Grad student workers disagree with IU on a big issue: How much is their work worth?

Despoina Panagiotidou remembers the moment she learned she was accepted into the IU Jacobs School…

Despoina Panagiotidou remembers the moment she learned she was accepted into the IU Jacobs School of Music. She was sitting in her apartment in Thessaloniki, Greece, reading the acceptance email on her laptop. She remembers being excited to get to work with some of the best performers and music educators in the world. 

Five years later, Panagiotidou said her enthusiasm for IU has plummeted. She said she is frustrated with the way IU treats its graduate workers, including low pay and high mandatory fees. Panagiotidou’s annual stipend is $10,335 before tax and mandatory fees. 

Graduate workers are students pursuing degrees who work an average of 15 to 20 hours a week. They include research assistants, graduate assistants and associate instructors. Some teach undergraduate classes while others help with research in labs. According to an analysis done by the Office of Finance for IU’s Bloomington campus, IUB has more than 2,000 Ph.D. student workers, not including masters student workers.

Each semester, Panagiotidou said she pays about $357 in mandatory student fees for being an international student, another $703 for being an IU student and an additional $1,082 for being a Jacobs School of Music student. This means Panagiotidou is paying more than $4,000 in mandatory fees. After fees, she said some graduate workers in the music school make as little as $5,112.

“I was thinking that if I go to the U.S. and work as an instructor, I would imagine it to be more of something prestigious that would also be reflected in the pay,” she said.

Related: [Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition calls for boycott of IU’s mandatory fees]

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Panagiotidou has not been able to return to Greece, meaning she has to get medical care in the United States. While some graduate students may still be covered by their parents’ insurance, Panagiotidou has to pay for her medical bills. 

To pay for a checkup at the dentist, she said she has to save months in advance. Even with IU’s health care package — offered to qualifying graduate students and mandated for international students — she would have  a copay of more than $200, which she said can’t currently afford.

Panagiotidou’s story is one that many graduate student workers at IU say they are all too familiar with: a story of living paycheck-to-paycheck, receiving stipends that put them near the poverty line and worrying about paying bills.

Living paycheck to paycheck

In January 2020, the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition accessed a report about graduate student funding from the College of Arts and Sciences using an open records request.

The report noted that the lowest paid students in the college were receiving $13,580, putting them near the 2019 poverty line for a single adult, which was $12,490. 

The report found even the highest-paid graduate workers in the college were receiving stipends that fell below a living wage, according to MIT’s Living Wage calculation. In 2019, the living wage in Monroe County for a single adult was $24,731, according to the report. The highest-paid students in the college were receiving $5,000 less than that.

IU says the graduate workers’ stipends aren’t meant to be a living wage. According to an analysis done by the Office of Finance for the Bloomington campus, graduate worker stipends are not supposed to cover all expenses. The analysis reads, “As with other parts of their education, students pursuing doctoral education rely in addition on other sources of funding, such as educational loans, summer employment, and partner and family contributions.”

The analysis says students are not employed full time, working on average 15 to 20 hours. This is to ensure that they can complete their coursework and research, according to IU. The university also covers tuition for some graduate workers, pays for health care and some departments offer fellowships and departmental funding. These funding packages, on average, are valued at more than $50,000. 

But some graduate workers say they work a few more hours every week than the minimum required by their contracts. Others say they work dozens of extra hours a week. According to the Office of International Services, international students can’t work without authorization. Some international students can be authorized to work off-campus jobs by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services or the Department of Homeland Security, but it depends on the type of visa they have. Even those who are authorized to work could be limited to 20 hours per week.

Compared to 12 other universities in the Big Ten Academic Alliance, IU’s stipends fall near the bottom, according to the report from the college. This is despite graduate students in the humanities having higher teaching loads in comparison to other universities, according to the report. Graduate workers in natural and mathematical sciences programs are generally the highest paid in the college, but their stipends are still lower compared to other universities in the BTAA, the report said.

For the 2020-2021 school year, full-time IU-Bloomington students owe a mandatory fee of $703.19 each semester on top of tuition. On IU’s Student Central website, the mandatory fee is broken down into student activity, technology, repair and rehabilitation, student health and transportation. Different programs, such as music or art programs, charge additional fees.

Master’s student Cole Nelson said while the mandatory fee is broken down into sections, it’s still not clear exactly where the money goes. Nelson, an organizer for IGWC, said it didn’t make sense that mandatory fees have increased when access to campus buildings and departmental resources have become more limited due to the pandemic.

IU spokesperson Chuck Carney said the mandatory fees increased by 2.5% in 2020 and 2021 due to a rise in tuition. Tuition rose based on a two-year budget the IU Board of Trustees passed in 2019, he said. He said students could apply for a discount from the mandatory fees if all of their classes are online and they are not in Bloomington. The deadline to apply is Feb. 15.

International students have an extra mandatory fee to pay. In recent years, this fee has increased. Panagiotidou said she didn’t know she would have to pay a fee as an international student until she got to IU and was billed on her bursar account. She has no idea what the fee is used for and wished there was a more detailed explanation of where the money went, she said.

