Tuesday, August 25, 2015

U of Missouri Health Insurance Fiasco and the Exploitation of Graduate Students

(Huge thanks to guest blogger, Colleen Young, a PhD student at the University of Missouri. Thanks for speaking out!)

Like most academics, I didn’t have the summer “vacation” that many non-academics purport we have. Meaning, I worked. Hard. All. Summer. I’m going into my 3rd year as a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and this summer was the furthest from sipping a fruity drink on the beach that I’ve ever had. I took a language course for my area of research, worked on my dissertation proposal, and wrote as much as I could on papers that continually get pushed down by the ever-increasing weight being added by just about everything else required as a Ph.D. student (*deep inhale*). And (*exhale*) I don’t have a break. This academic year is going to be one of my most demanding years (I do fantasize that it gets better). In preparation for this tumultuous year, I sat down at my desk on Friday, August 14th, to clear my inbox.

Sifting through dozens of emails, my eyes caught one unique subject: “Changes in Student Health Insurance Subsidy for Graduate Teaching and Research.” As I read the email, I grew frustrated and angry (however, I just learned about the sympathetic nervous system in gross anatomy, so I also relished this intimate educational moment). The subject was surprisingly deceptive: The content of the message did not describe “changes,” rather it announced ending student health insurance. The content of the message is also deceiving: the administration claimed that their hands are tied as the IRS will not “allow” them to provide insurance subsidies to their graduate students as we are classified as employees. #ThanksObama.

We’ve all taken the GREs -- sorting through these word problems wasn’t difficult for any of us. The university was not offering Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance to their graduate students, so the IRS threatened to penalize them. Rather than providing us with ACA-level health insurance for full-time employees following the employee mandate, the university decided to cut all of our insurance and hand us 55% of the stipend we should be receiving for one semester as compensation. What are they going to do with the extra ~$4,000,000 from the health insurance budget next year? Hire another football coach with a $4,000,000 salary? Graduate students, as employees of this university, should be provided with ACA-level health insurance that full-time employees receive, and at a lower cost because we make less. But, the administrators refused to solve this simple problem for their graduate students.

The university claims that they were not aware of this upcoming problem, stating that they were informed of the potential issue on July 21, 2015. However, the state of Missouri and the administration have known about this since 2013. The IRS initially announced that they would be changing their interpretations of employees for health insurance coverage in 2013. (Legislators in the state of Missouri actively refused to participate in the ACA by not expanding Medicaid. Further, the administration at Mizzou is sympathetic to the state’s resistance by choosing to wishfully wait for the ACA to be overturned, rather than figure out a way to provide adequate health care coverage for its students.) The administration was notified in early July of this year that the legislation would be decided on within the next few weeks. Faculty and students weren’t notified about any of this until 14 hours before student health insurance was cut.

This is an example of legislation taken with poor administrative oversight resulting in policies that explicitly exploit graduate students. Graduate students at Mizzou cannot claim they work more than 20 hours a week per teaching or research appointment (0.5 FTE). Further, “Student Employees should not be scheduled to work more than an average of 28 hours per week across all concurrent university jobs.” We are effectively pigeonholed as part-time employees. This limit was supposed to protect students from being overworked. However, students are given the burden of teaching and grading exams for overcrowded undergraduate courses without being compensated for going over 20 hours a week (and many students do). We have to work as many hours as it takes to get the job done. We work more for less pay, while not qualifying for health insurance that full-time employees qualify for.

Doctoral students are highly qualified people who are willing to make low wages (~$1000 to $2000 per month, sometimes less!) for 5 to 10 years, often working 60+ hours a week. We often could not possibly work, and indeed, at some schools, are often prohibited from working, additional jobs outside of the university. The loss of the health insurance support at Mizzou is 1.5 to 3 months of pay (which is almost always budgeted in for grants, so the health insurance fees paid are not solely from tuition revenue). Is it easy for anyone to suddenly lose that much pay?

Sadly, I’m not that surprised by any of this. Health insurance was about the last thing that the university could take away from its graduate students. And the administration never effectively communicates with any of its educators and staff. These are expected actions by an administration that continually exploits and treats graduate students with egregious disrespect. In the past few years, administrators at the University of Missouri have made clear their lack of commitment to graduate education:

  1. The student parent center was shut down (actually the roof of a balcony collapsed because of poor safety inspections and standards, and they chose not to repair or replace it). 
  2. Affordable on-campus housing was closed (see above ^). 
  3. Salaries have remained stagnant while the cost of living has increased. 
  4.  Fees are increasing while resources are being cut. 
  5. Tuition waivers for quarter-time Teaching Assistants were slashed. 
I am one of the few lucky graduate students; I received an external grant from the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program. My colleagues aren’t as fortunate. I have to watch many of my peers suffer, stagnate, and sometimes drop out. Average salary in the anthropology department is below the poverty line. (For a one person family unit, the poverty line in Missouri is $11,770 a year.) Out of the 31 graduate students in the department, 8-10 are offered 0.25 time TA positions that provide only $5,508 - $6,059 (M.A. – Ph.D.) a year; and 5-6 students are offered 0.5 time TA positions that provide only $11,017 - $12,118 (M.A. – Ph.D.) a year. That’s all our department can afford. The rest of the students must find work in other departments or off campus.

