A year from now, or maybe sooner, University of Missouri graduate assistants want to be able to look back on this week and say this was the moment they brought change to Mizzou.
Graduate assistants are a subgroup within the graduate student population. They are student teachers pursuing their doctorates while also teaching classes, grading papers and conducting research.
In many ways, they are like the adjunct instructors colleges rely on for cheap labor — adjuncts across the country are fighting for higher wages, while graduate students are fighting for stable job benefits.
And like adjuncts, graduate assistants often feel invisible on campus. For many of them, their feelings of being overlooked were made plain on Aug. 14 when the university stopped paying for their health insurance, without warning.
Mizzou is blaming its change in policy on how the IRS interprets the Affordable Care Act. They say the law prevents employers from giving employees money specifically to buy health insurance from individual market plans. Because the IRS classifies graduate teaching and research assistants as employees, rather than students, they fall under this interpretation.
In the two weeks since the policy change, graduate assistants have made enough noise in the media and on social media to extract an apology from Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and one more year of university-paid health insurance.
But in a rally on campus Wednesday, the message was clear: Graduate assistants are mobilized and they have several more grievances.
The challenge now is to find a way to bottle this week’s enthusiasm into something that can be sustained. The fear is that the university will ride out this current wave of activism until the noise dies down.
For his part, Loftin has met with graduate students this week and assured them their concerns are being heard.
A reporter’s request to speak to Loftin made through Mizzou’s media relations department was denied, so it’s unclear what plans the administration has to address graduate student concerns.
However the university responds, graduate students say they will not be placated by lip service.
“We’re not naïve,” said Matt McCune, a research assistant pursuing a doctorate in physics. “We want to see results.”
Among their biggest gripes, graduate students say, is the gradual chipping away of benefits they were promised — in many cases, the same benefits that attracted them to the school in the first place.
Jason Entsminger, a first-year doctoral student who’d been teaching at the University of Maryland, had been on Mizzou’s campus for only 24 hours when he got an email that said the university would no longer pay for his health insurance.
Even after the university backtracked and restored the health insurance subsidy for one extra year, Entsminger said the relationship was forever changed.
“I turned down other offers to come here,” he said. “I have a letter saying I’ll get three years of health insurance. Now that’s been ripped away from me.”
For students who’ve been around longer than Entsminger, they’ve gone through a number of other changes.
After the collapse of a walkway resulted in the death of a Columbia firefighter, the university announced the demolition of the University Village apartments — affordable graduate student housing that was popular among international students who often lack cars and find off-campus living problematic.
About the same time, the university closed the Student-Parent Center, which many graduate students depended on for affordable child care.
And starting next fall, incoming graduate assistants working part-time schedules will see their tuition waivers cut in half.
“These are all benefits that made this university attractive to so many students,” said Anahita Zare, outreach chairwoman for the Forum on Graduate Rights.
On top of losing those benefits, Zare said, graduate students are most upset with a number of fee increases — sometimes adding up to more than a thousand dollars — that can eat up as much of a third of the teaching stipend many graduate assistants rely on.
At least some of the disappearing benefits can be explained away by unstable finances. Missouri, like all other states except Alaska and North Dakota, spends less on higher education today than it did before the recession.
And the university has explored options to address some graduate student concerns.
University spokesman Christian Basi said a study found that building the type of housing students want would be cost-prohibitive at a price of more than $28 million.
And when the university dangled free land to developers provided they used the property to build an affordable child care center, none took the bait, Basi said.
Despite those roadblocks, Basi said the university would continue to look for solutions.
But as with all top-tier universities, reputation matters.
Hallie Thompson, president of Mizzou’s Graduate Professional Council, said the health of any top-flight research university rested in its ability to attract and retain top-flight talent.
“That goes for faculty and graduate students,” she said.