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.

Math professor Zachary Miner chats with graduate student Roberta Guadagni at JP’s Java on Thursday afternoon. Despite its popularity among students, JP’s is set to close down due to a lack of profit.

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

Next week, the owner of JP’s Java, JP Hogan, will close the business he started 13 years ago.

JP’s Java, a coffee shop on San Jacinto Boulevard, is set to close Sept. 24. According to Hogan, he and his co-investors put the shop on the market due to a lack of profit. Hogan said the property has a potential buyer, but he has not been told what the real estate will be used for once the shop is gone. 

The purchase will not be official until Oct. 3, but Hogan said he expects the deal to go through and is shutting down the shop early to prepare. If the deal does not go through, there is a chance JP Java’s could stay open for a while longer.

“I’d much rather stay,” Hogan said. “I’d much rather be here, but forces out of my control, I guess, are keeping me from doing that.”

The shop gets 600 people minimum every day, but Hogan said the shop is not profitable year-round, and they are losing money. This is especially a problem during the summer months, Hogan said, when sales drop by approximately 30 percent, and over winter break, when sales are reduced by about 50 percent.

“This place is real deceptive to people,” Hogan said. “This place is packed all the time, and it looks like it’s just making money hand-over-fists, but it’s not. It can look packed, all the tables can be full, but each person paid four dollars, and they’re sitting there two, three [or] four hours.” 

According to Columbia Mishra, former Graduate Student Assembly president and mechanical engineering graduate student, said the shop’s location and atmosphere made it a central gathering spot for members of the graduate school community. Mishra said she often meets people from different departments there who she would not have met otherwise.

Mishra started a petition for JP’s Java to stay in business. As of Thursday, the petition had 237 supporters.

“I associate JP’s with my UT experience, and I’m pretty sure that if you read the comments, you will see that others feel the same,” Mishra said.

Hogan said he knows a lot of the people who have signed and commented on the petition, and that he feels honored by how much they care about JP’s Java.

“I can’t keep losing money to make everyone happy, but I’m just really appreciative of the kind things that have been said,” Hogan said.

Hogan said he wanted to bring gourmet coffee to Austin when he opened JP’s Java in 2001.

“Around 2000, coffee really had a big change, and my goals were two things,” Hogan said. “One, have the best coffee in town, and two was to build a place that was homey, where people could come and relax. A home away from home.”

Michael Vaclav, one of the shop’s original two baristas and owner of Caffé Medici, said he learned about the culture of coffee at JP’s. He said Hogan was one of the first people in Austin to focus on the quality, types and sources of the coffee being sold — all of which are qualities Vaclav said he tries to apply at his own shop.

“JP was the first person in Austin to really start paying attention to all of that,” Vaclav said. “I was the manager there for a while, too. I learned how to run a coffee shop. He was really open and talked to me a lot about it.”

JP said there is a possibility of the shop opening in a different location, but he does not know where or when this would happen, if at all.

“I may be back, but as I leave, I see a coffee culture that has been totally transformed,” Hogan said. “I’m not saying I transformed it, not in any way am I saying that, but I’m really glad I had a part in [the transformation].”

On Nov. 1, this paper reported on a controversy within the Graduate Student Assembly surrounding the amount of money that the organization spends on social activities — like the nearly $8,500 carnival it’s planning to put on Sunday.

The controversy ultimately boils down to the question of how best to split funds between student organizations and student body-wide social events. As the Texan reported, law student Dave Player — who is also president of the Texas Student Media board, which oversees the Texan — has argued that GSA is overspending on social activities and underspending on student organizations like his own, the Texas Journal of Oil, Gas, and Energy Law. Player told the Texan’s Lizzie Jespersen, “When I looked at [GSA’s] budget and found they were spending thousands of dollars on pizza and a carnival, I was blown away.” 

So were we when we first read the story. But our initial reaction has tempered somewhat since then. While certain aspects of the new budget encourage us, there are still others that give us pause. 

No one can dispute the good motives of the assembly. As GSA President Columbia Mishra told the editorial board last week, “Graduate student life can be a very isolating experience at times due to the nature of research life and the rigor of programs. Because of this, one of our primary missions is to organize community-building programs that help graduate students interact with each other in a casual, fun-filled environment.” Justifying the carnival in particular, Mishra continued, “The carnival is unique from our previous efforts in that, for the first time, it provides an opportunity to graduate students and their families to enjoy fun activities on campus. This is important because traditional social events such as happy hours and evening socials are unavailable to students with family obligations.”

