Having recently accepted additional responsibilities for the graduate school, James Garvey, interim vice chancellor for research and professor in zoology who writes sci-fi fantasy novels in his spare time, also accepted a request for an interview with GAU. Our union asked him about his new responsibilities, the condition of the graduate school, work conditions for graduate assistants and the protagonist with earth-communing superpowers from one of his novels.
Graduate Assistants United: Susan Ford delayed her retirement to serve as interim provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs. As a result, you’ve been given additional responsibilities in the graduate school. How do you feel about your new role and about the state of the graduate school?
Dr. James Garvey: I am delighted to provide my services to the Graduate School. My days as a graduate student were among the best I ever had. It is my hope that I can provide a similarly positive experience for the graduate students here at SIU. I’ve been working at graduate training for the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences and the Department of Zoology as Professor and Director for several years and hope to take some of the tricks I learned and apply them to the whole university. I can’t do this alone. Thankfully, Provost Ford left me with a very capable, highly motivated, and extremely positive staff in the Graduate School. They make my new job fun and enriching.
The state of the Graduate School is strong. Enrollment is up, especially in terms of international students. With many new faculty members arriving on campus this fall and several novel graduate programs on the way, we should see graduate students increase in prominence on campus in the near future.
GAU: What are some of the biggest problems, and some of the most promising aspects of the graduate school you’re now partially administering?
Garvey: As with all things, the biggest problem for the Graduate School revolves around funding. We’d like to provide more fellowships, assistantships, and tuition support for our students, although resources for these opportunities are thin. My goal is to help identify sources of support through alumni, industry, professional graduate programs, and agencies to assist in the financial health of our student population. Another challenge is getting the word out to potential students about what a great place SIU is for graduate study. The world is becoming increasingly crowded with conflicting information about the job market, the fate of academia, and the utility of a graduate education. Graduate School is not for everyone. But for many fields, a solid graduate degree is necessary to be competitive in life. We need to better showcase the successes of our students and draw on those great stories to grow our Graduate School.
Our graduate students are chock full of promise and have accomplished amazing things. Without our graduate students and their hard work, SIU’s mission as a research-intensive institution with access for all would grind to a standstill. Also promising is the large number of new faculty members coming to campus, who will teach more courses, provide fresh ideas, and help our graduate students grow as professionals. SIU has a great infrastructure for doing research and creating scholarly works. We are renovating labs and studios and are watching a new interdisciplinary research facility on west campus come to life. These resources will provide unique opportunities to do cutting edge graduate work.
GAU: Many graduate students are also employed by the university as Graduate Assistants. All GAs are represented by Graduate Assistants United and are covered by the union’s contract with the Board. The union is in the process of bargaining a new contract. What do you think are the biggest issues facing GAs that could possibly be better addressed in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and make it easier for GAs to be healthy and successful graduate students?
Garvey: Graduate school is an interesting mix of work, lessons, and play. Many graduate students are lucky enough to get an assistantship, with a corresponding tuition waiver. My parents never really understood this about me when I was getting my masters and PhD degrees– that I could get a professional degree and be paid for it. The concept is sincerely a good one. Schools like SIU can attract the very best students and exchange a higher degree for the good fortune of having talented, smart people help the faculty enrich the academic environment, stimulate undergraduate education, and create knowledge.
Most graduate students have unique needs and expectations that their academic cousins in professional tracks like law, medicine, and business do not. A high-paying career is not guaranteed after graduate school, making the notion of racking up high debt post-baccalaureate prohibitive. Look at me. I scored a PhD in ecology, studying fish. If I could not get economic support as a graduate student, I would never have pursued a career path I love, and society would be less one fish squeezer. Perhaps I am not the best example, but graduate school ensures that smart people take a bit of a risk to better their world and help train generations of people who go on to better, fulfilling lives.
To stay competitive, to ensure that our graduate students do their very best, and to simply do the right thing, SIU and other universities need to balance high expectations for our graduate students with their unique needs. Graduate Assistants United is a way for students to speak with one voice to SIU and ensure that they have fulfilling, productive lives. I can see many important issues that our students need to consider, including fair workloads, a comprehensive health plan, a fearless workplace, and competitive stipends. Students need to keep the perspective that they are getting a valuable degree to do something they are passionate about for a decent price and that cash-strapped universities like SIU have limited resources to give.
GAU: What is your impression of GAU, and how important is it for graduate students who work as GAs to be involved with the union?
Garvey: Collective bargaining is part of the fabric of shared governance, such as the Graduate Professional Student Council, that SIU celebrates. As with all forms of unions, the collective unit must represent the needs of all its members, not just those that choose to pay their dues. This is the grand challenge facing GAU and other bargaining units on campus– getting the silent, non-participants to join and engage so that their voice is heard when dealing with the very important issues facing graduate education at SIU. Educating graduate students that their dues translate to binding contracts with teeth is critical for all sides, including SIU’s administration, to be successful.
GAU: Student fees for the 2012-2013 academic year totaled $3,352.68, according to the SIU Institutional Research and Studies Factbook. Based on the different wages for GAs listed in the back of the existing contract between GAU and the University, the average assistant in a PhD program on a 50 percent assignment earns $1,633.91 per month, or $14,705.19 for the academic year. That average GA thus pays more than two month’s pay back to the University in fees for the academic year. GAs also pay the full amount for parking, which affects those who have to drive to the university to work. Is all this acceptable?
