University removes tuition waivers for chemistry teaching assistants

Despite opposition from a number of students in the past few months, tuition waivers will not be offered to undergraduate teaching assistants in the chemistry department this semester. Instead, they are being paid by the hour and receive a one-time $5,000 scholarship to offset the cost of tuition.

By the end of the spring semester, all departments that have undergraduate TAs will eliminate tuition waivers completely.

Robin Kaler, University spokeswoman, said part of the reason tuition waivers are not being offered anymore is because of budget restraints, but she also said they were just not the appropriate way to compensate students for hourly work.

“They were taken away because the intention of chemistry never was to have tuition waivers that went along with those student hourly positions, but when the students were entered into the computer system, it automatically classified them as ‘teaching assistants’ and that automatically gave them a tuition waiver,” she said.

Kaler said the University is offering the $5,000 scholarship to students this semester in hopes of minimizing harm to those who assumed they would be receiving a waiver.

“We all realize we are in a huge economic hole, and on one hand we haven’t gotten half a billion dollars from the state, but on the other hand, it’s just really unfortunate that the students who need this money the most aren’t getting it,” said Julia Willett, senior in LAS and former chemistry TA who has helped organize and petition for the reinstatement of waivers. “It seems like a very inopportune time for these waivers to be taken away.”

However, Monica Majumdar, senior in LAS and chemistry department TA, said she thinks an hourly wage is fair.

“I think it’s what had to be done,” she said. “I know that the University is in a really bad place. I know that many of the faculty, staff and deans have been asked to take furloughs and time off. We have a huge budget crisis and we can’t afford to pay undergrads their entire tuition just for (being teaching assistants).”

After hearing about the possibility of losing their tuition waivers before the start of the spring semester, a group of undergraduate TAs mobilized and collaborated with the Graduate Employees’ Organization, or GEO, which held a strike against the University for a salary increase and tuition waiver security last November.

Rich Potter, GEO communications officer, said undergraduate TAs do not have the same legal rights and protection as the graduate TAs.

He also said they aren’t organized like the GEO and lack experience advocating for their rights.

“It seems to me that here we have a case of the administration already finding a particularly low cost form of labor and then using the crisis situation as a reason to further remove their costs and, in a certain sense, preying upon a very vulnerable group,” he said.

An e-mail from the chemistry department head was sent to undergraduate TAs at the end of the fall semester outlining the terms of the new contract that didn’t include tuition waivers.

Willett said that TAs were hearing about the loss of waivers from faculty members and other TAs earlier, but nothing was verified until financial aid and scholarship application deadlines had passed and students who were relying on the waivers could not apply anymore.

“This reinforces my personal perspective and the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s perspective that despite a lot of lip service given out on this campus, the administration either doesn’t know how or truly doesn’t want to involve students and workers in administrative decisions in an open and transparent process,” Potter said.

Even without the tuition waivers, the University recognizes that working in classrooms at the undergraduate level is a fulfilling and enriching experience, Kaler said.

“The idea of continuing the opportunity for those undergraduate students to be in a classroom is really important, but it has to be structured in a way that is appropriate and matches other undergraduate students who are hourly workers on campus,” she said.

This story has been updated from an earlier version.