TA Task Force

The TA Task Force, a group of 22 teaching assistants and academic instructors from the College of Liberal Arts, decided Wednesday to extend its research time for about two months longer than originally anticipated.

With this decision, the task force will postpone the delivery of its final recommendations to COLA administrators so they can continue researching issues related to graduate students in the college. The task force was previously planning to make its final recommendations at the beginning of the spring 2015 semester but will now continue their research until Jan. 28.

“We’ve basically given ourselves an extra two months over the break to finish up our research and make our recommendations,” said Justin Doran, task force member and spokesman.

Since September, the students have been meeting to examine issues related to COLA TAs and AIs. The task force is divided into five committees that work to establish guidelines with professors, define TA responsibilities, examine job security and assignments, work to make sure employment and degree plans align and set standards for TA workload and compensation.

According to Doran, they are determining this information through extensive surveys that will be sent to administrators and faculty members. He said they are also conducting student surveys, for which responses have been collected. The task force will then report their findings to administrators for consideration.

“We want to function as mediators between the COLA administration and the department chairs,” Doran said. “So, [we want to be] both fact-finders and then mediators who are looking out primarily for the interests of graduate students and to kind of negotiate between higher level administrators and department administrators so we can all work together on improving graduate student life.”

COLA executive assistant Lauren Apter Bairnsfather said Esther Raizen, COLA associate dean for research and graduate studies, supports the task force’s decision to delay its final recommendations.

“They have approached their research with an ambitious agenda, and they need the time to complete the research and analysis before making
final recommendations,” Bairnsfather said in an email. “We are grateful for their commitment to the work and for their willingness to continue working into the spring semester.”

Since September, the task force has been formatting and sending out surveys to share with students, faculty and administrators. According to Doran, the first round of surveys was sent to all COLA grad students and looks at how students perceive COLA and its administrators. Doran said the task force received responses from over 50 percent of the students. Doran said the responses are still being analyzed.

“Because of research restrictions, we won’t be able to give anyone access to raw data about that, but probably in our preliminary report you will see executive summaries of that data,” Doran said.

Doran said the second round of surveys will go to administrators and faculty members to get an idea of how particular departments are being run.

“The final report will include how administrators see things are going on,” Doran said. “So we will be able to compare how graduate students perceive what is going on and how administrators are intending things to be happening.”

Additionally, Doran said the task force plans to work with Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services to format digital tools that allow administrators to share information about their departments’ policies. The collaboration is still in the preliminary phase.

“It turns out that nobody has really pinpointed the fact that this is really an information sharing program,” Doran said. “Since our task forces goal was basically to uncover all of this information, what we have discovered is that this information isn’t just out there, and since it isn’t just out there, nobody can be analyzing it.”

Vance Roper, Graduate Student Assembly vice president, said he thinks TA and IA positions are important for graduate students because the jobs provide a source of income and educational opportunities. He said students, faculty and administrators should be represented in the research done by the TA Task Force.

“It’s definitely something that should be researched from all angles and that the research should be fully vetted out before any decisions are made,” Roper said.

It’s like Shared Services all over again.

It’s even being brought before students at the same time of year, in the warm, bonhomous glow of the early fall. Former animus has supposedly been washed away, or at least papered over, and replaced with a clean slate. 

When Shared Services was brought before students last year, administrators feigned interest in their opinions about the elimination of staff jobs.

This time around, though, their indifference will likely hit much closer to home as most of the jobs likely to be cut will be students’.

The College of Liberal Arts’ TA Task Force, which has been charged with examining issues that affect graduate students, including compensation, workload and assignment, will be meeting throughout the semester, having done so twice already. 

Among the many topics under consideration will be the reduction of the total cohort of TAs and assistant instructors across the college.

Underlying these initiatives is a well-founded concern among administrators that the college is struggling to remain competitive with peer institutions with its low stipends. And because funding for the college hasn’t changed significantly in recent years, that means cuts to the student workforce. As it stands, the college pays most of its TAs with bachelor’s degrees around $5,500 less (if one looks at the total amount they receive rather than the base stipend) than the $26,500 the University recognizes as the annual combined tuition and living expenses for an in-state graduate student. (It’s more expensive for out-of-state students, but many of those get in-state tuition as part of their benefit packages, which can many times include a benefit to defray that cost as well.) 

