The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s vision statement reads “We will be a top-tier research university that is the best place to learn and work for students, faculty and staff, and that is a leading driver for sustainable prosperity.”
In recent years, UWM has made investments that will make it possible for the university to redefine itself as a leader in research. Newly constructed buildings dedicated to research include the School of Freshwater Sciences, The Kenwood Interdisciplinary Research Center and the Accelerator Building at UWM’s Innovation Campus. The university has also focused on boosting its image as an institution that has strong STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs.
Now, the university has made progress in fulfilling the second part of its vision – to become a university that is the best place to learn and work for students, faculty and staff.
On March 13the UWM faculty senate resolved a pay increase among graduate assistants. Originally, the resolution was drafted by the Milwaukee Graduate Assistant Association (MGAA), a labor union that represents graduate assistants (GA’s), teaching assistants (TA’s) and project assistants (PA’s) who work at UWM. The resolution gained support from The Graduate Student Advisory Council, the Graduate Faculty Committee and the Dean of the Graduate School.
The resolution called on Chancellor Michael Lovell and Provost Johannes Britz to publicize the issue of low GA pay. It also asked that when administration drafts the 2015-2016 budget they add a line increasing the base salary for TA’s and GA’s by 14 percent. Currently, the wage for TA’s and GA’s working at UWM is nearly $2,000 below that of peer institutions.
Last summer UWM’s graduate school approved a significant wage increase for research assistants. At the same time, TA’s and PA’s received a 1 percent raise. As a result of the unequal pay raises, a non-doctoral TA with a 50 percent appointment (think half-time work load), would make about $11,800 per nine months compared to $15,000 made by RA’s.
(You can find detailed salary information here).
“It felt like salt in the wound,” said TA and MGAA Co-President Chase Erwin. “It felt like graduate students were being shut out of the wage negotiation process.”
In 2011, Governor Scott Walker signed into law Act 10 which stripped the MGAA, and unions statewide, of the ability to bargain for wages.
“The MGAA can do all it wants publicly to support a higher wage, but we don’t have a seat at the table,” said Erwin.
Even with the crippling effects of Act 10, the MGAA was determined to get graduate students a wage increase.
“The MGAA Executive Committee met, along with members, in early January and we launched a semester long campaign of strategic action, both inside and outside of UWM shared governance to get this pay raise,” said Erwin.
The MGAA’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers was also present at the meeting along with the Graduate Student Advisory Council.
As Erwin looked into making wage increase a reality, he came across a report by the Graduate Assistantship Working Group, a subcommittee for the Graduate School. The working group had been in charge of examining the structure and compensation model for graduate student assistantships. What the report suggested was similar to what the MGAA believes. If UWM is serious about becoming a top-tier university, GA pay needs to increase.
“We discovered that the Graduate School was interested in the same things we were. They wanted to bring everybody up to the [pay] level that the RA’s were receiving,” said Erwin.
The working group report detailed many advantages to increasing GA pay. Among the benefits was increased ability to recruit graduate students. Erwin agrees that increased pay may translate to stronger graduate programs.
“It [the university] is having a hard time getting the graduate students it wants,” said Erwin. “UWM has great professors and world class researchers, but you have to deal with unreasonably low wages for six years. Doesn’t that sound exciting? No, no prospective graduate student is going to want that.”
The benefits of increased GA pay also extend to undergraduates at UW-Milwaukee. If the university is able to attract higher quality graduate assistants, such as TA’s, then introductory courses will have better instructors.
“A lot of what you feel is lacking in your undergraduate education is because TA’s are forced to work at bars on the weekends or write copy at night,” said Erwin. “This is a demanding job. We’re still students ourselves. We have to go to graduate school, we have to teach classes, and on top of that we have to work side jobs for extra income. It’s a difficult life.”
Erwin stresses that the university can afford the pay increase without affecting tuition. Vice-Chancellor for Finance and Administrative Affairs Robin Van Harpin has estimated the cost of raising GA wages to be $1.8 million annually.
“This will not raise tuition,” Erwin said. “Wisconsin state statute chapter 36 specifically states that tuition dollars paid to this university cannot and will not go to pay faculty. When the UW System was founded, the state pledged that they would always foot the bill for faculty and instructor salaries.”
“This stands to give students a better education experience at this university,” Erwin continued. “They [students] are going to get more of our time, more of our attention. We are going to be more excited about our Jobs. We love teaching but we can’t do this. GA’s at this school have students who work part time at Starbucks and make more than them.”