Graduate students petition against the cancellation of the GA stipends

Dina Salem & Youmna Mroue
News Editor & Opinions Editor

Graduate students published a petition on Monday, September 11 calling for the reinstatement and increase of the graduate stipend and a reformation of student aid policies, after its revocation at the end of Spring 2017 by the Office of The Provost.

The petition was published on the “Boldly G AUB” Facebook page, garnering more than 700 signatures since its initial circulation date.

Addressed to Provost Mohammad Harajli and the Board of Deans, the petition sets forward several demands, including an increase in the overall stipend amount, the capacity to accept work opportunities outside of the Graduate Assistantship (GA) program, the institutionalization of GA policies across the board, as well as an increase in transparency and cooperative decision-making between students and the administration.

Provost Harajli, in an interview with Outlook, elaborated on the budget cuts that have been introduced since the new administration came into place in 2015.

“When this new administration came into office, we decided that we have to identify areas, whether of academic nature or of administrative nature, in which we can tighten the belt a little bit to try to balance our budget. Why? So that we don’t penalize students by increasing the tuition fees by more than 3 percent,” said Provost Harajli when asked about the GA stipend cancellation.

Prior to the decision and as per the AUB graduate policy, GAs and GRAs taking a standard 9 credits per semester received $133 per month. The stipend, albeit symbolic, served as a material reward that allowed graduate students to cover some of their expenses in exchange for work in their respective departments.

The petition highlights the counterintuitive nature of the revoked stipend in that it was essentially paid back to AUB through a number of mandatory fees. Allison Finn, a graduate assistant and student pursuing an MA in Sociology, says, “The $133/month stipend is obviously too little to support ourselves – but it was still an essential part of our budgets. The GA stipend should cover all the basic costs of our education, so we can focus on academic work, not financial stress.”

Provost Harajli, in defense of his decision to cancel the stipend, highlighted its limited effect on the students.

What is 3,000 L.L. or 5,000 L.L. per day? It may affect some but it’s not going to affect all, especially that graduate students who get GAs do not pay the very costly tuition fees,” he said, adding that such a miniscule amount is actually “disrespectful” to the graduate students of AUB.

The decision to cancel the stipend was disseminated through a series of emails from Provost Harajli to the Deans and Chairs of the departments on separate dates. As a result, some GAs were informed unofficially or by their respective faculty members in some cases.

It is unclear how many graduate students were affected by the decision, due to the lack of official statistics and documented numbers. Concerned students have pointed out that the administration took this decision without prior consultation with students, the Graduate Student Society or graduates currently serving on the Student Representative Committee (SRC). The decision to cancel the stipend was also administered without examining the consequences on the student body as a whole.

Aside from the revoked stipend, conflicts within the GAship program were always a concern for the graduate students. The ability to accept work opportunities outside of the GAship program has been a concern for students who are financing their own education.

Tala Makhoul, a graduate student of American Studies says, “the assumption is that everyone is on parental support in pursuit of their education.”

On several accounts, graduate students have noted the lack of standardization in the GAship program. Janina Santer, Vice President of the Graduate Student Society and a Middle Eastern Studies graduate student says, “as graduate representatives, we learned that some GAs are working more hours than their GA contract necessarily requires. The fact that other students are not allocated any tasks at all, however, does not suffice as a reason to cancel the stipends.”

Provost Harajli disclosed of plans to amend the graduate policy towards a more standardized application process and workload for the GAs, as well as increased financial aid.

“We are overlooking a serious plan to improve the processes for graduate applications and admissions as well as GAs and financial assistance,” says  Harajli. “There are also plans to allow graduate students to get facilitated bank loans. This is all under discussion,” he added. Harajli foresees that such reforms will be implemented in the next one to two years.  

Sylvain Perdigon, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at AUB, and one of the faculty members who signed the petition says, “AUB prides itself on being a ‘research university’ and markets itself as such …What makes a university a ‘research university’ is, amongst other things, that it is a place where the crafts of research are taught and aspiring researchers are trained.

Graduate students, in this sense, and the research they produce are a key element of AUB’s identity, and the university owes them decent support and treatment as it strives to become ‘a premier research institution in the region.’”

Budget cuts were also introduced in other programs in Summer 2017. The $400 housing allowance paid to PhD students was revoked, and their salaries amended to accommodate for the changes, with an increase of $100 every year starting with a fixed amount of $1200 in the first year.

Additionally, PhD students are now required to teach classes, as part of the new policy. “Not only does this save money by reducing the number of faculty but, again, it helps students develop their professional careers, since PhD students will most likely teach in universities,adds Provost Harajli.

Graduate students were unfortunate enough to land in the areas that the administration deemed eligible for cutbacks. Provost Harajli explains that the reason why such changes were introduced: “The money that we are saving, we are giving it back to students in different ways. The primary concern and the main strategic goal of this administration is to improve student services.

“We improved career services and mental health services. We renovated Reynolds Hall, we are providing for faculty and students, we renovated Bliss Hall and the Post Office, and we fixed the green field, which cost us half a million dollars. We spend so much money to improve student services.”

The Provost also affirmed that the number of graduate students will increase by the year 2030, although he denied any correlation between the AUB 2030 vision and the decision to cancel the stipends.

When asked about whether or not the petition will be addressed by the administration, the Provost says that, “we [the administration] are willing to listen to students at anytime and anyplace. We are ready to open up dialogue and explain to students the reasons behind the decision.”

With a rising number of supporters, graduate students are yet to devise a strategy on how to move forward once their target numbers are reached. Whether or not the administration will negotiate the demands of the petition is a concern for many, as effective communication between students and the administration is yet to be formally established.

“It’s not that the stipend wasn’t working, it’s the policy. Fix the policy, don’t just get rid of the stipend,” said Makhoul, “GAs shouldn’t be working on fixing the policy, the administration should have people to do this. Survey GAs, figure out what’s wrong, and fix it; We commit to AUB for two or more years, we expect that same commitment.”

 

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