynamics may mean direct remedy is not a workable solution for you. Below are a few on-campus resources if you are being plagued by the above issues:
- Find a discreet and wise member of your department to discuss your options. This could come in the form of a more senior graduate student, another faculty member, the graduate chair of your department, or even the department chair. The graduate and department chair of your department can help to mediate discussions with your advisor as well as help with any transition if switching advisors is the best option for you.
- The CU Ombuds office provides a “confidential, neutral and informal” resource for academic concerns. The services they offer include explaining CU policies and procedures, mediating meetings, as well as pointing out patterns of complaints to university administrators.
- The CU Counseling and Psychiatric Services offer both individual, as well as group counseling for graduate students. They have heard it all there!
- The CU Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance handles cases of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation of issues related to protected classes.
- Get involved with CRC or UGGS to get your voice heard!