“I feel excluded but also a little bit tricked,” she said.

Related: [Graduate students demand higher wages, end to mandatory fees at a press conference]

According to the IU Office of International Services’ website , the international student fee pays for advising and technical services to meet federal regulations and provide support for international students.

Carney said the international student fee goes toward IU’s implementation of U.S. laws and regulations, compliance with the Department of Homeland Security’s record system, assistance for international students with visa requirements and other administrative work. 

Kathryn Combs, a graduate student in printmaking, is an associate instructor in the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design. In 2018, her first year of graduate school, she worked in copywriting, blog writing and waited tables to cover her expenses. At times, she said she also tried working through grocery delivery apps and dog walking apps.

Despite these extra sources of income, Combs said she still struggled financially that year. She went to food pantries and almost maxed out her credit card to pay bills, she said.

Nelson said he works a second job at IU for additional income, but still worries about paying his bills. To limit spending, Nelson said he only eats two meals a day and tries to limit his gas and electricity use so his monthly bills stay low. It’s emotionally and physically exhausting, he said.

“While the university wants to use the products of my mental labor, they have no respect for my physical well-being, or my mental well-being, for that matter,” he said.

Heavy workload, exhausted workers

Nelson said he feels overworked as an associate instructor. His contract with the university requires he work at least 19 hours per week, but he said he works countless hours over that minimum. 

Because graduate workers are paid through a stipend, there is no compensation for working overtime and no means of filing grievances for being overworked, Nelson said. Carney said all IU students can file grievances using the Student Code of Conduct procedures. 

Combs said she was also exhausted with the amount of work she had to do her first year, both for her own academics and for the multiple jobs she had. Typically, she said she would get to campus around 9 a.m. and wouldn’t leave until 10 p.m. She said she injured her foot from walking around campus so much, requiring her to wear an orthopedic boot.

“When I got here, it felt like the things that I should be worrying about were taking a back burner to just, like, just getting by,” she said.

In addition to low wages, graduate workers say they have also dealt with poor communication from the university regarding teaching schedules and have run into technological difficulties with online teaching.

IU graduate student Kaitlin Doucette poses for a picture. Doucette, 31, is working toward a Ph.D. in microbiology.

Ethan Levy

This fall, Kaitlin Doucette, a graduate student in microbiology, taught the same biology class she had taught almost every semester since becoming a graduate worker in Fall 2018. Due to the pandemic, she taught it online.

This semester, she said she signed up to teach the same class and was accepted. The day before classes started, however, she said she received an email stating she was teaching a different, in-person class.

Doucette said she was upset she hadn’t been asked if switching her class was OK, especially as someone who volunteers for her department regularly. She said she may have accepted anyway, but not having a say was frustrating.

Other graduate workers have faced obstacles with online teaching, too. Huixin Tian, a graduate  student in Information & Library Science, said she faced technological difficulties when trying to run an online program for her class because her laptop couldn’t support it. When she reached out to her department and Wells Library, she was told that they couldn’t help her, she said.

She also faced similar challenges with her Wi-Fi. Because Wi-Fi is expensive and she receives low stipends, Tian said she pays for the most basic Wi-Fi package at her apartment. When teaching online classes, she said her connection often broke up and she felt it was frustrating to her students. But she didn’t have extra funds to pay for better Wi-Fi, she said. She said she devoted a lot of time just to get her class running and even more time teaching and grading.

“Teaching eats up your time,” Tian said. “There’s a lot of invisible work.”

Limited university response 

In January 2021, IGWC launched a boycott against the university’s mandatory fee. Members of the coalition felt that none of their other protest methods had led to actual change, Nelson said. 

He said they protested at Dunn Meadow on Aug. 24, started petitions, organized town hall meetings and held press conferences to improve the wages and conditions of graduate student workers.

IU graduate student Cole Nelson poses for a picture Wednesday near the Sample Gates. Nelson is an organizer for the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition.

Ethan Levy

“We were tired of being placated by the university,” Nelson said. “Tired of email after email thanking graduate workers for our efforts but not at all attempting to engage with us in any meaningful way to increase our standard of living.”

Nelson said he has seen changes within the College of Arts and Sciences to slightly improve conditions for graduate workers. He said at the start of this year, the college announced it would cover tuition for graduate workers. The college says it covers up to 90% of tuition and fees for all graduate students based on financial need.

According to analysis done by the Office of Finance for IU-Bloomington, the college eliminated an average of $1,200 in fees in 2020 for graduate students. The college is also in the second year of increasing minimum stipend amounts. The Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering increased stipends by 10% this year. The music school is increasing stipends by $3,092 to offset program fees.

However, these changes don’t apply to graduate workers outside of those schools, Nelson said.

Overall, Nelson said the process of negotiating with the university has been frustrating. Administrator after administrator has been sympathetic to the coalition’s movement but has told the coalition that the situation is out of their control, he said.

“They just want to push around the responsibility from one person to the other until, presumably we’re exhausted, or get defeated otherwise,” he said.

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