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COMMENTARY: TA/GA Union intends to fight in negotiations

This spring, Rutgers teaching assistants (TAs) and graduate assistants (GAs) will apply for the TA-GA Professional Development Fund (PDF), a “competition” developed by the Rutgers administration in 2013 in place of a raise. A closer look at the recent history of the PDF shows the extent of the administration’s negligence and duplicity toward graduate students, who teach the bulk of courses at Rutgers. This history demonstrates the administration’s larger project of educational inequality and its lack of regard for its employees and its tendency to shield itself from answering to our larger demands. In telling this story we seek to put the PDF to rest so that, moving into next year’s contract negotiations, we can concentrate on more pressing goals like equitable salaries, universal tuition remission and stronger protections against discrimination.

The PDF was presented to TAs and GAs in 2014 in place of a raise, but in its two years of implementation, funds have eluded most graduate students. Last summer, for instance, 42 percent of applications were not even reviewed by a phantom committee the administration claimed to have put in charge. In actuality, the “committee” never looked at any of the applications — instead, administration awarded money based on a 0-5 ranking system that graduate program directors were forced to use without knowing what the numbers meant. When we confronted the administration with these problems, administrators were quick to blame these individual program directors for the fund’s failure.

What resulted from the botched PDF was that individual students received arbitrary amounts of funding — some high, some low — with no explanations offered for these inconsistencies. In the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources, for example, one student was given no money and informed that her adviser was responsible for paying for her research supplies. Meanwhile, her colleague was given $2,500 for her research after submitting a one-paragraph proposal.

In the most recent round of funding, all 23 applicants in the Department of Physics and Astronomy received nothing, and after they lodged a complaint, the administration rushed to save face, compensating the whole department but refusing to reassess other applications. Most applicants in the Department of English received over $1,000, whereas almost every applicant in creative writing got nothing. In the Department of Philosophy, everyone was funded, while in the Department of Geography only one out of seven applicants received any money. In the Department of Biomedical Engineering, one student got $389, while the other nine applications were ignored.

The bizarre distribution of funds looks even more unjust when you consider how each campus fared. At Rutgers University—Camden, 50 percent of applicants received no money, and the highest total received by anyone was $750 with an average award of $348. New Brunswick applicants, on average, received $1,240 — for Rutgers University—Newark students it was $645. These inequalities reflect a long Rutgers tradition of privileging New Brunswick campus and its students while marginalizing Newark and Camden.

Over the past two years, the Union has tried to work with the administration to rectify a bad situation. We asked to set up a semesterly meeting to discuss the PDF’s problems. Meetings were repeatedly canceled, rescheduled then canceled again. And when meetings actually occurred, they were often contentious and led to few changes. Dean of Graduate School—New Brunswick Jerry Kukor has called the PDF “broken” but he and his co-administrators ultimately refused to take the Union’s recommendation for bettering the fund. Insisting that only the most meritorious TAs and GAs should benefit from the fund, Chancellor Richard L. Edwards claimed that the fund’s haphazard processes represented how the University is trying to impart real-world experiences on its grads. “The real world is competitive,” Edwards explained to us at our last meeting.

We contended that the spirit of the fund was to provide money for grad students and not to educate them on the trappings of meritocracy. We suggested scrapping the competitive element of the fund and salvaging the remainder of the money over the next two summers by simply distributing the rest of the money equally among anyone who applied. Unsurprisingly, our proposal was rejected: not only did it stray from “merit,” but to administrators, it looked perilously like an across-the-board raise. Though the administration is contractually obligated to give the remaining $1.55 million to TAs and GAs, they maintain it must be distributed unevenly — something that has never been indicated by contract language. Instead of functioning as a fund for our collective benefit, it has become a tool used to further divide us.

Ultimately, the PDF itself is a small issue, but it exemplifies the way in which Rutgers’ administration seeks to bully its employees through lies and negligence and absolves itself of its responsibilities for ensuring a healthy intellectual environment. These are not just woeful lapses in administrative accountability — they are a litany of injustices that the TA/GA Union intends to fight aggressively when negotiations begin in the fall of 2017.

The TA/GA Steering Committee is a joint committee of the Rutgers Chapters AAUP-AFT Executive Council (EC) and the Rutgers Graduate Student Association (GSA).

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