These are both points well taken. The graduate community shouldn’t be expected to fit the same mold as the undergraduate community. But like Player, we worry about the cost of casting a new mold for graduate student social gatherings. The roughly $8,500 set aside for the carnival is part of an increased budget for community-building events. In years past, GSA spent between $12,000 and $13,000 on these social gatherings, but this year that figure has been upped to nearly $20,000 simply by tacking on the cost of the carnival. 

In other words, they kept several of the old expenses when they added the new ones. That addition has brought the social spending budget well above the $12,000 budget for appropriations, and that’s cause for concern. If, as Mishra says, GSA wanted to improve the tone of its social gatherings, it should have cut the events that didn’t meet that new standard. Sure, one could argue that this year’s cuts to director stipends essentially make up for the increase in social spending. But this is not just a matter of balancing a budget; it’s also a matter of making spending decisions consistent with a stated ideology.

We agree in substance, if not in tone, with Player’s financial concerns. GSA is on the right track with the new family-friendly focus, but it’s only gone halfway in its new approach. If GSA wants to sing a different tune, it needs the instrumentation to back it up.

In reaction to the elimination of the Cameron Road and Wickersham Lane UT shuttle bus routes, the Graduate Students Assembly unanimously passed a resolution aimed at reversing these changes and preventing the closure of routes in the future.

The resolution also requested that Capital Metro allows a longer period of UT community feedback and an on-campus public forum for increased student accessibility.

David Villarreal, communications director of the Graduate Students Assembly, said he is worried about the possibility of further route eliminations in the future.

“To me, it seems that Parking and Transportation Services wants to shift the sizable financial burden of transporting students to campus over to the city of Austin,” Villarreal said.

Villarreal said the problem is UT administrators and CapMetro are not being honest or up front about the process with student riders, who are the most vulnerable and financially precarious.

Columbia Mishra, president of the Graduate Students Assembly, said it was impossible to make sure students were aware of the changes to the UT shuttle bus routes because it was done within the first few weeks of school. Mishra said she hopes to see an open forum in the coming weeks involving students, administrators and representatives of both Parking and Transportation Services and CapMetro.

CapMetro spokeswoman Melissa Ayala said the company does not foresee any additional financial burdens regarding the transition of the UT Parking and Transportation shuttle bus closures to mainline services. 

“[CapMetro] monitors ridership on all routes and adjust services accordingly three times a year,” Ayala said. “At this time, [CapMetro] has not formed an initial service change proposal for the summer 2014 service changes, which will be the next service review period.”

Mishra said the ridership of the cut routes was not significantly less than other routes.

“The difference between what routes were cut and what routes were not cut was a difference of 10 passengers per hour in ridership,” Mishra said.

According to Mishra, students often work on campus late into the night, so it’s dark when they take the bus home. The few extra blocks they must walk as a result of these changes may be unsafe, she said.

“When I signed my year-long apartment lease in July, I did so with the understanding that I would have reliable transportation to UT but two months later everything changed,” Villarreal said. “Why weren’t students informed of this process when these shuttle route eliminations had been in the works since last spring semester?”

Photo Credit: Fabian Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

The Capital Metro Board of Directors met Monday to discuss a number of issues, including the possible shutting down of two low-ridership shuttle routes that cater mainly to graduate students.  According to Capital Metro, the University is no longer giving them enough funds to keep these routes running. 

The Capital Metro board had a chance to keep the Wickersham Lane and Cameron Road shuttle routes, the routes in question, open, but after hearing testimony from a few key players in the debate, it approved their elimination unanimously, 7-0.  

The move didn’t come as all that big a surprise to Columbia Mishra, president of the Graduate Student Assembly. 

“It was a formality on Cap Metro’s part to approve [the proposal],” Mishra said. 

That proposal came about through discussions last year by the UT Shuttle Committee, which included 11 graduate students. According to Parking and Transportation Services Director Bobby Stone, the committee voted 10-1-4 in favor of the changes now to be enacted and against  fighting for additional funds to maintain the routes.

Still, the move will have a profound impact on graduate students. In an interview with the Daily Texan editorial board early this month, Mishra pointed out that many graduate students have to look for housing in the areas the routes in question service because of a combination of low salaries and high rents. 

Luckily, the pain won’t be felt all at once. While the Wickersham Lane shuttle, which serves several apartment complexes south of Riverside Drive, will be discontinued at the end of this semester, the Cameron Road shuttle will be phased out by the end of next semester. Instead of being given the ax in December, the northernmost shuttle will instead be limited to the apartments along Camino La Costa starting next semester before being canceled completely at the end of the school year.

