McDavis with Grad Student Senate

Ohio University President Roderick McDavis speaks with graduate students and others gathered in the “Friends of the Libraries Room” in Alden Library on Nov. 12 about the general fee that OU students pay.

Ohio University Graduate Student Senate voted Monday (Nov. 16) to approve a resolution ending a graduate student boycott of 15 university advisory groups they typically sit on; those groups provide policy recommendations to OU President McDavis.

The votes comes after a contentious meeting where students questioned McDavis on their issues with the general fee – a roughly $1,250 per-academic year fee that all graduate students must pay – during a public meeting with the president in Alden Library last Thursday. More on that meeting below.

During the Monday meeting, students deliberated on whether or not to end the boycott, which was approved during a meeting in October and was a result of GSS's contention that McDavis and OU administration have not listened to graduate student concerns about the general fee's impact on students' budget, especially when, they charge, graduate assistants are paid below “poverty line” wages for their work.

While the boycott was voted down, basically every GSS members made it clear during the meeting that they were not happy with the general fee, and will continue to work at varying levels to reduce the fee (graduate assistants already receive a buydown funded by the general fee that cuts off roughly $250 in costs each year). 

Ian Armstrong, who voted in favor of keeping the boycott going, said he has talked to all of the graduate assistants in the chemistry/biochemistry departments at OU, and said they were “unanimous” in their support of the boycott. President McDavis during last week's meeting contended that he would staff other, non-GSS graduate students to the advisory groups if GSS continued the boycott. Armstrong said his colleagues agreed not to sit on the advisory groups if the boycott went through, even if asked to by administrators.

GSS also approved a resolution creating a task force on the general fee, with the goal of surveying all graduate students about their opinion on the general fee, and how they value the services that are supported by the fee (a significant portion of which goes to OU's Intercollegiate Athletics Department and to the Department of Student Affairs). Resolution sponsor Angela Chapman explained that students get varying benefits out of services supported by the general fee.

“While I may or may not use counseling services, I personally support having them on campus... while I neither use nor value intercollegiate athletics,” she said.

GSS similarly approved a resolution to “separate” the undergraduate and graduate general fees that both pay, which GSS's Vice President for Communications Sarah Kaplan said is a way for grad students to tell the university they “want a completely separate general fee.”

“That way in future, we could say, ‘hey, there’s already a precedent set, now let’s lower it (grad student gen. fee),’” she said.

Martin Mohlenkamp, an associate professor, gave a short presentation about how graduate students could work to reduce the general fee in a “budget-neutral” manner; he suggested GSS split up the “buydown” that GAs receive among all graduate students. Currently, only graduate assistants, about 55 percent of graduate students, receive a waiver to reduce the cost of the general fee, funded by the only money the Graduate College receives from the general fee (about $530,000).

Students also heard from Boyd McCamish, field director with the international chapter of the public labor union AFSCME, who encouraged students to use their voices to advocate for change on campus. He said students and faculty need to critically examine the “politics of scarcity,” tactics he said the administration uses to make students – intentionally or unintentionally – think that there is not enough money to go around to fund things like adequate wages or affordable healthcare plans.

OU Graduate Student Senate President Carl Edward Smith, III, said he has met with some representatives of AFSCME about beginning a campaign to unionize graduate assistants on campus.

OU PRESIDENT McDavis met with Graduate Student Senate representatives and others last Thursday in Alden Library.

After the meeting, GSS took a vote in executive committee on whether or not to create a proposed resolution ending the boycott of placing graduate student representatives on 15 advisory committees which report policy recommendations to McDavis. Smith told The NEWS that during that session, there was a “strong sense” that McDavis had done his best to address students' concerns, although Smith said McDavis “absolutely” could have provided more answers.

GSS and OU administration agreed last October to a meeting between McDavis and GSS, the students saying they wanted to question McDavis about reasoning for why his office denied a recommendation last spring sent from an advisory committee for a “buydown” of the general fee, which could have decreased the amount of the fee graduate students pay.

Smith opened the meeting by stating some of he and GSS's efforts to advance recommendations to McDavis' office to reduce or eliminate requirements for graduate students to pay the general fee in the past year.

For example, a recommendation was sent to McDavis' office last spring through the budget planning council (and the recommendation initially started in the general fee advisory committee, which Smith sits on) – both being presidential advisory committees GSS could have boycotted this year – to lower the general fee for graduate students. Both GSS and undergraduate student senate also approved resolutions last year recommending the general fee be lowered for graduate students.

Smith said the general fee creates too much of a “burden” on graduate students, especially considering graduate assistants are paid cost-of-living stipends that are “underneath the poverty line.”

