Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a three-part series about the legislative student organizations at UT and their transition to new leadership over the next few weeks.
Michael Redding describes being the new president of Graduate Student Assembly as kind of like going on a first date. When he started, Redding said, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.
Redding and his vice president Joel Simmons take the reins from two-term president Manuel Gonzalez during a time of great change for the organization. Gonzalez said next year GSA will need to focus on building its membership base and find ways to engage graduate students to participate in the organization, a task that has always been a particular challenge.
“Our biggest goal for the year is [making sure] GSA and grad students aren’t the forgotten quarter of campus,” said Redding, an information studies graduate student and Texas Student Media contract employee. “A lot of decisions are focused on undergrads and then it’s ‘oh, there’s graduate students.’”
He said he wants to work on implementing domestic partner benefits for graduate students to increase retention, improve access to graduate student housing, continue the new graduate career services program implemented under Gonzalez and connect the graduate student community.
Next year, GSA is facing a possible $10,000 cut from the Student Services Budget Committee to their operating budget.
Redding said the committee wants the organization to reform its stipends for executive officers, which comprise $31,366 out of their $62,839 budget. Redding said the stipends are small and help officers financially. He is giving up a teaching assistant position to dedicate his time to the GSA and therefore losing health insurance, a monthly salary and a tuition rebate.
Out of the three legislative student organizations, GSA has the smallest member base and receives the least amount of money from student fees. Each of the organizations is its own body and represents student voice in various areas, such as student life and academic affairs. SG and Senate are mostly made up of undergraduates, while graduate student representatives make up the GSA. Each branch is independent of the other, although collaboration between the three has increased over the years.
Gonzalez said GSA mainly focused on internal reform to address the challenges within the organization. The assembly during his second term produced fewer than 20 pieces of legislation, including conflict of interest and officer stipend regulation. In addition to internal reform, Gonzalez said his administration worked to make the graduate orientation more open, become a more prominent member of the Student Advocates for Graduate Education and create a graduate student career services.
Despite all three organizations being sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, Gonzalez said GSA is still not up to par with Senate and SG because there are still some standing committees where graduate student opinion isn’t guaranteed.
Anthony Bendinelli, a fifth year physics graduate student and assistant instructor, said while he was aware GSA is meant to give graduate students a voice, he didn’t know enough about the organization to get involved. Bendinelli said graduate students face many challenges such as building relationships with professors as well as balancing classes and research. Bendinelli said he does not remember receiving any emails from GSA alerting him to what the organization did and does not have time to get involved in GSA now.
“The GSA is a level of commitment,” Bendinelli said. “In some respects it goes back to trying to do research, do classes and teach. I wish I would have known about the GSA when I was a second or third year as opposed to now when I’m involved with my research.”
John Dalton, associate dean for graduate studies, said the organization puts a lot of effort into issues that impact students financially and which affect academic student employees, such as teaching assistants. Dalton said one the group’s biggest accomplishments has been getting the University to review its tuition assistance benefit program, which gives discount tuition to teaching assistants and assistant instructors. Dalton said it’s likely the University will revise the way it categorizes this benefit to make the benefit tax-free.
“Their biggest challenge has been to get representation on various University-wide committees,” Dalton said. “This has been a long-lasting issue and continues to be a challenge.”
Printed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 as: GSA elects officers, focuses on engaging participation