Cornell Daily Sun: Graduate Student Pay Hierarchy To Be Introduced

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In a Cornell Daily Sun article published yesterday by Darrick Nighthawk Evenson, he confirms what has been under the works among Cornell administrators: a pay hierarchy among Cornell RA’s and TA’s. Evensen writes,

In late January, Cornell’s Board of Trustees gave its final approval to the administration’s recommendation that teaching assistants receive a 2.7 percent stipend increase next year (similar to increases in the last few years), while research assistants receive a zero percent stipend increase. This is the first time in several decades that Cornell’s mandated minimum stipend rate has varied between different types of grad students.

Of course, as in any budgetary situation, there is nuance. Individual faculty and/or individual departments could pay their research assistants more than the minimum. I have already heard of departments that plan to take this action because they do not support treating the two groups of students inequitably. I do not expect many faculty and departments to follow suit. Faculty are already allowed to pay their research assistants more than the minimum, but this happens very rarely in most departments at Cornell.

With this change, it will become much more common that students in the same field and the same lab or office receive different stipend levels. Additionally, because many graduate students switch back and forth between teaching and research assistantships, it will also become more frequent that a single student will be paid different amounts in different semesters, potentially receiving a substantial pay cut at some point.

Essentially, the university minimum stipend rate currently ~$22,000 per year for both RA’s and TA’s will change next year. The change is that the TA rate will increase for inflation & cost of living while the RA rate will remain constant. Next year the difference will be that RA’s make about $600 less per year, with the understanding that the idea (currently) is to have this change grow over time.

The impetus for this change comes from a group of faculty who are arguing they are losing out on NIH/NSF grants because they have to pay their grad students too much under the current university minimum rates–while they’re getting undercut by state schools who pay there students in the $13,000-$18,000 per year range. The argument, in essence is that less labor costs yield greater grant competitiveness.

Individual departments have the freedom to accept the new minimum RA rates or impose their own policies, so this may or may not be something that affects all departments. But it’s nevertheless an issue that all graduate students ought to be concerned about. CGSU’s understanding is that the Graduate School has no plans to announce this change on their own, and the message is supposed to filter out through individual department chairs/DGS’s.

The most important part may be what follows in Evensen’s article, however, and raises–as many issues have recently–the urgent need for graduate students at Cornell to organize and advocate for their interests–in workplace safety, in administrative transparency, and now also in our wages and the value of our work. According to Evensen, this enormous change in pay determination had little to no input from graduate students themselves:

A few other graduate student leaders and I have known about this issue since October; at that time and thereafter we strongly encouraged the administration to garner feedback from a wide range of graduate students. This further consultation did not occur. We are surprised and disappointed that when the administration discussed this issue with us early on, and when it was discussed with the Board of Trustees, not one reference was made to this change’s potential effect on collaboration and the academic climate on campus.

I cannot support a policy that exacerbates the disparity in compensation between graduate students. Some grad students — for example, engineers — are paid more today, but the new policy makes differences in pay highly variable and widespread. All grad students do substantial, meaningful, important work. We also value each other’s work. We do not want to foster the perception that an underclass of graduate students exists.

Cornell Graduate Students United aims to advocate collectively for graduate students and to highlight our voices as workers in influencing the conditions of our labor.

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