Graduate Student Assembly

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

After months campaigning for increased graduate student housing, members of the Graduate Student Assembly said they are hopeful administrators will approve housing plans in the near future.

GSA’s Graduate Student housing committee began administering a housing survey to graduate students in February at the request of the UT administration, and more than 2,300 students responded. GSA president Brian Wilkey said the University administration has responded positively to the results of the survey.

“Our data was presented to the Graduate School and President [William Powers Jr.] has come to address at the GSA saying that the likelihood of the housing being approved is high,” said Wilkey, human development and family sciences graduate student, in an email. “This means we’re simply in a holding pattern until approval is given.”

Joy Wyckoff, psychology graduate student and committee chair, said most graduate students who responded to the survey said they felt affordable housing should be provided by the University.

“The majority [of] graduate students felt that it was important for UT to provide graduate student housing,” Wyckoff said in an email. “One reason is because many people found it difficult to find off-[campus] housing when they first came to UT.” 

Once the Graduate School drafts a plan that is approved by the University, Wilkey said they will send the plan to the UT System Board of Regents for approval.

GSA Vice President Vance Roper said he believes implementing new housing off campus seems fairly feasible, although finances are always an issue. 

“The challenges are less [about] getting approved … because the University is behind this,” said Roper, public affairs graduate student. “The biggest challenge is detailing what kind of housing do you get. That’s a big bulk of the problem … the nuts and bolts.”

The survey also asked students about their housing preferences, including room size, price and location. The committee and Graduate School have looked at placing the housing in nearby neighborhoods, Roper said. 

Wyckoff said affordability is one of the main issues graduate students face when looking for housing.  

“This is an important issue for graduate students, especially as rent prices are increasing in Austin,” Wyckoff said in an email. “Students also are moving from far away (only 11% of survey respondents were already living in Texas), so having graduate student housing option would make the transition to Austin smoother.”

Although the University does not have graduate-student-only housing, it currently operates three off-campus University apartment complexes, each approximately six miles south of campus. According to the Division of Housing and Food Services, the apartments are traditionally reserved for graduate students, student families and undergraduates.

Earlier this month, the GSA renewed the committee for another year so that they can continue to address the issue, Wilkey said.

Rep. John Zerwas, chair of the House committee on higher education, speaks to members of Invest in Texas at the Capitol on Thursday.
Photo Credit: Andy Nguyen | Daily Texan Staff

Student leaders headed to the Capitol on Thursday as part of the annual Invest in Texas campaign, speaking with legislators and their staff about campus carry regulations, in-state tuition for undocumented students and a host of other higher education-related issues.

As part of this year’s Invest in Texas campaign, a nonpartisan lobbying effort between the Graduate Student Assembly, Senate of College Councils and Student Government, leaders from the organizations presented six platform points on behalf of the student body.

“We ran a well-oiled machine,” said John Brown, government junior and Invest in Texas co-director. “Our messages — they were very well-received. We got a lot of good feedback on our platform.”

One of the group’s platform points supported a capital investment for the renovation of Welch Hall. Welch houses the UT chemistry and biochemistry departments, and the building is 85 years old. The University needs around $125 million to renovate the building and improve laboratory safety, according to administrators from the College of Natural Sciences.

Geetika Jerath, international relations and global studies senior and Senate of College Councils president, said she believes Welch, which approximately 10,000 students use each day, is unsafe for laboratory use.  

“Students and faculty members fear for their safety,” Jerath said. “This is not a mindset that Longhorns … should have. We should be focused on conducting groundbreaking research in state-of-the-art facilities.”

The platform also called for legislators to continue support of the Texas DREAM Act, which grants in-state tuition for undocumented students with Texas residency. Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), chair of the House committee on higher education, spoke to students before they met with legislators, and he said he thinks the DREAM Act will pass in the House again. 

“The opportunity for [undocumented students] to go on in higher education is critically important to their success and the success of the state,” Zerwas said.

The students who lobbied also spoke in opposition to tuition regulation at the state level, asking that state universities be allowed to determine their own tuition.

“If tuition is re-regulated, the very people who pay the tuition will lose their voice in this critical issue,” Jerath said.

