UT faculty protest graduate student "hunger games"

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The University of Texas system has the second largest endowment in the nation with an estimated value of $31 billion, but graduate students here are struggling to survive on meager living stipends that have failed to keep up with rising living costs in Austin.

The beginning of the academic year is particularly tough for graduate students. 

Most graduate students are not paid by the University over the course of the summer and they don’t receive their first paycheck until October, more than a month after classes have begun. 

Because so many have to stretch their resources to pay for rent and food, graduate students sarcastically refer to the month of September as “the hunger games.”

How far it goes 

While the University’s own Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid estimates that graduate students need more than $25,000 to live in Austin year-round, first-year graduate teaching assistants in the College of Liberal Arts earn as little as $13,684. 

And for graduate students in Fine Arts, the situation is even worse. 

Some endowed departments are able to contribute to their graduate students’ living stipends, but most are not. 

Compared to other top public research universities, this funding for graduate workers is shockingly low.

What is more, doctoral candidates who win prestigious fellowships are often forced to pay thousands of dollars in medical costs and tuition because the terms of their fellowships forbid them from teaching. 

Graduate students provide the University of Texas with vital labor. As teaching assistants and assistant instructors, they grade papers, deliver lectures, lead supplemental discussion groups and teach and design their own courses. 

Simply put, without their work, the University would not function. 

If the University of Texas truly aims to provide our undergraduates with a world-class education, we cannot continue to do so on the backs of hungry graduate student workers.

Student activism

Graduate students across the University have begun organizing to protest their inadequate wages and untenable labor conditions by founding a new group, Underpaid at UT. 

They are building alliances with the many other underpaid staff workers and temporary teachers at the University whose labor makes this institution run. 

The pressure that graduate student workers and their allies are exerting upon the University administration is beginning to show results.

 Last spring, the provost announced that $10 million would be invested during the 2019-2020 academic year in graduate student workers. 

In response to a series of actions undertaken by Underpaid at UT activists last year, some of these funds will help graduate student teachers pay tuition bills, but this is a one-time temporary solution to enduring problems. 

It is not nearly enough.  

Following the lead of the graduate student activists involved in Underpaid at UT, last spring, dozens of faculty members came together to found a similar organization, Faculty Against Inhumane Remuneration. 

We are committed to drawing attention to graduate student workers’ exploitation, and the bureaucratic intransigence that has produced their “hunger games” at the very beginning of the academic year. 

We know that the University of Texas can do better, and we will continue to speak out until it does.

The Faculty Against Inhumane Remuneration Coalition is a facuty organization at UT.