Starting in the fall of 2017, the graduate school is changing the way graduate assistant (GA) wages are determined. The primary change is that the university is abandoning the policy that all GAs with the same title and appointment percentage are paid the same wage, and adopting a model where each department can supplement with its own funds to pay GAs however much they want above the minimum rate set by the graduate school. This change is independent of the 3.5% raise the graduate school announced in February for those with the TA Standard and PA job titles. The official document explaining this policy can be found here, but after hosting an informational event to communicate this policy to graduate students, the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) learned that graduate students still had many questions after about the policy. Below are the questions we collected at that event with our best attempts to answer them in the absence of a response to our inquiries from the graduate school.

  1. What previous problems with GA pay does this policy intend to fix?
    The main problem with GA pay, by the graduate school’s own admission, is that GAs are not paid enough. From the TAA’s perspective, GAs should be paid a living wage for the vital work we do in the lab and the classroom. From the graduate school’s perspective, low pay rates hinder the graduate school’s ability to attract prospective graduate students: prospective students compare an offer from UW-Madison to an offer from another university with similar research opportunities and higher pay, and choose the other school. Either way, allowing unequal pay between departments and putting the burden of coming up with extra funds on individual departments is at best an indirect and imperfect substitute for the graduate school raising everyone’s pay.The current pay plan also violates federal immigration law. International students are limited by law to 50% appointments, but it is currently commonplace for international students at UW-Madison to hold RA appointments greater than 50%. Because there is only one pay rate and because it is so low, research groups with independent funding can increase their RAs’ appointment percentages to increase pay. The new plan would allow these groups to increase their members’ pay rates while keeping appointments fixed at 50%.
  2. Does this policy change all graduate employment to a salary model rather than a model where pay is tied to hours worked?
    The change does not explicitly put GAs on a salary model, however the amount a GA is payed no longer solely depends on hours worked. The school will maintain minimum pay rates for all appointment types, but individual departments will be able to raise these rates if they have external funding. Even within departments pay rates will not be standardized, as the graduate school will review and approve exceptions to these rules. Decoupling pay from hours worked weakens a crucial protection against GA overwork by supervisors.
  3. How does this plan help the university as a whole? How does it help specific departments?
    While this plan will allow the university to comply with federal law limiting international students to 50% appointments, the legal issue only affects RAs. There will be no legal benefit to TAs or PAs, but the policy will apply to all GAs. The possibility of unequal wages will only benefit departments with large grants or other external sources of funding. This will allow for large pay discrepancies between GAs working in different departments, even if they nominally have the same appointment. This funding imbalance is presumably one of the “market factors” the university wishes to take into account with regards to graduate assistant pay.
  4. Why are there different maximum appointment percentages for RAs (50%), TAs (75%), and PAs (75%)?
    The graduate school has not answered this. A likely answer is that while TA and PA hours tend to be more predictable, workload for RAs varies greatly both over time and between projects. In some cases, appointment percentages have been increased with little change in workload to provide RAs with more comfortable pay. Since TAs and PAs can still hold appointments over 50%, it is unclear why the policy of letting departments choose their own base pay rates should apply to them.
  5. How much can international students work during breaks? How much can they be expected to work during breaks, in lieu of going on vacation or visiting their families for example?
    The 50% maximum international student employment restriction does not apply over breaks according to federal law, so in theory any graduate assistant could see their appointment boosted above its normal percentage over breaks. This could be a way for departments to raise pay for an individual employee capped at a 50% appointment without establishing a different base pay rate for each employee. Such a change would need to be proposed by the employee’s department and then approved by the graduate school. With appointment percentages no longer explicitly tied to hours worked, it is unclear how much a student with a temporarily increased appointment could be expected to work
  6. What “market factors” are being accommodated? Is the market in question the market for graduate employment across departments? Across universities? Between the university and industry?According to an L&S memorandum to which the TAA gained access, the market factors seem to be the TA rates offered in each department across universities based on data collected from 20 major public universities in 2015-2016. In general, these market forces give preference to the natural sciences as well as to male-dominated fields, as documented in a 2017 sociological study.L&S proposes a 6% increase to the Standard TA rate for any department that was found to offer 10% below the average rate across the 20 public universities.

    L&S proposes 6% increase to the Standard TA rate for any department of natural sciences that was not included in the data collection.

    The 6% increase introduces a 2.5% disparity in relation to the 2017-2018 Standard TA rate in all other departments.

