Graduate students deserve stronger representation, autonomous student organization

Hannah Cooper/Senior Staff

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On Oct. 6, The Daily Californian editorial board published an editorial that opined that “graduate students’ vote last week to break away and create UCGPC (University of California Graduate-Professional Coalition) was not only done hastily, but it was also thoroughly ill-considered.” We could not agree less with its assessment of this process. The UCGPC is being created to uplift the voices of all graduate and professional students within the UC system but will, more importantly, offer more opportunity to highlight the voices of graduate and professional students from nondominant communities. Decision-makers will have to engage with not just a single student voice advocating for a single solution but be required to consider with how their decisions impact distinct constituencies with unique challenges and needs.

There is power in solidarity. Nevertheless, the University of California Student Association’s (UCSA) presentation of a singular student identity to the university, state and federal decision-makers has been unintentionally detrimental to our population. As UCLA’s Graduate Student Association president and chair of the UCGPC Michael Skiles told the Daily Bruin, it forces a focus on “lowest common denominator issues.” We are all impacted by the cost of tuition and housing. There are key differences, however, in how these common challenges affect graduate and professional students. These make it imperative to cleave apart our advocacy efforts.

Last year, the state legislature pushed the UC to increase undergraduate enrollment after long divestment from the public support of higher education. One of the driving rationales was to increase opportunities for undergraduate students to attend the more competitive campuses. We applaud the desire to increase access, but the legislated budget shortfalls and increased enrollment have left graduate and professional students between a rock and a hard place.

When enrollment increases, graduate student instructors face larger class sizes; more time is spent answering emails and grading, thus taking away from their time to focus on their own studies. Because doctoral students’ educations are often completely subsidized by their department, there is less money available to support graduate student researcher positions when there is an increase in demand for instructors. UC Berkeley is in the process of downsizing many doctoral cohorts and programs to adjust. The end result is fewer doctoral students available to mentor undergraduates, conduct research and teach classes.

Professional students, whose rigorous programs preclude working, often have few if any grants or fellowships available to them. In addition to baseline tuition, professional students are regularly charged professional development supplemental tuition fees. These can be as much as $44,000 per year above base tuition.

There are similarly higher costs for students in self-sustaining programs. When higher loan rates are factored in — professional students are not eligible for the subsidized student loan rates that undergraduates are — pursuit of degrees including those in preparation to enter public service roles such as teaching or social work can equate to punishing levels of debt upon graduation. There is no single UC student identity; and yet, UCSA has been seeking one-size-fits-all solutions, frequently ignoring graduate and professional students because of the undergraduate voting block.

In certain ways, graduate students occupy an even more tenuous position on campus than undergraduates. In most graduate programs, the student works under the guidance of one professor. This means that if their relationship with them sours for any reason, including abuse of power, discrimination or lack of support, the graduate student’s future in that field could be in jeopardy. The complex positioning of graduate and professional students makes finding solutions especially difficult. Many graduate and professional students fear retribution if they report the issue or seek help — as in cohorts of just a handful, there is no way to remain anonymous. Moreover, they do not feel comfortable availing themselves of resources, afraid that if they run into one of their students or research assistants after a counseling session or at the food bank, their ability to work with that student could fundamentally change.

When compounded by systemic inequalities and the tenuous positioning of graduate and professional students generally, students from traditionally marginalized and underserved populations are especially in need of institutional reform. Successful solutions must be crafted in consultation with the affected populations. It was only after UCSA representatives failed to listen to the needs of the their graduate and professional counterparts by voting to block the creation of a bicameral organization in July 2017 did graduate and professional students feel it necessary to pursue individuation. Although a superficially similar proposal was approved in September 2017, undergraduates were unwilling to consider many of the critical elements necessary to establish a distinct graduate identity.

We acknowledge that there are still many details to be worked out — thus is always the way when something new is formed. For almost 50 years, however, both the graduate and undergraduate students who have served in the UCSA have shown themselves to be able political thinkers and operatives. Not only is there no reason to believe that the current graduate and professional student representatives will be less adept at forging similarly effective policies as they guide the nascent UCGPC, but also there is ample evidence to the contrary.

It is unfortunate that instead of putting aside individual opinions regarding the utility and wisdom of this new organization, some actors are choosing to work to undermine the democratic process through which the decision to separate was derived with hyperbole and alarmist misinformation. There will always be the need for graduate, professional and undergraduate students to work together. We are all students at the University of California. We hope that as the UCSA and UCGPC move forward, we can once more rededicate ourselves to our common purpose: advocating on behalf of all of students of the University of California.

Kena Hazelwood-Carter is the president of the UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly. She writes on behalf of its Executive Board.