Students also lobbied in favor of a bill that would establish tax-free periods for textbook sales in August and January, and for continued state funding and grant-matching to support research at Tier One institutions, including UT. 

The group lobbied in support of allowing college campuses to set their own policies on campus carry, a bill that, if passed, would allow students to carry concealed handguns into campus buildings. 

Sharla Chamberlain, public affairs graduate student and GSA’s legislative affairs director, said graduate student voices often go unheard.

“There are 12,000 graduate students living, working, researching at the University of Texas today,” Chamberlain said. “Graduate students provide an invaluable service to UT. … We’re all taking time from our busy lives to invest in our education.”

In a recent editorial blog post, Associate Editor Xing Liu asserted that the Graduate Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities had “lost its original purpose.” The Graduate Student Assembly Executive Committee believes this statement to be categorically false. This would only be possible if the original purpose of the BORR was to increase graduate student stipends.  As the BORR committee set out to make life better for graduate and professional students as a whole, money was not the defining issue.  Therefore, we believe the editorial has missed the true intention of a BORR. More importantly, this editorial mischaracterizes the journey this legislation has taken and the very hopeful future we see for it. 

 

The new BORR is visibly different from earlier versions. However, as with any collaborative piece of legislation, the current product involved the work and input of University Administrators, GSA executives and GSA voting and non-voting members alike. We now assert that not only are these rights that should be guaranteed to graduate and professional students, but that graduate and professional students have the responsibility to be stewards of these rights and upstanding members of the University Community. 

 

The scope of the new BORR is now able to apply to all graduate and professional students, not just those earning a stipend from UT. For example, in some degree programs (e.g., MBAs, MS in Nursing, JDs), graduate students do not receive any sort of assistantship but still must pay tuition. How, then, can we fight for the right of our University guaranteeing the standard of a living wage to graduate and professional students who currently receive no wage?

 

We acknowledge that the word’s “housing,” “living-wage,” or “health insurance” do not appear in the current draft, and we acknowledge they were removed after conversations with administrators. We argue, however, that the phrase “basic standard of living” encompasses those ideals and more as our society, university culture and needs progresses. We also argue that to reduce the purpose of the BORR to money and confrontations with University administration is a irresponsibly narrow-minded and mischaracterized view of the UT-Austin graduate experience. 

 

We happily acknowledge that the language has changed throughout the process of the development and passage of the BORR. The GSA is a deliberative body that represents 13,000 diverse graduate students. We take pride in listening to the multitudes of opinions provided by graduate students, administrators, faculty and staff. We strive to incorporate those into our actions. Collaboration is not capitulation, but rather a way in which governance should work.

 

The BORR passed March 3 is not the final version. The GSA has just begun down this long road of codification. Changes will be made, approved, negotiated and approved again so that graduate and professional students can count on this BORR to encourage, inform and safeguard them. We encourage all graduate students to watch these changes going forward in hopes that they see the scope and gravity of the rights we hope to establish for a community of the 12,000+ brilliant minds calling UT Austin home.  


Finally, with regard to representing the graduate student body, we feel the process of the BORR and the passage speaks to the commitment the GSA has to representing all graduate students at the university. With increased participation throughout the year, a well-attended and -reviewed Graduate and Professional Development Week, over $7,800 distributed to graduate student organizations, travel grants, multiple social events and an increased presence on University committees, we believe we have worked hard as an assembly to make the graduate and professional student voice loud, resolute and united on this campus.     

— Brian Wilkey, president of the Graduate Student Assembly and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, and the GSA Executive Committee, a group of directors that represent the divisions of the Graduate Student Assembly, in response to Liu’s Thursday blog post titled “Graduate Student Bill of Rights has lost its original purpose.”

Graduate Student Bill of Rights has lost its original purpose

The Graduate Student Assembly passed the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities on March 3. 

The bill, which was introduced more than a year ago, outlines students’ right to voice their grievances and be treated respectfully and professionally by the university administration. 

However, the bill lost its original purpose in the process of negotiating with university administrators. Several rights in the May 2014 draft such as the “right to compensation that meets the standard of a living wage," “right to affordable and comprehensive health insurance and housing” and “right to advising guidelines and accurate information in selecting advisors and committee members,” do not appear in the passed version of the Bill of Rights. 