  7. Graduate School administrators have often said that graduate assistants should be “students first and employees second.” How is that compatible with determining pay based on market factors?
    It is not. Dean Karpus used the argument that GAs should be students first and employees second in support of his proposal for all appointments to be capped at 50% (this is no longer part of the pay plan). By this logic, GAs (or at least TAs and PAs, whose work is separate from our studies) should be protected against overwork and should be paid a living wage that would allow us to focus on our studies. Instead of ensuring a living wage for everyone, this plan allows pay increases for GAs who are employed by departments with external funding, while GAs who are employed by departments without external funds will see few if any pay increases above the already-too-low minimum. This plan also makes it harder for the TAA to fight for a higher minimum wage because now the graduate school can shrug off responsibility for GA pay to the departments, and wealthy departments can no longer put pressure on the graduate school to raise everyone’s pay.
  8. How will this pay policy affect future graduate labor policies?
    This question of whether GAs are primarily students or employees is relevant to the university’s plan to replace the 2009 labor contract governing the university’s relationship with GAs in the coming months. The committee in charge of replacing the contract with a set of policies will include graduate student representation, but the administration was adamant that our representatives had to come from ASM, the student shared governance body composed primarily of undergraduates. If the graduate school wishes for us to be students first, then it must ensure that we are paid a living wage and can focus on our studies. For example, room and board are considered to be part of educational costs for undergrads, but must be covered by our wages. Since we are also employees, the graduate school should recognize that ASM does not represent the interests of GAs. The TAA is the only body on campus that fights for the workplace rights of graduate assistants, and we must be given a voice in graduate assistant workplace policy.
  9. What amount of pay inequality will the university allow? What mechanisms are there to temper a potentially widening gap in pay between STEM and non-STEM departments? What pay gap will the university allow between its lowest and highest paid graduates?
    When the new pay plan is implemented, there will be a 2.5% pay disparity benefiting most STEM departments across campus. There has been no limit mentioned regarding pay increases through external funding. Several departments have already put forth plans indicating raises above the base rate made possible by increasing private-sector funding. The highest pay rate as of May 2017 is the PA position in the pharmacy department, paying $47,500 for a 50% appointment.
  10. This plan will disproportionately increase pay in industry-supported STEM departments, which are often male-dominated. Will this increase the university’s gender pay gap? If so, how does the University plan to address this?
    By combining data about the TA rate gap between departments from a 2017 memorandum and about gender segregation by department from a 2017 sociological study, we find overwhelming evidence that the proposed pay restructuring will increase the university’s gender pay gap. We have consolidated the data into these charts, which show that with few exceptions departments with under 50% female representation will see a 6% raise and departments with over 50% female representation will see a 3.5% raise. These disparities will be further exacerbated by additional raises made possible through external funding in many STEM disciplines. UW-Madison has been unique in that it has offered a standard TA rate across all departments. This consistency across departments has tempered the gender pay gap. It is unlikely that the university will address the increasing gender pay gap since the goal outlined in the 2016 memorandum is to offer more competitive TA Rates in relation to other major public universities. In sum, by offering two-tiered raises and allowing departments to further increase TA rates with external funding, UW-Madison is aspiring to match the TA rate gap between departments at other major public universities. This TA rate gap displays significant pay disparity between departments, which corresponds to significant gender segregation by field. 
  11. Will graduate assistants lose their jobs because of this change?
    That’s up to each department. Graduate assistants may not immediately lose their jobs, but this plan empowers departments to choose to reduce the number of jobs available or increase class sizes in order to increase GA pay. As of April 2017, the math department plans to do both of these things.
  12. The 1/24/17 memo says that “the Graduate School will examine this process [the GA pay policy] annually.” When will this examination take place? Will it be a complete reworking of the policy every year, or will only certain parameters be changed based on certain criteria? Who will review and amend the policy, and how will graduate employees be included in that review?
    The graduate school has informed the TAA that the sole purpose of the annual review will be to make sure no department plans to pay their graduate employees less than the minimum rate. Dean Karpus has also said that he “would question” pay rates that are very far above the average, but the policy includes no limit or criteria for determining what is too high. The TAA asked for graduate representatives to be included in this review, but we were denied. The review will be entirely internal to the graduate school administration.
  13. Graduate employees were not given a real voice in developing this plan—the Graduate School’s lack of commitment to shared governance is troubling. How will the University ensure that graduate employees will be given a voice in decisions affecting their employment moving forward?
    The first draft of this plan was developed without any graduate assistant input at all. After TAA members protested GAs’ exclusion from the construction of our own labor policies, the graduate school convened a panel with representatives from the College of Letters and Sciences, human resources, the graduate school, and one graduate assistant. This committee had six one-hour meetings, in which there were no agendas, no notes taken, no voting, and no consensus gathering. The committee did not reach any conclusion or come up with a modified plan. After the committee meetings were over, the graduate school released a plan that was almost identical to its original, claiming that a committee with graduate student representation had endorsed their plan. Graduate students did not endorse the new pay structure. While the university replaces our labor contract with a set of “graduate assistant policies and procedures,” we need to show the administration that their disregard for the interests of their employees will not stand.
  14. Who can I contact with questions or to get involved?
    Please contact aaronbp0@gmail.com and/or attend a TAA general membership meeting. Meeting times are announced at https://www.facebook.com/taa.madison/
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