At the hearing, Capital Metro’s Principal Planner Roberto Gonzalez reiterated the agency’s reasons for accepting the proposal, including low ridership counts and the possibility of rerouting city buses to fill the gaps left by the route cancellations. However, we remain concerned about the accuracy of the data on which so much of this decision was based. 

Sociology graduate student Chelsea Smith took the opportunity today to question whether simply counting the number of rides taken in a day was a fair measure of route popularity.

“To me that [measure of ridership] counts rides, so as UT students we’re all paying into this budget, so this number that we’re using is the number of rides that happen [throughout a] day,” Smith said. “If a student living in West Campus takes it to and from campus multiple times a day, that could be, say, six to eight rides, but as graduate students and other students living farther away, we’re only taking the shuttle in once a day ... We’re paying the same amount as everybody else, but we’re counting as less.”

In addition to Smith’s concerns, GSA communications director David Villarreal, who was not present at the hearing, has called into question the reliability of numbers obtained by the agency’s automatic counting technology.

“Supposedly, every time a student enters the bus from either the front or the rear, they pass through lasers that count them,” Villarreal said. “However, if you go to any UT shuttle, you will see that the reflectors are only on the front door and not the rear exit. This is important because many students enter and exit ... without ever being counted.”

We understand that Capital Metro offered students several chances to speak out against the proposal. We also understand that there were a number of graduate students on the committee that originally put forth this proposal. However, we have to side with Mishra, who told the board that “[students] need more time” and opportunity to participate in the process.

Granted, members of the public were allowed one last chance to weigh in today, but the actual vote was shoehorned into the end of the meeting in a package of measures that included unrelated items of business such as the approval of contracts to implement a customer WiFi system on city buses and to demolish and remove an existing HVAC chiller.

Students deserve better than that. At the very least, they deserve a “public forum on our campus,” as Mishra called for Monday. While some of the changes are slated to be implemented next semester, the damage done Monday is not irreversible. The responsibility now lies with students to look for a funding solution to keep students on the shuttles. 

Capital Metro board of directors voted Monday to change the Cameron Road and eliminate the Wickersham Lane UT shuttle services starting Spring 2014.

Photo Credit: Charlie Pearce | Daily Texan Staff

On Wednesday, Sept. 4, the Texan reported on a plan by Capital Metro to eliminate two of its UT shuttle routes to cut costs, perhaps as early as January. The routes on the chopping block serve the Wickersham Lane and Cameron Road areas, in southeast and northeast Austin, respectively. According to Capital Metro, these routes have the lowest ridership of any of UT’s shuttles.

While the route cancellations would affect all students living in the areas through which the shuttles run, they will likely hit graduate students especially hard, says Columbia Mishra, Graduate Student Assembly president. We’re inclined to agree and urge the Capital Metro board of directors to vote against the plan.

Finding housing, while difficult for all Longhorns, is especially difficult for graduate students, Mishra says, because most students live on small salaries in the most expensive rental market in Texas. Compounding this problem is the limited availability of University-provided graduate student housing. According to Eric Campbell, a linguistics graduate student who lives in the University Apartments on Lake Austin Boulevard, he had to sit on a waiting list for a year, and he suspects the wait may have grown longer.

Because of these factors, graduate students tend to look east of Interstate 35, where rents are cheaper than in the areas directly adjoining campus. For such students, the presence of the shuttles allows them to get to campus in a timely manner without a car.

The cuts, if enacted, won’t isolate graduate students completely, but they will leave them with less-than-ideal options for getting to campus.

“Many graduate students don’t have a car. … There are city bus routes, but they would take three times as long as the current routes,” Mishra said. In addition, the proposal could lead to less safe late-night commutes home.        

According to the American Community Survey’s five-year estimates from 2007 to 2011, 886 graduate students lived in the ZIP codes through which the Wickersham Lane shuttle passes, and 1,197 lived in the area of the Cameron Road shuttle. While not all of these students attended UT, these statistics put somewhere around 17 percent of UT graduate students at risk.

Capital Metro says it doesn’t have enough money from UT to keep the shuttles running, but surely there are other, less drastic changes that could be implemented that wouldn’t be so disruptive to students’ lives. Reducing frequency, while it would result in more crowded buses, would be better than no buses at all.

