Untapped Revenue or Cheap Labor? Graduate Students and the Future of UIUC

The strike by graduate employees at UIUC is now in its second week. There is no end in sight; according to the union, the administration offered nothing new at the week’s only bargaining session on Sunday afternoon. And so it is back to the picket lines for the members of the Graduate Employees Organization, and for their thousands of campus and community allies.

The strike continues without end in sight because the university administration appears determined to eliminate essential contract language agreed upon in previous negotiations and affirmed in two subsequent arbitration decisions. The language in question ensures that all graduate students hired to perform the work covered by the union contract will receive full compensation, including tuition waivers. This contract language, which graduate employees understandably view as fundamental to their union’s very existence, has proved inconvenient to our university’s administration in a period in which graduate tuition represents a critical area of potential revenue growth. And so here we are.

The weekend’s only new development was our provost’s apparent attempt to sow division between faculty and graduate students. In an email that arrived in faculty inboxes late Friday evening, Andreas Cangellaris attempted to frame the union’s position on tuition waivers as an affront to professorial autonomy. According to our campus’s chief academic officer, the union’s insistence on full compensation for all graduate employees “cedes your authority as faculty members to make the decisions that determine the future of this institution.” It is, of course, impossible to read Cangellaris’s invocation of faculty governance outside the context of recent events on our campus, which only recently emerged from censure by the American Association of University Professors in the wake of the infamous Salaita affair.

But rather than focusing on the UIUC administration’s problematic appeal to the language of shared governance, I want to highlight a contradiction that lies at the very heart of the strike, and indeed of where we find ourselves as an institution. In our efforts to respond to the current economic crises facing public higher education, we have come to rely on graduate students as simultaneously sources of tuition revenue and cheap labor. University of Illinois administrators have identified the expansion of tuition-bearing graduate programs as a top priority for the Urbana campus, and project growing such enrollments by over 6,000 students by 2021. Even as graduate tuition constitutes a growing revenue stream, we continue to rely upon graduate student labor to fulfill our core teaching and research missions. As the GEO strike has made clear, our university cannot function without the work of our graduate students.

The tuition waiver issue encapsulates the deeply contradictory – and profoundly exploited – position that graduate students occupy on our campus. The administration wants the flexibility to manipulate the balance of revenue and labor that can be extracted from this large and growing segment of our campus community. The union insists – rightfully, in my view – that the existing contract language concerning tuition waivers protects individual graduate students from being compelled to serve as primary sources of revenue and indispensible sources of labor in the span of a single semester. We can all agree that graduate students are essential members of the UIUC community. How we treat them now will go a long way toward determining the future of our university.
Dan Gilbert is an assistant professor of Labor and Employment Relations, and Vice President of CFA