Former GSA President Columbia Mishra, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering, started the Bill of Rights believing that graduate student stipends are below the poverty line for Travis Country and, if adequate, can reduce stress associated with graduate school.  

During an interview with Inside Higher Ed in early 2014, Mishra stated, “The idea for the whole baseline conversation is to help students have an appropriate cost of living standard.”  

According to Pathik Joshi, an urban design graduate student and architecture teaching assistant, he received approximately $700 a month after taxes last year.  

“$700 a month is not enough to pay the rent and live comfortably,” Joshi told the Texan. 

Apart from trying to improve compensation that meets the real living-wage standards of a graduate student, the GSA also wanted to address issues such as the wide variation in college stipends and extra working hours assigned to teaching assistants. This is a serious concern, especially for TAs in the College of Liberal Arts, where a TA Task Force recently released its recommendations on how to improve working conditions for TAs in that college.  

Those are the real issues that need to be addressed by the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, they have been deleted from the current version or worded very carefully so as to avoid disputes with administrators.  

Since Gage Paine, the vice president for student affairs, challenged the feasibility of a University commitment to providing new graduate student housing during the GSA's February meeting, the organization added an amendment to the Bill of Rights changing the phrase “university commitment to affordable housing accessible via public transit, and in reasonable proximity to campus” to “university commitment to a basic standard of living." 

“We found that in conversation with people that if we included the living wage in the original propositions, that will be the end of the bill, and it will never get passed,” Beth Cozzolino, GSA student affairs director, said. “So I am actually really happy with the current wording of a University commitment to a basic standard of living." 

Since Texas does not permit unions at public universities, graduate students have to rely solely on the GSA than other states to voice their concern and demand their rights. Instead of caving into “suggestions” that was given by the administrator, GSA should better represent the student body and ask what we truly deserve. 

Liu is an associate editor.

Beth Cozzolino, Graduate Student Assembly student affairs director and sociology graduate student, speaks at a GSA meeting in the Graduate School of Business building Tuesday evening.
Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

The Graduate Student Assembly on Tuesday approved the Graduate Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, the first official legislation outlining graduate student rights in the organization’s history. 

The bill includes the right to a basic standard of living, nondiscrimination and inclusion in the University grievance process. This year’s Graduate Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities Committee will begin meeting with faculty bodies to discuss the language of the document as well as the rights they approved.  

“Even just getting this passed all the way up and all the way through is going to take a really long time,” said Beth Cozzolino, GSA student affairs director and sociology graduate student. “But the hope is by having this document in policy, we will have laid the ground work and the method for how you make other kinds of changes, and the other battles will come later.”  

GSA began working on the bill in January 2014. Members of the committee said they do not expect the University to fully recognize the rights immediately.

“We’ll have to meet with administrators at all levels and discuss the options to move forward with the document as a whole or in pieces,” said Jake Jordan, committee member and geological sciences graduate student. “I kind of think it’s going to be an iterative process.”

Cozzolino said there were many points that the committee and other graduate students wanted to include in the bill, such as parental leave, higher pay for graduate students and better health care. The committee did not include these items because of administrative pushback, Cozzolino said.

“The ones we’ve landed on are the ones that we think are more feasible,” Cozzolino said. “All the ones we got more pushback [on] we have not included on this document.”  

A lack of funding is at the root of the pushback, Jordan said. Additionally, graduate student housing is one of the largest problems the committee hopes to address with the bill, said David Ottesen, committee member and aerospace engineering graduate student.

“There’s problems with the current grad housing — a lot — and we’re aware of the issues,” Ottesen said. “It’s mostly a quantity issue, but it’s also disproportionately toward international students and families. And that’s not a bad thing, but there are other grad students [out there].”

Jordan said even students who have not encountered problems at the University could see the benefit in having a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

“I still sort of see the need for there being [an] underpinning document that really outlines … guidelines for what we should be providing to the University in conjunction with what they’re supposed to be giving back to us,” Jordan said. “This really is a symbiotic relationship.”  

