A crowd swelled Tuesday morning on the University of Colorado's Farrand Field as hundreds demanded that CU stop requiring that graduate students employed by the university pay student fees.
The walkout and rally was spearheaded by the Committee on Rights and Compensation, a graduate student advocacy group and labor organization seeking a collective bargaining agreement with the university. The assembled graduate students, joined by some faculty members and undergraduate students, said graduate students who hold teaching and research positions should not be required to pay fees.
CU estimates show that graduate student fees average between $1,552 and $1,764 a year, though students said the fees can be higher.
"It is not fair that our already low income for the cost of living in Boulder is further taxed by these mandatory fees," Janet Ruppert, a CRC member and doctoral student in information science, said through a megaphone to the crowd. "It is not fair that, by the time I get my Ph.D., I will have given up over $10,000 to this university, which amounts to about 10 percent of my total take-home pay."
The crowd cheered in response.
Organizers also underlined that, though they wanted fees waived because of their work for the university, they did not want to see services underfunded. Rather, they wanted the university to fund them because they are part of the public good. As an example, though, they said it's unfair that graduate students have to pay capital construction fees to fund the construction of the buildings in which they work as teachers and researchers.
CU officials said that, since fall 2016, the university has added $5.8 million to graduate student stipends and benefits, and another $2.1 million is pending approval by the Board of Regents.
Of approximately 5,500 graduate students, there are 2,672 graduate part-time instructors, research assistants and teaching assistants, according to data provided by the university. They make an average of $21,451 to $24,793, depending on the position.
The averages are based on a 20-hour-per-week position during the academic year. They exclude summer appointments, student assistant pay, one-time payments and university contributions of $3,630 to health care premiums, as well as tuition remission.
CU has also created mentoring programs and professional development opportunities, officials said.
"First of all, it's really important that our graduate students understand how much we value their contributions to this campus," said Leslie Reynolds, interim dean of the graduate school. "They do amazing work, and we are really concerned about the financial challenges many of them are facing."
Reynolds said that's why officials last fall created a task force that is meant to examine the stipends and benefits paid to graduate student workers and due to return recommendations this spring.
She said the fee waiver would be difficult, and the task force needs to complete its work first.
"Really, we need to let the task force do its work in reviewing what all the potential options are for enhancing the lives of graduate students," she said. "There may be other things that can have a higher impact on students as a whole that we can do, and that's what I really want to look at — enhancing and enriching the experience for every graduate student, whether or not they're on appointment."
Tuesday's crowd marched from Farrand Field to the Regent Administrative Center — where key administrators' offices are located, as well as the bursar's office — to chant inside the building, waive signs and pay this semester's fees in person.
Inside, people drummed on buckets, and their chants echoed through the building:
"What do we want? Fee waivers! When do we want them? Now!"
"Pay to work? Hell no! Fee waivers? Let's go!"
Outside, Ted Striphas, the associate chair for graduate studies in the department of communication, said his department's No. 1 difficulty in recruiting graduate students is the cost of living in Boulder.
"I think it's important for faculty to help stand up for our graduate students," he said. "This is a graduate student struggle, but it's a struggle for everybody. It's not a unique situation to find graduate students struggling to survive in the Boulder area."
Tracy Ferrell is now a senior instructor in the program for writing and rhetoric. She earned her Ph.D. at CU in the 1990s and still struggled to make ends meet then. She took out a second mortgage on her home to finish paying off her student debt just last year.
"We know how tough it is to teach and go to school when you're not making enough money to get by," she said.
She later added: "This university would shut down without graduate students."
Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey, a doctoral student in environmental studies whose teaching stipend is less than $20,000 before fees are taken into account, said he wishes he'd taken a closer look at the fee structure before moving his family here. Although he's grateful for the wage, it's not liveable, he said.
"Can you imagine if you were in a job and you showed up to work, and the first day of work every semester they said, 'We're going to charge you for the lights. We're going to charge you a building fee because you're working in this building. We're going to charge you a technology fee because you have a computer we provide," he said. "Can you imagine doing that?"
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