Our highest quality students seem to suffer the most. A friend of mine, and a student in the anthropology graduate program, Rachel Munds, had to find a second, off-campus job to cover her monthly expenses. She TAs on campus in the biology department more than 20 hours a week (she was hired as a 0.5 TA, but works well over what she is paid for), and works at PetSmart roughly15 hours a week. I’m appalled by how much Rachel has to work just to pay her bills rather than focus on her research…research that has been recognized at many levels. In 2013, Rachel discovered a new species of slow loris, Nycticebus kayan, and has worked on several articles on genotype–phenotype mapping and species recognition in primates. Further, if she doesn’t complete this research she will not be able to complete her degree. The standards of science, the documentation of evidence, cannot be met in hour increments between teaching, grading, studying, cooking, completing chores, meeting family obligations, and cashiering.

This is at no fault to the department. Anthropology faculty are continually working hard to find resources and oases of support in the desert of educational support at Mizzou. Last year our faculty worked on a plan to provide more tuition waivers for our graduate students. To do so, they created more 0.25 time TA positions, and worked closely with students to apply for external sources of funding. What did the administration surprise us with at the end of last year? They cut tuition waivers for 0.25 TA positions.

In addition to these financially taxing matters, the administration’s unconscionable actions leave graduate students stressed, without housing, tired, and, with less time to focus on our research, ill-equipped for the job market. The morale among graduate students is one of defeat. We work hard. We teach courses, grade exams, have lab responsibilities, do research, take exams, go to class, network with peers; we go home to families with spouses and kids and dogs and cats. And we don’t receive the support we need, and deserve. We’re expected to wine and dine as professionals, but we can barely afford to meet basic needs.

As conditions continually worsen here, students are speaking out about the administration’s egregious, unforgivable actions. A walkout and rally are planned for Wednesday, August 26th, if the university doesn’t address our demands. Students are sharing their stories about how traumatic an immediate and unforeseen loss of health care has been. In the Forum on Graduate Rights on Facebook, one student shared her experience with the loss of health care and with the administration:

“It appears that President Wolfe's Executive Assistant is simply sending generic emails in response to student concerns about health insurance, including my story detailing my miscarriage and having to desperately register for some form of health insurance while rivers of blood and my actual pregnancy were leaving my body… I understand he must be busy, but that was absolutely ridiculous. Is the administration completely heartless??” – Natalie Tartiere (Posted at 1:16 PM, August 20th, 2015 in the Forum on Graduate Rights on Facebook)

(After stories and news of the walkout spread, the university responded with a one-year solution to our health insurance, which stated they will “…defer implementation of its decision regarding graduate student health insurance. As a result, the university will pay for health insurance for eligible graduate students.” We are still planning the walkout and rally because they have not adequately addressed our health coverage with a long-term plan, nor have they addressed any of our other demands.)

Administrators, like President Timothy Wolfe, are exactly the problem. President Wolfe received a B.S. in business, and graduated from Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program. He has worked in sales and management positions at IBM and other companies. His résumé doesn’t lie – he is great at what he does – he is successful at managing this school system like a corporation. However, it is a corporation that is destined to fail because of a bloated (in size and salary) administration. Compounded with a lack of state funding for higher education, the expansion of administrative oversight is making failing businesses out of university campuses, and is taking away the ability for educators to do their jobs effectively.

Unfortunately, the exploitation of graduate student labor is not isolated to the University of Missouri, Columbia. Graduate students across the nation struggle to attain their degrees and support themselves. Graduate student loan interest rates are an outrageous 6%, much higher than undergraduate rates. Further, the few resources that are offered to graduate students usually do not extend to their families. Even high-ranking universities, such as UC Berkeley, don’t adequately provide for their graduate students and families. Celeste Henrickson, a recent Ph.D. graduate from the anthropology department at UC Berkeley noted:

“I remember from the Grad insurance at Berkeley that there was a serious lack of insurance support for families and significant others. I was really thankful I had neither at the time, but it angers me that the university was so unsupportive of grad student families. I guess they expect us not to have them, even though that is the exact age when many start a family?”

Providing graduate students with their basic needs benefits everyone. At a time when societal and environmental issues desperately need quality research for solutions, providing graduate students with their basic needs to conduct research and teach is critical. Further, allowing graduate students to partake in innovative research brings prestige and revenue to universities. There is tremendous emphasis at any university on research output and obtaining external funds to conduct research. Research that directly and indirectly benefits broader society. Research that factors into how the university ranks nationally. Research that keeps our students up-to-date on the latest ideas/findings in their field of study. Research that is required for graduate students to get a job after grad school. Graduate students execute tasks on research projects and are integral to the process of new discoveries. They are also critical for teaching the next generation of undergraduates. Graduate students need to be provided with the time and proper working conditions to conduct their research to the best of their ability.

A step forward for all grad programs would be to unionize. Many graduate programs are taking this necessary step, and are seeing the benefits of working as a collective body. Graduates students are a powerful, smart group. If we come together, we can push back. The very nature of graduate school means that there is an ever-changing pool of workers that must understand the challenges of the system and the administration they work for. Unionization will afford graduate students with the power to speak with one voice and the continuity needed to address all needs as they arise. We are employees. We are educators. We are students. We deserve to be treated better with a fair salary, and benefits. We deserve to be compensated for every hour that we work.

Alas, as I enter my second week of anatomy this Monday and prepare for a Graduate Student Walkout on Wednesday, I have a diverse understanding of what it means to have a spine. In addition to being an almost professional biological anthropologist, I have developed quite a repertoire of skills as an activist. My cause? Graduate student and educator’s rights.

-Colleen B. Young
Ph.D. student
Biological Anthropology
University of Missouri, Columbia
Cbyoung44 at gmail dot com
#GradInsurance #GradsDo