For the current academic year, the median figure for all graduate assistant stipends working 15-20 hours of work a week is $12,000. However, the average figure for graduate assistants working in some programs is lower; a GA in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine earns an average stipend of $4,044 for fall semester, for example, while a GA in the School of Business will earn an average of $3,988 (both less than $10,000 per academic year, on average), according to records provided to The NEWS by OU. GAs in the college of Arts and Sciences earn $7,301 on average for fall semester 2015, the highest GA stipend average out of any of the colleges this semester.

McDavis presented a report about the financial status of the university's support for graduate students, with the backing of some top administrators also in the room, including Provost Pam Benoit and VP for Finance and Administration Stephen Golding.

According to those numbers, graduate tuition instructional fees are $1,000 less per year than the amount of instructional fees undergraduate students pay. Fifty-five percent of graduate students have graduate assistantships, which includes a complete waiver of instructional fees and a partial waiver of the general fee, which brings down the cost of the general fee by about $268 per year (non-GAs do not receive either benefit).

The instructional fee waivers cost the university about $29.3 million a year, and the grad student stipends cost about $21.1 million a year. Meanwhile, according to OU’s 2015 budget book, the university has budgeted $16.6 million this year for student-worker wages, $47.9 million for classified staff wages, $112.1 million for administrative salaries, and $144.2 million for faculty salaries.

In general, McDavis said his administration has made it a priority to not raise graduate student tuition for the last 7-8 years for graduate students. He also said the general fee is not and will “never be” a “user fee.” A statement below from his presentation explains further:

“.. the general fee is 'all-in.' It supports services that we consider integral to Ohio University's student experience – services that we believe should be available to all and supported by all.”

Graduate students questioned during the meeting why so much of the funds generated by the general fee – about $9.2 million out of $27.4 million the fee brought in last year – goes toward the Intercollegiate Athletics Department, especially when, multiple graduate students said, they do not attend sporting functions and do not feel any benefit from their money going toward such.

“I totally understand that there is a component that says non-academic stuff is useful.. . Arts, theater, culture, they all bring a lot to the human being...,” Shehzad Ahmed, GSS's graduate employment public awareness campaign director, said. “But I do not think having people bash their heads against each other, become concussed, and watching the NCAA treat their athletes like sh*t is... an okay thing to do... It's not okay to allocate so much university money towards that spectacle at all.”

Deborah Shaffer, senior associate vice president for finance, responded to some students' concerns about the amount of money going to fund ICA vs. other programs, saying that roughly $8 million from unrestricted funds (institutional funds including some general fee dollars) went to fine arts funding this year. Other students raised concerns about why a breakdown of where the money from the general fee is spent is not made available to students.

At one point, the conversation got heated between McDavis and Smith after Smith asked McDavis why he did not approve the recommendation to decrease the general fee for grad students (the recommendation was ranked fifth out of 19 recommendations sent to McDavis from the general fee advisory committee last spring – OU approved the first four). McDavis charged that he did not receive a recommendation from the general fee advisory committee, which Smith was on, until a very late date last spring semester.

McDavis also noted that he must be advocate for the entirety of the university system – not just graduate students.

Smith asked McDavis multiple times throughout the meeting about why the general fee was not decreased this year for graduate students. McDavis said he would consider the recommendation if it came to him through the budget planning council this academic year, but said he could not give a final answer on the matter until he sees the recommendation. Provost Benoit added that the conversation about budgeting at the university when it comes to recommendations from the budget planning council is a “conversation about trade-offs.”

Graduate student Paige Walters noted that while a lot of the services offered through the general fee are “exceptional,” she took issue with the idea that the college experience is being "defined for students" by the university through dollars students are forced to spend on the general fee. McDavis responded that that was a “good point.”

McDavis summed up his remarks near the end of the meeting with a warning: “While we may disagree on the issue of the general fee I think that you would be mistaken not to take advantage of the shared governance process we have at this university by not serving on committees...” he said. “If you take yourself out of that mix we will have graduate students on the committees. Let me be real clear about that. We want graduate student voices represented. And we will find a way to represent graduate students on the various committees we have at Ohio University.”

Below is a breakdown of how $27.4 million generated from student’s general fees is being spent this year:

$187,765 for the Marching 110, $9.266 million for Intercollegiate Athletics, $530,000 allocated to the Graduate College (most of which is used “buydown” the cost of the general fee), $2.8 million to the university’s “central pool,” $4.95 million to campus recreation, and $9.6 million to the department of Student Affairs.

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