GSA President Brian Wilkey said this legislation is one of the most important ones that has been passed in GSA all year, although getting faculty to aid graduate students in these rights could
be difficult.  

“This is going to be a long process,” Wilkey said. “They’re going to have many suggestions, and we’re going to have to hash it out. But this long journey has to start somewhere. It’s time to break the champagne over the ship, and let's get started.”

UT should pay close attention to responses to graduate housing survey

University Apartments houses many of the University’s graduate students and their families.
University Apartments houses many of the University’s graduate students and their families.

On Feb. 11 the Graduate Student Assembly sent out a housing survey to better serve graduate students and enhance their living experience. Questions include how many rooms in an apartment graduate students prefer, what do they think is a reasonable monthly rent per person and how far from campus they would be willing to live. Responses could lead to the construction of new graduate student housing.  

The survey was developed over the course of four weeks in conjunction with the GSA Housing Committee as well as John Dalton, the assistant dean of graduate studies.  

“It’s great GSA is getting so involved with this," Dalton said. "It is absolutely crucial to understand what graduate students like to have. It’s not just a place to go home to sleep but a place to actually live." 

So far GSA has received over 2,000 responses out of 11,000 graduate students in total. Brian Wilkey, president of GSA, told the Texan that they used different channels to distribute the survey. 

“So far we have used the graduate school’s Listserv, also sent things out through our graduate student assembly members and to our representatives to make sure they get the word out to their department,” Wilkey said. 

After collecting all the responses, the housing committee will analyze the data and present findings to the graduate school administrators. From there, Sasaki Associates, a University-contracted planning and design firm, will assess the feasibility of building graduate housing. Factors such as apartment capacity and the types of housing the school is able to build will be taken into consideration. 

“It would be great for different graduate students from different disciplines to have an opportunity to interact,” Dalton said.  

If a new housing project is given the green light by the University, UT could leverage housing benefits as a recruiting strategy against its peer institutions. While the possibility of offering every graduate student housing is slim, the Graduate School says it is open to new ideas to enhance the academic feel the students' living environment. 

“Someone had an idea of having a faculty in residence that could serve as a mentor to some graduate students," Dalton said. "I love that idea. I think that’s really unique for the graduate student population." 

Unfortunately, most current UT graduate students will not be able to enjoy new dedicated housing any time soon as the project is still very much in the preliminary stages. But the effort should not be stopped just because the numbers doesn’t work. For some graduate students, taking care of families and working at the same time as going to graduate school is nothing unusual, so the least UT can do is to try to support this group better by lessening their financial burden so they can succeed both academically as well as personally.  

The survey closes Tuesday at noon and can be filled out at https://acsurvey.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_9GE6kmCvTLEtY5D. 

Liu is an associate editor.

Photo Credit: Connor Murphy | Daily Texan Staff

Have you ever wondered who conveys your interests as a student at the University of Texas to the state Legislature? Invest in Texas is a student-led, nonpartisan advocacy effort dedicated to advocating for the University and students across the state.

Invest in Texas, which is a joint effort led by the Senate of College Councils, Student Government and the Graduate Student Assembly, and supported by various organizations around campus, has fought in the past to make the University affordable, competitive and safe. It is critical to have our voices heard at the Capitol, so this year, the co-directors and operational committee of Invest in Texas are working hard to represent the voice of students on important higher education matters. 

The campaign is currently under the direction of Taylor Guerrero from the Senate of College Councils, John Brown from Student Government and Ryan Muetzel from the Graduate Student Assembly. The co-directors receive assistance from the operational committee that is split up into three teams/sub-committees: communications, outreach and policy oversight. This is where students of the University are heavily encouraged to participate. Students are needed to form each subcommittee to ensure Invest in Texas has a successful semester. 

In addition to a consistent advocacy effort, Invest in Texas sponsors the Legislative Day March to the Capitol each year. In the past, hundreds of students have participated in the march and sat in on hearings and committee meetings. On this day, Invest in Texas holds a press conference in which student leaders and key legislators speak about key issues that affect our University. In previous years we have been successful in keeping students represented on the Board of Regents and have been successful in allowing UT to determine its own “guns-on-campus” policy. 

