Is Grad School Supposed to Be Miserable? TUGSA Fights for Livable Wages and Benefits

Photo by Danielle Corcione

By: Ben Curttright

“Have you heard of RCM?” says Matt Ford, Director of Community Outreach for the Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA). Ford is a Ph.D student in sociology and is in his early thirties; he has a walnut-brown beard and taps his foot slightly when he gets excited, which he is as he’s explaining the budgetary concerns Temple University are using to pressure TUGSA ahead of their upcoming contract negotiation. His blue backpack, half-open on the table in front of him, is fuller than you’d expect, considering that fall semester is still two weeks away. We are sitting at a picnic table outside Gladfelter Hall in the shade of an overhanging walkway. It is Thursday, August 17.

“Responsibility Centered Management,” he says. “It’s, if George Orwell wanted to make a joke about neoliberalism.” Before RCM was implemented at Temple University in 2014, university funding was more or less centralized, with each college or department contributing tuition collected to a general ‘tub’ that, along with state subsidies, would be distributed to cover the operating costs of the various schools. “From each according to his ability,” as Marx wrote in 1875; “to each according to his needs.”

RCM decentralizes the university budget, requiring instead that each college or program balance its own budget under threat of forced cuts. In a 1997 issue of Thought & Action, Temple Professor of Physics Leroy W. Dubeck predicted that RCM would depress salaries, encourage the use of more part-time faculty, and adversely affect the quality of instruction, all in the name of lowering costs. Twenty years on, liberal arts colleges have been, of course, the hardest hit.

“You have departments that don’t have a ton of students having to do things like not accept any new grad students, or cut funding, or eliminate tenure positions,” says Ford. “And the business school looks like Elysium where all the rich people live in the space station because they have so much money. It creates this unfair distribution of resources, but also the need to gather them in any way possible. It creates this tension that is in every department throughout the university.”

You also have, at Temple, 51 percent of instructors employed as adjuncts on tenuous six-month contracts without benefits; you have a dwindling number of full-time professors making average salaries of $84,303 while adjuncts are paid, at Temple, $3,900 per class; and you have hundreds of graduate students providing the cheap labor (Temple paid arts and humanities TAs a stipend of $16,927 in 2016-17; according to MIT, a living wage for a single adult in Philadelphia County is $24,346) that the university relies on to survive.

Broadly speaking, public universities nationwide are facing a crisis of funding. State legislatures, irrespective of partisan alignment, responded to the 2008 financial crisis by eagerly chipping away at education budgets; under Governors Ed Rendell (D) and Tom Corbett (R), state funding per public college student fell 33 percent and average tuition rose 19 percent ($2,202) between 2007-08 and 2015-16 according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (a Washington-based think tank run by Carter-era Democrats, for whatever that’s worth). More money is needed; Democratic Governor Tom Wolf responded in 2017 by flat-funding university appropriations, despite desperate pleas from Pennsylvania’s public universities for more money.

Universities have responded by rejecting, in a manner familiar to gig-economy participants across industries, the idea that they should be responsible for ‘employing’ anyone at all. Tenured positions go unfilled as full-time instructors remain off tenure track. Adjuncts work on semester-long contracts in the name of ‘flexibility.’ And graduate students, who of course work for and are paid by the university, must continually, as proposed grad student labor union Graduate Employees Together—University of Pennsylvania have struggled to do over the past year, reassert that they are employees of the university, with the right to form a union and demand benefits. Pending elections and a National Labor Relations Board hearing, GET-UP hope to unionize Penn graduate students this fall; Temple’s graduate student workers have been represented by TUGSA since 1997 and were formally recognized in 2001.

To be a graduate student, especially in the humanities, is to be caught in this terrifying double bind: the unique opportunity to pursue one’s intellectual interests while supported by the resources of the academic institution, whether the market gives a shit about those interests or not, comes only as that institution is hollowed out by neoliberal austerity policies, and only with the demand that you, the student, contribute to the driving-down of compensation by selling your labor to the university below market rate.

Though, as Ford reminds me, things used to be worse.

“Before TUGSA existed,” he says, “our health insurance was a $400 credit per year, and I’m pretty sure it was only for catastrophes. Like, if you break your leg, they give you $400. Now, we have health insurance, we have a monthly subsidy that’s over $500, and that’s gone up since the first contract. The school actually uses health insurance as a recruitment tool now,” he says as he stubs out his cigarette in a blocky concrete ashtray. “When I got accepted, they sent me an email, like, ‘We will provide you with health insurance!’” Ford laughs. “But they don’t say, ‘By the way, we would prefer not to.’”

He pauses as a siren blares somewhere in the distance. Campus, in the absence of students, has been otherwise quiet, apart from the faraway clank of construction machinery on the site of Temple’s new $170 million library.

“This is a little theory that I have,” he continues. “I think there’s this prevailing notion that grad school is supposed to suck. Like it’s supposed to be miserable and broke and sleepless.”

“And then there’s this thing in neoliberalism, this idea that we need to take these baby steps and that everything is incremental. That we need to treat compromise as a goal rather than a tactic. That we need to take a step back and be on the defensive constantly.”

“Because of the despair that comes from that situation and just seeing it every fucking day, I’ve gotten this idea that I need to try and focus more on local things. And that’s TUGSA, and that’s the Philly community, and that’s helping in any other ways that I can.”

Over the 2017-2018 academic year, TUGSA is hoping to expand its active membership. While all Temple graduate students are part of its bargaining unit, student workers interested in TUGSA membership have to actively sign up to pay dues. TUGSA’s usual meetings are held bimonthly, and it holds issues-related rallies, the next of which is on Oct. 23. TUGSA also hopes to expand through a series of informal social events, including a Quizzo series at the end of September and a kickball game in South Philly on Oct. 29. Ford hopes these gatherings will help to create and maintain a diverse community of graduate students who would otherwise have few opportunities to interact interdepartmentally.

Materially, a larger membership bloc improves TUGSA’s negotiating position as they fight to expand benefits, improve working conditions, and eliminate pay disparity for graduate workers in different departments. Socially, though, unions like TUGSA and GET-UP provide something simpler: an opportunity to get to know people you’d never meet otherwise. Unions fight against the atomization of American universities by providing a gathering-space for student workers from radically different fields to build relationships on the basis of solidarity and common class interest.

“That’s what TUGSA can offer people,” says Ford. “A chance to be a part of something university-wide that has a material effect on their present and their future.”

. . .

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