For graduate students, after years of work and research toward their dissertation, scheduling their dissertation defense just got a little easier by ideoconferencing, teleconferencing and using other technologies to get the necessary people in the room.

Terry Kahn, associate dean for the Office of Graduate Studies, said because scheduling dissertation defenses had been a long-standing problem for students and faculty, the Graduate Assembly amended the defense policy to incorporate technology.

The dissertation defense is the final step for graduate students before submitting a dissertation. The defense committee chosen by the student consists of at least four faculty members. Kahn said although this is already in effect, students will likely begin taking advantage of it starting this summer.

“When we realized this was a problem to get graduate students, coordinators and faculty members in a room, we wanted to find a more flexible way,” Kahn said. “I can’t imagine anything more flexible than this. We listen to what the problems are and are trying to fix them.”

Columbia Mishra, Graduate Student Assembly president, said students might have committee members who are researching internationally or have administrative positions on campus that can make finding a defense time difficult.

Mishra said the changes will help reduce stress caused by scheduling coordination, allowing graduate students to better prepare for their defense.

“Sometimes people are out of the country or doing research, they’re all very busy people and it can be very difficult to get all these professors in the same room,” Mishra said.

She said previously, that might have delayed defenses and even caused students to postpone their defense and graduation.

“You don’t know if you’ll be funded next semester and you want to get things done quickly, so it becomes a problem,” Mishra said.

Kahn said the new option requires all committee members must be present, but only two must be physically present. Previously, a minimum of three committee members was required at the defense along with a nonvoting observer. Kahn said the policy does not specify which technologies can be used, so as new technologies become available they can be implemented as well.

“The old standard option is still there and I think most people will still use that because a defense is a pretty important thing and having people in the room means something,” Khan said.

Eugenio Santillan, former GSA academic affairs director, said the new policy will allow students to focus on their studies instead of coordinating with faculty.

“This will serve to relieve a lot of graduate students from the stresses of having to plan defenses around their committees’ schedules,” Santillan said. “Writing and defending a dissertation is stressful enough in addition to all the things we need to do to graduate.”

Santillan said he plans to take advantage of the changes at his defense and hopes it may eventually create the opportunity for collaboration with graduate students and professors at other universities as outside committee members.

Prospective graduate students consider a number of factors when deciding what school they want to attend in the fall: the professors with whom they will work, the location of the campus and, of course, the price tag. For students looking to attend UT in the fall, this third factor has a question mark attached.

Graduate student tuition, which must be approved by the UT System Board of Regents, has not yet been set for the 2013-2014 school year. Nearly all prospective graduate students in the nation must accept a financial offer by April 15 as part of an agreement by the Council of Graduate Schools, of which UT is a member. The next board meeting is May 8.

UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said she was not sure when the board would set tuition rates. 

“I believe there was discussion about potentially putting something on the May agenda, but that hasn’t been decided yet,” LaCoste-Caputo said. 

On even-numbered years, the board typically sets tuition for all of the System’s schools for two-year periods. In May 2012, the board set tuition for all undergraduate students for two years, but did not take similar action for graduate students. According to members in the Office of Accounting, the board typically does not wait this long to announce tuition.

Michael Morton, outgoing president of the Senate of College Councils, said the uncertainty surrounding next year’s tuition rates is already having negative repercussions for graduate students. 

“For any student, not knowing what their tuition rate is going to be puts them in a state of uncertainty,” Morton said. “They don’t know what they can or cannot afford — graduate students don’t know what options they have in terms of teaching assistant benefits or assistant instructor benefits, and really, they’re at a loss in terms of what their financial outlook is going to be.”

Columbia Mishra, president elect of the Graduate Student Assembly, said the delay of the tuition announcement will especially affect international students. Mishra is a mechanical engineering graduate student from the West Bengal region of India. 

“When I was applying from India, I asked myself, ‘What are my other options, and what do other universities have?’” Mishra said. “By delaying the availability of this information, the University risks losing some very talented students who may decide to go elsewhere because of uncertainty here.” 

Mishra said the most important function of tuition is to allow students to plan ahead. 

“Students in colleges without graduate fellowships or scholarships tend to feel the impact more, and they need to prepare,” Mishra said. “You need to know what your tuition will be, just as you need to know if your rent is going to increase in six months, because even if it’s by 2 percent or 3 percent, you might have to take out loans — or you might have to move.”

Correction: An early version of this story misattributed a quote. It was Michael Morton, not Michael Redding, who spoke about the repercussions of next year's tuition rates.