In Response to Deputy Provost Deborah Nelson

Dear fellow graduate students,

On November 4th, all of us received a letter from the new Deputy Provost of Graduate Education, Deborah Nelson, seeking to “set in motion a collaborative effort to continue to improve the graduate experience at the University of Chicago” (our emphasis). We welcome this effort by the Provost’s Office and look forward to working with Deputy Provost Nelson in the coming year, but we wish to note that the effort she describes is already underway. Graduate students themselves set it in motion when they founded Graduate Students United in 2007.

In the past four years, GSU has identified a number of issues of tremendous concern to graduate students at the University: access to decent and affordable healthcare and childcare, an end to Advanced Residency Tuition and other punitive fees, and better pay for the work we do here on campus–whether teaching, research, or other labor. We have successfully mobilized around several of these issues, and have won the following major victories:

  • a 100% increase in TA pay, from $1,500 to $3,000 per quarter (in 2008);
  • a 43% increase in pay for lecturers, from $3500 to $5000 (also 2008);
  • service improvements at the U of C Student Care Center (in Winter 2009);
  • a freeze in Advanced Residency tuition hikes (since 2008);
  • a change in the Bursar’s billing policy allowing students to pay their quarterly University tuition and fees until after receiving their first paychecks (in Fall 2011);
  • a promise by the Provost’s Office to amend the university’s parental leave policy so that student parents can retain their student status (and hence visa status, health insurance, and access to university facilities) while on parental leave or “academic modification” (Summer 2011)

We appreciate the Deputy Provost’s remark that “no one knows better the kinds of support that you need than you.” In response to this invitation, GSU would like to offer the following list of priorities, based on four years of one-on-one conversations and organizing efforts among current graduate students at the University:

  • the elimination of AR Tuition, in accordance with the findings of the Provost’s committee (see below for details on the committee and its unheeded recommendations);
  • an improvement in the quality and affordability of health insurance for all student employees;
  • an improved family leave policy and access to affordable childcare on or near campus;
  • better support for international students;
  • further improvements in teaching pay, which remains at the low end of the scale in comparison to our peer institutions.

To find out more or get involved in GSU’s ongoing campaigns for the above improvements, visit us at Please also visit our page on
We know from experience that without independent organizing and direct action by graduate students, “collaborative efforts” can be easily ignored; a case in point is the Provost’s decision to ignore the conclusions and recommendations of his own joint student-faculty-adminstration committee on Advanced Residency and Time to Degree.

The Provost’s committee was first announced in February 2008, in response to a year of organizing by GSU; it first convened in the spring of 2008, and released its report in May of 2009; in late February of 2010, the Provost issued a memo in which he noted that “there is no general consensus on many of the recommendations,” and explained the “difficult decisions” that had been made to ignore the most substantive of those recommendations. (See those committee recommendations here; the Provost’s memo is here; GSU’s response is here.)

A model of graduate education that denies student-workers the opportunity to fund their own education through their labor, forcing them to rely on parents, spouses, or loans to meet their living expenses, has a distorting effect on the student body: it favors students from privileged backgrounds and particularly disadvantages international students, who are often ineligible for loans. The new structure of the academic job market thus requires a new set of policies for graduate student employment at the university.

The university’s own estimates of the cost of living in Chicago are higher than the income of its graduate students. Given the uncertainty of the post-graduate job market alluded to by Deputy Provost Nelson, students should not be expected to take out loans in order to make up the difference between income and cost of living.  Rather, the University should ensure that students have access to teaching assistantships and other means of fulfilling the conditions of their scholarships and earning a living while pursuing doctoral degrees. The University should equally eliminate punitive fees, like Advanced Residency Tuition, that force students to take additional jobs in order to make ends meet and extend the time required to complete our degrees.

Like the Deputy Provost, we recognize that the state of the academic job market is beyond the control of this university or any single institution. What remains within the administration’s control, however, are the conditions of labor at this university. The University of Chicago sets our wages and our benefits as employees, and it determines our access to health insurance, child care, and job availability (or the lack of same).We welcome the Deputy Provost’s interest in improving these conditions, and we look forward to working with her to make concrete improvements in the areas discussed above.

Graduate Students United