This year, the platform for the advocacy campaign has not yet been finalized, but the operational committee is open to suggestions and opinions of the student body. While the platform has yet to be set in stone, the main objective of the campaign is to keep the University affordable and safe in addition to ensuring the student body is well represented on governing boards. The operational committee hopes that participation in subcommittees and in the March to the Capitol will grow tremendously. 

The operational committee hopes that participation in subcommittees and in the March to the Capitol will grow tremendously. For more information, please like the Invest in Texas Facebook page or send an email to investintexascampaign@gmail.com. In addition, feel free to stop by the Senate/SG or the GSA offices in SAC 2.102 and SAC 3.102 respectively. We look forward to working with you and representing the student body at the 84th Legislature.

Guerrero is a history and government senior from Van Vleck.

For those who haven’t experienced it, graduate education is … indescribable. I don’t mean in the “it’s a form of rapture and ecstasy that’s indescribable” way. I’m just not sure how to put this experience or its value into words. There are so many moving parts in graduate education that explaining various aspects of the graduate experience is far easier than giving someone a comprehensive description. Vice-President of Student Affairs Gage Paine recently framed this frustration well; she said, “It’s like a fish attempting to describe water. It just…is.” This lack of description for graduate education frustrates me because earlier this year I took on the mantle of the presidency of the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) — an organization that dedicates itself to adding more value the experience of the 13,000 graduate and professional students at UT Austin. How, though, do we determine the value of these experiences?  There is a desire to boil down the value that comes from of the moving parts that compose a graduate education to a dollar amount, but, as both undergraduate and graduate students can attest, the value of our experience is not the money we make after we graduate.    

Since coming into office, the Assembly has undertaken some fantastic projects, some of which are on-going.  Perhaps that which we are most proud of at the moment is the revision of our governing documents.  For years our governing documents were amended in isolation to help address a problem the GSA faced and when I took office, they were in complete disarray – contradicting each other and making the business of improving graduate student lives a bit more challenging than it already is.  Over the course of the summer, seven dedicated members tackled these documents, and, after much discussion with the Assembly and administrators, the documents were approved.  We now have a solid foundation from which the Assembly can build.

Our members and directors work hard to connect to the wide set of needs that graduate students have.  Just recently, the GSA undertook our second annual Graduate Student Professional Development Week (GPDW). Four nights of speakers and panels were dedicated to helping graduate and professional students, no matter their career path, prepare for the next step in Academia, Industry, Non-Profits.  The events were well-attended and rewarding to participants, moderators, and guests with many thanks to our Academic Affairs Director, Deepjyoti Deka, and Programs Director, José La Torre. 

We have sent a delegation to the fall summit of the Student Advocates for Graduate Educate (SAGE). The delegates shared best practices with Graduate Assemblies at peer institutions, and planned its agenda to take to Washington D.C. and discussed the issues facing graduate students nationwide.   

The Assembly has great plans for the rest of its legislative session. We have a surplus budget at the moment and hope to use it to fund as many graduate student organizations and award as many travel grants as we possibly can.  We have several programs to connect graduate students all over campus with social hours and research collaborations.  We will establish two semi-autonomous agencies, the Graduate Student Health Agency (GSHA) and Entrepreneurship and Industry Agency (EIA). The GSHA will help graduate students navigate the very complicated business of health insurance (school provided or not) and get access to good mental health and medical services.  The EIA will help graduate students connect their expertises to local business and startups, and more importantly, help the GSA become self-sustaining.  The EIA hopes to establish sponsorships and begin the process of creating an endowment. 

The GSA is doing wonderful things, attempting to improve whatever the graduate student experience may be.  This year, we’re going to attempt to study and explain the value of graduate education.  We want to add the intangibles to the “dollars and cents” perspective of value and articulate what it really means to be a graduate student.  The Graduate Student Assembly is going to take the lead on what we hope becomes a national discussion and truly define the value of the graduate student experience.  The moment when a TA helps a student to make a breakthrough or the discussion with an advisor that will lead to paradigm shifts in your field – these are the moments that should come to mind when we talk about the value of graduate education, not just the profitably of a department.  We want to change the national discussion about the importance of what we do, while simultaneously thanking the institutions that train and support our work. 