Garvey: I suspect that fees and other costs of campus life will be a topic of deep consideration in the near future. Increased fees are a result of many complex factors including shortfalls caused by caps on tuition, which GAs do not pay but undergraduate students do, the cost of running the physical plant of SIU, which includes our parking lots, roads, and public safety, and the rising costs of non-optional needs like health care and potentially optional ones like recreation, mass transit, and the environment (i.e., green fee). Graduate students need to consider the benefit of paying fees that enhance the university environment and experience versus the loss of these resources, not only to themselves, but also to the integrity and value of the institution to undergraduates, who pay for the lion’s share of SIU’s costs. Alternate funding mechanisms to cover fees such as off of grants and through donations should be explored as ways to offset the burden of costs of graduate education.
GAU: SIUC has yet to become fully compliant with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The current Student Health Insurance Plan has been criticized for being underfunded, and it is expected that it will soon no longer be certified to meet the minimum essential benefits required by law. What is the reason SIUC has not yet adopted a new fully compliant plan, and what do you think the solution is to ensure that students have accessible, affordable and quality health care?
Garvey: The sad truth about all public universities like SIU is that these schools are rapidly losing the support of public tax dollars and operating more like private institutions. Costs like health care, employee salaries and benefits, maintenance, and energy are rising, while oversight of tuition income continues to be driven by state officials, who are rightly reluctant to allow educational costs to rise for their constituents. The administration of SIU has tried, with arguable success, to control costs, but health care is taxing our limited budget. The university is in the process of seeking affordable, comprehensive health care plans for all our students, but our fiscal uncertainties combined with a rapidly changing health care market make it difficult to find an appropriate plan, especially as it pertains to the unique and varied needs of graduate students.
GAU: Under the ACA, employers like universities are obligated to provide employees working 30 hours or more per week with fully compliant health insurance. After passage of the ACA, the graduate school limited GA workloads to no more than 20 hours per week (a .5 FTE). “This restriction relates to the university’s current understanding of the Affordable Care Act and its impact on the way [graduate assistant] benefits will be determined,” read an email, obtained by Inside Higher Ed and sent by Susan Ford to deans, chairs and directors at SIUC regarding the new GA workload limits. “This restriction is consistent with practice being enacted at universities across the country and put in place after consultation with the various offices involved with [graduate assistant] benefits on campus.” Given that the university has yet to become fully ACA compliant, is there a possibility for making an exception again for .75 FTE GA assignments, which some graduate students needed in order to make enough money to pay bills?
Garvey: I would say that the graduate students have reason to be optimistic that a reconsideration of the caps on workload assignments for graduate assistantships will occur soon.
GAU: Per the existing agreement between GAU and the Board of Trustees, GAs have a specified number of hours they are supposed to work on average per week. While many GAs work those average number of hours (10 or 20), anecdotal evidence suggests some are also increasingly expected to do more work during the same amount of time – to grade more papers, research faster, etc. As with other jobs, when the intensity of labor is increased above a certain point, it can be detrimental to the physical and psychological health of the worker. Unduly increased work intensity for GAs can negatively affect an assistant’s studies as a graduate student and adversely affect the university because it compels reduction in quality of teaching and/or research. How serious is this problem, and if serious enough, what can be done about it?
Garvey: The problem of graduate student overload without proper compensation is a serious one that I have frequently seen during my nearly three decades in higher education across multiple universities. It is not unique to our time or to SIU and will always be a challenge in academia where it is difficult to parse apart various roles of teaching, mentoring, research, and studying. Graduate students need to be vigilant of their workload obligations and should not tolerate over-commitments that tax their degree progress, interfere with their lives, or strain their health. Any student with a valid complaint needs to document their working conditions and report them to their Graduate Director and/or me immediately. If we can’t straighten out the problem, there are clear rules for mitigation as outlined by the GAU contract.
GAU: Dr. Ford has said the university is searching for a permanent dean for the graduate school to begin in January, which is when she had initially planned to retire. Any chance you will be that dean?
Garvey: I love graduate education and enjoy this job immensely. I might consider applying.
GAU: “Both Darwin and Snoopy will be waiting for me in the afterlife, waiting to give me a tour,” you wrote on your blog. “I fear the voice of glory might sound like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon rather than a glorious celestial orchestra playing for peace and goodness.” On that blog, you also plug your book, “Earth Rising,” a sci-fi fantasy set in a world where human cities have fallen and nature flourishes, in which you tell the story of protagonist Amy Marksman who discovers she has amazing powers to commune with the earth and see little green people. What would Amy say is awaiting GAs in the afterlife, and what advice would she give to GAs who are struggling for better conditions in this world?
Garvey: Oh, you read my blog and cite my book. I’m not sure whether I should be embarrassed, flattered, or humbled. Amy Marksman is a dear character to me and goes through some pretty harrowing experiences. I hope Graduate School is a cinch in comparison. And if you see little green people like she does, you might want to visit the Student Health Center. Amy would say that you get what you work for, no matter how daunting the task. If you fight for what is right and just, stand up for yourself, and keep a positive attitude during your graduate career, life after graduate school will be rewarding and fulfilling, even if you have a few scars and wrinkles to show for it.