March 23, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Research Assistants: Your Work Matters, Just Less

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Meaningful collaboration and a positive, enriching academic climate — these facets enhance the student and faculty experience at Cornell immeasurably. I love being at an institution where we are encouraged to have conversations and work on research across different offices, departments, fields and disciplines. Cornell’s graduate students and faculty members all benefit from the open, cordial and collaborative discourse on campus. I oppose any change that could breed resentment and foster latent dissatisfaction amongst grad students, or between grad students and faculty members. A recent change at Cornell has this potential.

Six-hundred thirty four dollars annually. That is how much less most graduate research assistants will earn for their stipends next year compared to graduate teaching assistants. That gap in stipend rates could grow over the next several years; soon the difference could be far greater. All Cornell graduate students are very dedicated to their teaching and research. The implicit message that research assistants represent an underclass disturbs me.

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.

The administration believes that many students who take RA positions, had they not come to Cornell, would have gone to universities with lower stipend rates (for example, flagship state universities instead of the Ivies). That Cornell can still compete for these students, even with paying them less relative to TAs, is part of the defense for the change. Further, the administration argues this change is needed to help faculty become more competitive for grants.

If faculty can pay research assistants less money (in inflation-adjusted dollars), then they can write a grant for the same research at a lower cost, hopefully increasing their chance of receiving funding. I enthusiastically endorse research productivity at Cornell, and support faculty in their research efforts; I strongly feel that this is not a “students vs. faculty” issue. I have spoken with several professors who oppose this change (in fact, from my limited conversations, more faculty oppose than support it).

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.

The other elected graduate student leaders and I are proud to be Cornellians. We are proud of Cornell’s progressive policies on graduate compensation to date (it is a major part of what drew us to Cornell). Nonetheless, we are disappointed with this change. We look forward to working with President David Skorton, Provost Kent Fuchs and Dean of the Graduate School Barb Knuth to revisit what we view as a misguided decision. To all graduate students out there: Your representatives on the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and I are your elected leaders; please let us know your feelings on this issue.