Addressing the graduate student strike

Mar 2, 2020 | From the Dean

To: Division of Physical & Biological Sciences
From: Dean Paul L. Koch
Subject: Addressing the graduate student strike

The last few months, since the onset of the wildcat strike by graduate students, have been trying for the campus community. I have talked about the strike and its impacts in many meetings and one-on-one conversations. At this moment, I feel that it’s time to share my thoughts and perspective with our division’s faculty, staff, and students.

Our division had low participation in the grade strike. I believe that by the deadline for grade submission, just one small class had grades outstanding. Departments report that since the start of the teaching strike in winter quarter, most classes, sections, labs, and office hours are being offered. Nearly all divisional teaching assistants (TAs) continue to educate Santa Cruz undergraduates inside and outside the classroom.

Most graduate students and faculty in the division support the broad goal of the wildcat strike – increasing support to relieve the financial burdens graduate students face, especially those related to housing. Our graduate students have been on the picket lines and have offered constructive advice to strike leaders, faculty, and administration about ways to end the current impasse and better support students. I am grateful that despite their support for this cause and their concern for friends and colleagues in other divisions, graduate students in the Physical and Biological Sciences have honored the contract they signed and met their commitments to our undergraduates and the educational mission of the campus.

Even so, the disruption to the division has been great. Undergraduate majors in the sciences are still being denied grades for fall work done in other divisions. Our classes are being held, but students, faculty, and staff are struggling to get on and off campus for professional and personal reasons. Faculty and graduate students have scrambled to change the way that classes and labs are taught to minimize the impact of the picket lines on undergraduates. In rare instances, strikers have tried to intimidate faculty members who will not cancel classes, and faculty and students coming on to campus have had troubling interactions with picketers. The violence that developed between protesters and police on the first few days of the picket was wrenching, and I know that the large police presence is upsetting for many members of our community, even without those violent encounters. Finally, in the face of this turmoil, our instructional, administrative, and student support staff have been working hard to help students and faculty as they confront strike-related problems, often while understaffed and grappling with the new workload generated by the transition to UC Path.

The campus decision to dismiss TAs and other academic student employees who refuse to submit their grades is not surprising. When I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s, we threatened to use this wildcat tactic (of course not sanctioned by our union) during the renegotiation of our contract, and all of us understood that doing so would lead to our firing. Fortunately, we reached a resolution before we acted on that threat, unlike the timeline for the current unsanctioned strike. But understanding the inevitability of this outcome is different than experiencing its impact. The loss of friends from campus and of their academic and artistic potential are heartbreaking. The short term challenges the campus will face mounting its curriculum can be met. How the sudden departure of so many graduate students in some departments will affect our research mission long term is unknown.

The issue the graduate students are trying to address is real – the housing crisis in Santa Cruz and California is awful. Year after year, at the state and local level, we fail to address the need for affordable housing. Yet I believe the solution demanded by the strikers, a change in their salary that would lift them out of housing burden (defined as a salary that would have them spend no more than 30% of their income on housing), is flawed. Graduate students (either as TAs or graduate student researchers [GSRs]) are halftime employees, and they are trainees, not professionals in career positions. There is no reasonable salary that the UC system can offer a trainee working half time that will lift them out of housing burden in a market like the one in Santa Cruz. Doing so would dramatically distort the hourly wages of graduate students relative to other full time, career employees. And, sadly, none of those career employees (or their dependent children) enjoy the benefit of a tuition waiver along with their employment, as graduate student TAs and GSRs do.

Beyond building or buying housing that, hopefully, is more affordable than that available in the warped Santa Cruz market, the best short-term solution is the one the campus has begun to implement – a five-year funding guarantee to ensure consistent support and a stipend to reduce housing burden. In addition, some departments in the division are increasing the salary steps offered to GSRs. These efforts will reduce, but not eliminate, the housing burden as defined by the 30% threshold. Meeting that threshold would divert so much of our limited campus resources to graduate students that the consequences for other employees would be dire. Faculty and students argue that we should lobby the state for a greater investment in higher education. I agree. But those arguments haven’t worked for the last two decades, and the current wildcat actions are unlikely to move the bar in that direction – there hasn’t been a clamor of support for the strike from the legislature or governor. Ultimately, we can’t follow a plan for graduate student support that prevents us from hiring faculty or supporting staff who face the same financial burdens as graduate students.

I believe the approach proposed by Chancellor Larive at the February Academic Senate meeting is the right path forward. A Joint Senate-Administrative Graduate Education working group can develop a plan for sustainable graduate program support. A standing committee that advises the Chancellor on graduate education would help her assess the options offered by the Senate-Administrative committee and take a broader view of graduate student support and success.

As the consequences of graduate student dismissals sink in, the next weeks and months may be tough. I thank you all for contributions that have made our division a research powerhouse and an engine of upward mobility. I’m confident we will come out of this crisis better supporting our graduate students, who are so critical to that success, and better supporting others in our campus community who are struggling with the cost of living in Santa Cruz.

Thank you,
Paul L. Koch
Dean, Division of Physical & Biological Sciences

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