Conference maps out grim futurefor grad and professional students

by Bei Hu

J. Herman Blake, vice chancellor for Undergraduate Education at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, could not speak enough of the benefits of education, which helped him escape “an environment of poverty, deprivation and no opportunity” in the 1960s.
But many in Blake’s audience in Coffman Union on Friday night presented a darker outlook for graduate and professional students in the 1990s.
Blake, who was a GI in Korea and received a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, delivered the keynote speech at the 1997 Midwest regional conference of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, which took place around campus over the weekend.
More than 70 graduate and professional students from such states as Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois attended the three-day conference, which was co-sponsored by the University’s Council of Graduate Students and Graduate and Professional Student Assembly.
The conference featured panel discussions on a variety of topics, including diversity, teaching and lobbying. But employment both in graduate school and after graduation emerged as a primary concern.
During discussions, the students often spoke of stark employment prospects, heavy workloads and a sometimes deteriorating quality of education. To them, graduate and professional education is as much a matter of bread and butter as the mental challenges they take on.
Brodie Dollinger, the national association’s employment concerns coordinator, moderated a discussion on graduate student employment Saturday. A focus of the session was the shrinking job market for graduate students who want to teach in colleges.
“Academe relies on part-time labor more than any other profession in the U.S. except for choreographers,” said Dollinger at the beginning of the discussion. His audience greeted the statement with an outburst of nervous laughter.
To illustrate the extent of what he called “the graduate employment crisis”, Dollinger cited an article in The New York Times that stated that only one of every three faculty positions that become vacant because of retirement of tenured professors is being replaced by a tenure-track faculty member. Another one will be eliminated by such measures as increasing class size. The third is filled by an adjunct or part-time faculty member.
Dollinger went on to say that some estimate that graduate teaching assistants, adjunct and part-time faculty members together are taking over an average of 50 percent of undergraduate instruction nationwide. Graduate assistants teach about 40 percent of undergraduate classes at the University.
At some universities, teaching responsibilities place a heavy pressure on graduate students. David Martins, from Michigan Tech University, said students in the master’s program in his department are often asked to teach two undergraduate classes in addition to three courses that they are required to take.
Although statistics on faculty compensation vary, non-tenured teaching personnel are usually paid less than their tenured counterparts. At the University, graduate teaching and research assistants are paid anywhere between $9,000 to $16,000 a year, said Mark Brenner, vice president for Research and dean of the Graduate School.
Meanwhile, a recent study showed a 74 percent growth in graduate and professional student borrowing from 1993 to 1995. By 1995, more than 1 million such students owed a total of $7.7 million. Many are pressured to begin repaying federal loans six months after graduation.
“The problem that I think we are all confronted with right now is that I’ve spent my life trying to learn, to open my mind,” said Dollinger, a Ph.D. candidate at DePaul University in Chicago. “And I’m concerned where that’s going to lead me the rest of my life.
“It is a huge problem and it’s getting worse,” he added.
Graduate students on various campuses have responded to such financial and physical pressures with union drives.
A 1995 Chronicle of Higher Education story estimated about 22,000 teaching assistants in nine states were already represented by unions. Brenner said this was one of the few areas in which collective bargaining activities were on the rise.
However, union movements on campus often split graduate assistnats as well. Ben Halperin of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said unionized graduate assistants on his campus often suspect their non-unionized co-workers of spying for the administration.
The national association does not have an official position on unionization. But “we need professors to teach students. And those professors should be adequately compensated,” Dollinger said.