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University of Iowa graduate workers call for fundraising boycott


University of Iowa graduate workers call for fundraising boycott

Mar 27, 2024 | 7:23 pm ET
By Brooklyn Draisey
University of Iowa graduate workers call for fundraising boycott
The Campaign to Organize Graduate Students is calling to end mandatory fees for graduate workers at the University of Iowa. (Photo by Brooklyn Draisey/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

University of Iowa graduate worker union members are calling for students, alumni and community members to stop giving the university their dollars as the union that represents them continues its efforts to do away with mandatory fees.

The Campaign to Organize Graduate Students, or COGS, called for a boycott of the UI’s annual 24-hour online fundraising day, called One Day for Iowa. Members said that until the university uses its funding to help make graduate education more affordable and accessible, no one should “give back” like the university is asking them to, according to a transcript of the press conference provided by COGS.

More than 50 UI graduate workers across 18 departments gathered on the university’s Pentacrest to speak out and show their support for the ending of mandatory fees.

“One Day for Iowa asks us to donate money to the Student Emergency Fund, and to the Food Pantry, to, quote, ‘offset the burden of unpaid internships…’” graduate worker Emma Croushare said. “But they refuse to acknowledge why students are in such constant financial burden in the first place: Low wages and high fees.”

According to its website, the UI had raised more than $1.9 million during One Day for Iowa by 5 p.m., beating last year’s raised amount of $1.8 million, UI spokesperson Steve Schmadeke said in an email.

Graduate workers are paid a minimum amount of $21,329 for a nine-month, half-time appointment, Schmadeke said in the email. Fees for graduate workers come out to $687.50 per year, of which the university covers half, and graduate assistants working 10 or more hours a week are provided with a scholarship that “for most” covers all of tuition.

The graduate workers’ union characterized the fees as paying the university a pound to work for a pittance.

Ming Wei, a graduate worker in the UI College of Education, said the union “fought hard” to get the tuition and fee scholarships, but increases to fees are negating these efforts. High costs have an even greater impact on international students, Wei said. They pay $250 more in fees each semester and an additional $325 in their first semester.

University of Iowa graduate workers call for fundraising boycott
(Photo courtesy of the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students)

Croushore said 93% of graduate workers are rent-burdened while money that they pay and others donate don’t go toward supporting them.

“If we want a graduate education at the University of Iowa to be accessible to everyone and if we want to attract the very best students, we need to end the fees,” Wei said.

More than 1,000 people signed a petition to end the fees, which the union delivered to UI President Barbara Wilson and university deans on March 5. Croushore, a graduate worker in the UI’s biomedical sciences program, quoted some of the responses in her speech, which touched on struggles to pay the fees and watching friends and colleagues experience burnout from the stress of trying to afford to live.

One international student said in their petition response that their university bill totaled about $1,400 even though they’re a teaching assistant, causing them to take on debts that they’re now struggling to pay.

The UI responded to the petition on March 20, turning down the union’s “request to adjust its mandatory fee scholarship.” Enrollment status, not employment status, is factored into assessment of fees, the response stated, and the fees can’t be waived.

Colleges fund the 50% fee scholarship for graduate assistants, the response stated, not the university itself, and that scholarship acknowledges budget constraints while recognizing their work.

“Our university remains committed to providing a supportive and enriching environment for all its graduate students and to acknowledging the valuable contributions of our graduate assistants,” the university said in its response to the petition. “We continuously evaluate our policies to ensure they reflect the needs of our student body and align with our institutional values and mission.”

Croushore read the university’s response during the press conference and said despite this, graduate workers are pushed out of decision-making and ignored when they’ve tried to express the struggles graduates face.

A 2021 self-study from the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that Croushore cited said faculty expressed concerns with supports for graduate students, specifically stipends for their work, and that low pay compared to peer institutions were hurting recruitment efforts.

Schmadeke said in his email that data gathered by the Big Ten Academic Alliance and other sources puts the UI’s stipends for graduate workers “close to the middle of the pack,” and when paired with cost of living measures, makes it “highly competitive” compared to other Midwest institutions.

Cary Stough, a graduate worker in the English department, said the university needs to pay higher wages instead of imposing higher fees if it wants to maintain its quality education and research and make graduate education accessible. Right now, all the university is doing is refusing to acknowledge the connection between high costs, low pay and financial struggles among graduate workers.

“The arsonists are pretending to be the firefighters,” Stough said.