Tala Makhoul & Lilith Adalet
The administration’s decision to eliminate Graduate Assistant (GA) and Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) stipends has left current and incoming graduate students reeling. The hasty decision reveals that GA and GRA students are highly devalued across the university, despite the essential work they do, and that GA and GRA policy reform is urgently needed.
The stipend amount – $533.33 per semester for students with 9-credit tuition waivers – seems negligible in the current economic climate in Beirut, with rents and other living costs skyrocketing every year. Yet, it cannot be denied that the amount is substantial enough to put us in financial distress and negatively impact our ability to focus on our studies.
AUB claims to have an open-door policy towards financially vulnerable students, proudly citing increases in the number of students offered financial aid every year. Ignoring the nuances and problems that come with this claim, an investigation beyond the purview of this Op-Ed, we GAs and GRAs are not even allowed to apply for any other source of financial aid from the university if our assistantships are in effect.
Essentially, the claim that any student is welcome at AUB regardless of financial ability is false, seeing that the only way to survive as a GA or GRA at AUB is either through financial support from our parents, odd jobs outside the university, or student loans.
AUB estimates that food and living costs in Beirut amount to $4,000 per semester. This amount does not include the $164 AUB Health Insurance Plan fee, $177 Technology fee, and the $33 Social Activity fee; These are not included in the tuition waiver. There is also the cost of books and school supplies, which AUB estimates at $750 per semester.
There is no way to pay these expenses without the financial support of our parents, which many of us do not have, the university Financial Aid Program, which we are not allowed to apply for, or the ability to work, which many of us are denied under the GA and GRA policy.
If it is impossible to complete a degree without family financial support, student loans, or substantial personal savings, AUB has effectively told Lebanon, the region, and the world that even its funded graduate positions are only for the best and the richest, or for those willing to take on significant financial distress. The shame inherent in this fact has been boldly shielded behind misinformation and half-truths about improvements to student aid.
Not to mention that the GA and GRA stipends are the legacy of Dr. Daniel Bliss himself. According to John M. Munro, Dr. Bliss insisted on incorporating the work scholarship program – now the GA and GRA program – into the university’s system to cultivate student “work ethics”, “self-respect”, and “dignity”.
While Dr. Bliss’ argument for introducing the GA and GRA program was definitely orientalist in nature, based on a worldview of cultural hierarchies, there is no denying that it is one of his most lasting legacies, and one that has helped many financially vulnerable students attain a higher education they may not have ever received. It is a shame that the university has forgotten this positive portion of Dr. Bliss’s legacy.
The covertly circulated decision to cancel the stipends was also made without any consultation of student representatives and at the very end of last semester. Department Chairs and Center Directors were asked to notify all current and incoming GAs and GRAs of the decision.
Circulating a decision as substantial as this one in such a haphazard manner means that as of the beginning of the Fall 2017-2018 semester, there are still some GAs and GRAs who have not been formally notified that they will not be receiving stipends anymore.
This points to a broader problem with AUB’s GA and GRA policy. It is highly decentralized, even chaotic, and manifests an utter disregard for student governance, considering that no student representative was consulted about the financial impact revoking the stipend would have on students before the decision was made.
Many of us have had to save up for our degrees before coming to AUB, meticulously planning financials against AUB’s GA and GRA policy at the time of applying. However, because we sign our contracts on a per-semester basis, we are vulnerable to arbitrary decisions – like the decision to abruptly cut stipends, or changes in program structure – throughout the course of our academic paths in Master’s programs at AUB.
Not only does this put us under financial duress, but in mentally and emotionally vulnerable positions as well, making it harder for us to attain the GPAs we need to retain our GA and GRA contracts.
Further, since we commit to our academic program for the two or more years it takes to complete the degree, we should receive that same commitment back from the university, provided we meet the academic requirements to do so.
GAs and GRAs provide necessary teaching and research support to faculty members. The courses we teach, or assist with, and the research we do, make our academic environment a vibrant one, not to mention the clerical work we get done, even though, according to the GA and GRA policy, clerical work is not the responsibility of GAs and GRAs.
The point here is not to accuse some departments and centers that host GAs and GRAs of violating the policy. This is a symptom of the incomprehensive nature of the policy itself.
The truth, practically speaking, is that the situation changes depending on where GAs and GRAs are housed. Many of us do not mind doing clerical work for our departments and centers if that work is conducive to the overall productivity of the university.
The point, then, is to show that we are responsible for work that directly fosters the vibrant academic environment AUB is so proud of today. Whether it is the proctoring done by the Physics, Chemistry, and Biology GAs, who also grade around 400 to 500 midterm papers every semester, the research carried out by the Engineering GRAs, the syllabi designed or the classes taught by GAs in departments and centers across the humanities and social sciences, without which AUB would be unable to claim its status as a research university.
We are also responsible for the logistical work that holds this environment together, ranging from booking rooms for talks hosted on campus, and assisting with the organizing conferences, to arranging for payments to be made to guests, website editing, and so forth.
The allocated assistantships are not charity. We earn our assistantships by maintaining a high GPA throughout our years at AUB. Thus, a reinstatement of the stipend, a potential increase of it, along with a more comprehensive and organized GA and GRA policy – developed in coordination and consultation with student representatives and input from the graduate student body – is really not that tall of an order.
In short, our work is invaluable. The devaluation of our work points to the administration’s inability to see our work as useful to the university.