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UChicago Grad Students Refuse To Pay $1,250 In Yearly Service Fees, Demand Transparency On Where Money Goes

Some graduate students are refusing to pay the fee until the university can explain what services their money pays for.

The campus of The University of Chicago in Hyde Park on Thursday, September 3, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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HYDE PARK — Hundreds of graduate students at the University of Chicago are refusing to pay a controversial fee and calling on the school to explain where the money goes.

UChicago’s graduate student services fee is $1,248 for students attending three quarters per year. It goes toward “critical” programs like services for people with disabilities and recreational facilities, university officials said.

Organizers of a “fee refusal campaign,” led by labor union Graduate Students United, say the fee has long been “problematic” and “unfair” — even before the pandemic limited the services available to students on campus.

Campaign leaders are demanding university officials waive the 2020-’21 student services fee entirely or reduce the fee to $125 or less. Graduate students that have already paid the fee should be refunded in full, organizers said. They’re also calling for the university to publicize what services the funds go toward.

As of Friday morning, about 500 people signed a pledge refusing to pay the fee. About 9,800 grad students attend the University of Chicago.

“We want an actual breakdown with hard numbers of where this fee is going,” said Laura Colaneri, Graduate Students United communications secretary. “We’ve never been given a solid breakdown. You know that budget exists somewhere.”

Almost all graduate students are expected to work for the university upon accepting funding packages for their studies, Colaneri said — whether that means teaching courses, assisting with research or working in a lab. Given the expectation of work, organizers view the fee as a “tax on grad student incomes.”

“We’re not only spending [$1,250] a year for the pleasure of working for the university,” Colaneri said. “Now, we’re spending that money and we don’t understand what it’s going to, because on-campus services have been so greatly reduced due to the pandemic.”

University spokesperson Gerald McSwiggan declined Block Club’s request for a line-item budget for expenses covered by the fee, saying “we typically do not release budget information for individual offices.”

The fee supports numerous services and programs through the Office of Campus and Student Life, McSwiggan said in a statement. Services include:

  • Immigration services for international students
  • Disability services
  • A “deans on call” program
  • The Bias Education and Support Team
  • Recreational programs and facilities
  • The undergraduate Student Government and the Graduate Council

Due to the pandemic, students living more than 50 miles from campus were able to waive the fee this year if they notified the university of their living situation.

Officials rejected the idea graduate programs should be seen primarily as sources of labor for the university.

Graduate students “are students, first and foremost,” McSwiggan said. “They come to the university to study, to learn how to teach future generations of students, and to make original contributions in their chosen fields of knowledge.”

Employees with Graduate Students United voted to unionize in October 2017, but the university will not voluntarily recognize the union, McSwiggan said.

After several years of pushing administrators to recognize the union with no success, members “turned our organizing less toward that and more toward immediate material gains” like a waiver of the student service fee, Colaneri said.

The fee refusal campaign has drawn the support of 14 directors of graduate studies on campus, including those in English, philosophy, history and various language studies.

The directors wrote to Dean of Students Michelle Rasmussen May 11, requesting the university honor students’ demands for a fee waiver and increased transparency. They also urged officials to take a wider view of the campaign’s push for equity in graduate studies.

“As we have come to understand our students’ concerns, they are not restricted to the [fee]
in pandemic conditions,” the letter reads. “Rather, those conditions have brought to light some problems that precede COVID and will continue if they are not addressed … .”

The administration has “an outdated understanding of what graduate students are doing when they join the university,” said Mark Miller, director of graduate studies for the English department.

When Miller was completing his doctorate in the early ’90s, graduate students looking to enter academia could reasonably expect to find secure, “tenure-track” jobs, he said.

Under those circumstances, it was fair to expect students to balance classwork and their obligations to teach or assist with research, Miller said.

“It [made] sense to think grad students are a kind of apprentice, getting a certain type of professional training,” Miller said.

But the national labor market has changed since then, Miller said. There are fewer tenure-track jobs in the humanities, as departments have downsized and universities rely more heavily on “adjunct faculty getting paid below a poverty-level wage.”

“When our grad students now get their degrees, they’re looking at three [tenure-track] jobs nationally in their field that they can apply for — and there are 400 people applying for those three jobs,” Miller said.

Faculty members met with Rasmussen and other administrators May 20, hoping to start a conversation about waiving or reducing the fee and big-picture issues of equity and transparency raised by the campaign.

But “it became clear very quickly” administrators saw the meeting as an opportunity to explain their position instead of hearing the students’ concerns, Miller said.

“They just can’t — or are refusing to — understand why the grad students don’t think of themselves centrally as students,” Miller said.

The fee refusal campaign will continue through the summer quarter, Colaneri said. The summer service fee for graduate students is $326.

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