After all, although graduate students, as a whole, don’t always identify with their graduate institution in the same way they identify with their undergraduate institutions, I believe every graduate Longhorn at UT Austin wants to live up to the maxim of starting here and changing the world.  

Wilkey is the president of the Graduate Student Assembly. He is a human development and family sciences graduate student from Vandalia, Ohio.

From left to right: Kori Rady, president of Student Government; Brian Wilkey, president of the Graduate Student Assembly; and Geetika Jerath, president of the Senate of College Councils.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

Election season is often rife with promises from elected candidates on all they plan to achieve during their time in office — if they are elected. Yet, when the time comes to carry through on these promises, a lot is left on the table. So this issue of Forum focuses on the three main elected bodies on campus — Student Government, the Senate of College Councils and the Graduate Student Assembly — highlighting what each of these three groups has done for students on campus thus far. SG President Kori Rady wrote on behalf of SG. Senate President Geetika Jerath wrote on behalf of Senate. And GSA President Brian Wilkey — who assumed the presidency at the beginning of the semester when former president David Villarreal stepped down — wrote on behalf of GSA.  

As a refresher, some of the platform points the Rady-Strickland team campaigned on included extending Thanksgiving break, extending facility hours at places like Belo and the Union, expanding URide — a program that gets university students home from the downtown entertainment district after midnight — lighting the Tower for academics and forgiving first-time parking tickets. Some of the platform points Jareth campaigned on, in an election internal to Senate, included expanding interdisciplinary opportunities, strengthening the involvement of organizations through the Invest in Texas campaign, analyzing budget priorities and publishing online voting records. Some of the points the Villarreal-Wilkey team campaigned on included improving graduate student housing options, increasing participation in the GSA, a push to improve graduate student health services and professionalizing GSA’s procedures.

For more information on campaign platforms visit http://radystrickland.com or click here to see the online version of Jerath’s campaign.

Malik is a business honors, finance, and Plan II junior from Austin, Texas.

Vance Roper was elected vice president of the Graduate Student Association on Tuesday. Roper hopes to improve graduate housing options and increase participation in GSA.

Photo Credit: Mike McGraw | Daily Texan Staff

Brian Wilkey, Graduate Student Assembly president, appointed architecture graduate student Vance Roper as the organization’s vice president Tuesday after having the seat vacant since August.

On Aug. 21, David Villarreal stepped down as GSA president, making Wilkey president and leaving the organization without a vice president. Since becoming president, Wilkey has been searching for his replacement.

Wilkey said he sent out emails and made announcements to the graduate student body, and two people expressed interest in being GSA vice president. Out of the two applicants, Wilkey said Roper was the best candidate.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the assembly unanimously voted to instate Roper as vice president, moving him from his previous position as legislative affairs director. 

“In our conversation, I believe he very much shares the vision of what the GSA should be working on this year and working towards,” Wilkey said. “More importantly, he’s got a long-term mindset about what we will do this year and what will be beneficial down the road.”

According to Roper, his experience as legislative affairs director, in which he helped form resolutions aimed at graduate students, has helped to prepare him for the position.

“When the position opened, I felt I had the qualifications and the desire to step in and make this a really successful year for Graduate Student Assembly and for graduate students on the campus itself,” Roper said.

Roper said some of his platforms include improving graduate student housing options and increasing participation in GSA. Roper said he hopes to use his public policy background to encourage robust debate and participation among members.

“I’m also going to try and have a very engaged assembly throughout the entire session,” Roper said. “We had a lot of turnout, and we expect a bigger turnout as time goes on.”

Ropers’ appointment left the legislative affairs director position open. Wilkey said he made the executive decision to appoint Sharla Chamberlain, former election supervisory board member and director of Invest in Texas — a student initiative focused on voicing student concerns to the Texas Legislature.

“It went through more of an appointment process based on what was allowable in the constitution, in the interest of time,” Chamberlain said. “I was a member of the election supervisory board, so I got a good view into all of the candidates and into how the electoral process works.”

Wilkey said he expects a smooth transition into the adjusted executive board.

“A lot has remained really unchanged, and it’s just a different name on the card,” Wilkey said.