Graduate assistantships on chopping block
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The headline of the print version of this article incorrectly implied that graduate assistantships will be cut; however, the elimination of some, not all, graduate assistantships is not assured, but is being discussed at this time.
In response to persisting budget problems at The University of Akron, the administration is discussing eliminating a portion of graduate assistantships in the upcoming academic year.
According to William Rich, chairman of the UA Faculty Senate, President Scarborough told him that some graduate assistantship positions are being eliminated. Currently, cuts to specific programs have not been made.
Constance Bouchard, a history professor and vice president of the Akron chapter of the American Association of University Professors, also said that Chand Midha, the executive dean of the Graduate School, mentioned this plan to faculty members.
The University is in “the early stages of carefully and comprehensively reviewing the Graduate School to ensure that funds are used effectively and in an economically sustainable way to further our academic mission,” Midha said in an emailed statement.
Midha also said the review includes examining graduate degree tuition remission and stipend-funding for master’s, doctoral, and Ph.D. candidates. While some graduate assistants will remain at the University, the funding model for such positions “may be modified to be more aligned with national norms.”
Rich also said that Scarborough said the administration is looking toward eliminating graduate assistantships that involve administrative or clerical work. These include graduate assistants that work in departments like Residence Life and Housing, Parking Services, the Athletics Department, and the Department of Student Life.
Rich said these programs are being targeted because the administration is questioning their “educational value.” Contrasting this notion, graduate assistants that teach and conduct research have “academic value” and are fundamental to education.
The administration is also focusing on graduate assistantships within master’s degree programs “where the degree has enough economic value,” according to Rich. Because these degrees have a higher demand post-graduation, “the students should be willing to pay for their own tuition.” Rich gave the example of a master’s in business administration and a master’s in the College of Health Professions. However, degrees in this category have not yet been decided.
While funding for graduate assistantships in master’s programs is anticipated to be cut back, support for these positions in doctoral programs will continue.
The decision to eliminate graduate assistantships is attributed to financial issues. Rich said awarding graduate assistantships involves paying the graduate students and waiving their tuition fees, which are “revenues that [the University has] lost.”
John Goodell, chairman of the curriculum committee of the Graduate Council, said the graduate assistantships and the Graduate School “contribute mightily to the overall reputational capital of UA.” Further, the University’s reputation is “vital to its long-run financial success and mission success.”
The administration aims to make these changes by the Fall 2016 semester, although a specific timeline is not currently available. Rich said there is a need for a decision to be made as soon as possible so that departments know which graduate assistantships will be available. Eliminating graduate assistantships has been under discussion since last winter.
Depending on which positions are eliminated, Rich notes the potential concerns included are a decline in the quality of education, deterioration of programs due to lack of enrollment, and the potential damages to the undergraduate programs if teaching positions are removed. Rich said if certain administrative or clerical graduate assistant positions are eliminated, the concern becomes finding someone to do the work in their absence.
Rich also said there will be an imminent decrease in graduate enrollment; however, the administration must act in a way that lessens the severity of the decline.
Bouchard discussed another repercussion: “In most disciplines, the best graduate students are awarded assistantships. If UA stopped doing so for M.A. candidates, then all of our best applicants would go to other universities.”
In terms of making the decision, Rich said the administration must determine if the “solutions are cheaper than the current arrangement,” and believes the plan pertains only to offerings of new graduate assistantships to incoming students, rather than the deterioration of existing positions.
The final decision will be made by UA Provost William Sherman, President Scarborough, and the Board of Trustees. The Graduate Council, a representative group of graduate faculty members, will also be consulted.
The Graduate Student Government (GSG) acknowledges that the administration must make tough decisions about budget problems, but opposes the elimination of these positions. Many graduate students have expressed complaints about the opacity of the administration regarding these decisions.
GSG President Monique Mullet — who has completed both administrative and academic graduate assistant positions — expressed concerns with a decline in enrollment in the Graduate School as a result of such cuts, because students will no longer be able to fund themselves without graduate assistantships.
“I think graduate assistantships are the most important way to get experience as a graduate student,” Mullet said. “It helps students decide what they want to do in the future — whether it’s teaching, conducting research, or serving in an administrative role. It also helps students connect to the people who will help you succeed and move further. I think both administrative and teaching positions are both very valuable.”
“The graduate assistantships give students like me an opportunity to go to college. If they cut them, I won’t be able to finish my degree,” graduate student Sara Syed, an assistant for Design and Development Services, said. “It gives students a chance. [Administrators] should not be cutting programs that are beneficial and vital to our education.”