This is a serious issue. If enacted, the cuts could eliminate a large number of jobs. But at this point we don’t know how many or how quickly those jobs will be slashed — for a number of reasons. First, the college has been inconsistent in its own numbers. In an email sent out Aug. 6, Esther Raizen, the college’s associate dean for research, said that “we will need to decrease the number of our TA/AI appointments by 10 percent or so by 2016-17.” In a more recent email, however, dated Sept. 9, Raizen’s assistant, Lauren Bairnsfather, said the reductions would need to be made by next year. Second, the college’s stated goal of decreasing appointments by 10 percent doesn’t match the target of 700 appointments that one member of the task force said was being aimed for. (The college currently has more than 800 teaching assistants and assistant instructors.) And third, after last week’s meeting, which was open to the public, the college has decided to close all future proceedings to potentially prying eyes. 

Those meetings, which will lead to the creation of a draft report to be presented to Raizen, will likely determine much of the future course of events for the college. However, I fear that much of the course may already be set. 

At last week’s meeting, several non-members of the task force raised concerns about a number of issues, including how the college would be able to afford to increase TA/AI stipends to the necessary minimum by cutting appointments by 10 percent. 

Dean Randy Diehl, who led that meeting, admitted quite plainly that it wouldn’t. 

In other words, if the college truly wants to remain competitive with peer institutions, it will almost certainly have to make further cuts at a later date given that its funding has been stagnant in recent years. 

These are issues that deserve the full attention and access of the University community. While I understand the need for changes to the funding structure for TAs and AIs, these cuts could potentially yank away the livelihoods of more than 100 graduate students, people who already don’t get paid enough for the work they do. As the task force continues to meet, I hope administrators truly listen to what the student task force members tell them.

Brands is a linguistics senior from Austin. 

The College of Liberal Arts established a task force to meet this semester and discuss issues directly affecting teaching assistants and assistant instructors, such as compensation and workload.

At its second meeting Tuesday, the TA Task Force talked about the potential reduction of TA and assistant instructor positions and an increase of stipends.

The task force is composed of 22 students with TA experience in the college’s doctorate granting units and two undergraduate representatives. The group was created to give graduate students a say in administrative affairs such as workload, training, professionalization of graduate students and compensation of TAs, according to Lauren Apter Bairnsfather, executive assistant in the Office of the Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies.

In an email sent to the task force on Aug. 6, Esther Raizen, associate dean for the Office of the Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies, said the college needs to decrease the number of TAs and assistant instructors by about 10 percent in order make its stipend competitive with other institutions. Currently, the college hosts approximately 832 TAs and assistant instructors.

Bairnsfather said all solutions mentioned thus far are preliminary. She said the college is encouraging the task force to address and research the issues most important to them in order to increase student involvement in University decisions.

“The task force is here so they can be involved in defining what their role looks like at the University,” Bairnsfather said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Tammi Stout, a linguistics representative on the task force and an associate instructor, said graduate students expressed concern about the increased workload this may entail.

“There’s concern that with less graduate students, less professors would have TAs, and, for right now, there are a lot of questions that are unanswered, and it is really preliminary,” Stout said. “They haven’t figured it all out, and that’s going to take time, to figure out how do this without increasing the workload for anyone.“

Additionally, as noted on the University website, the average pay for TAs, including tuition reduction benefits, is about $23,000 compared to the approximately $26,500 living cost for student with no dependents.

According to Bairnsfather, the task force was implemented to give students a say in addressing this gap and increasing stipends.

“We really want to try to get closer to addressing that difference between how much money they make and how much money they need to live,” Bairnsfather said.

Brian Wilkey, Graduate Student Assembly president, said the assembly has no opinion on the task force at this time.

“Obviously, protecting graduate students’ opportunities is something that the Graduate Student Assembly cares about, but we also want to work within the frame of the administration,” Wilkey said.

Throughout the semester, Bairnsfather said students will meet and research whatever student issues they deem most important.

“They will have a couple of months to do research and come up with a report for us and give recommendations,” Bairnsfather said. “At that point, we will have recommendations and will have suggestions. At this point, we’re just studying the situation of TAs across the college.” 

According to Stout, being on the task force has given her the opportunity to better understand the administration’s work and its intricacies.

“I think the reality is, it’s really complicated,” Stout said. “For graduate students, from my perspective, one of the benefits is seeing how all of this works. As a graduate student, I kind of get an inside look to ask questions and see how complicated it is.”