General Services Administration

At its last meeting on April 16, the Graduate Student Assembly introduced a new proposal to support funding a full-time student ombudsman, a professional position. This is a great step forward for students who need to vent their grievances to a neutral third party.  

The University's ombuds offices help students, faculty and staff. The mission of the Office of the Student Ombuds is to provide a neutral, impartial and confidential environment for students to voice concerns related to life at the University and to provide information and assistance to students who have University-related questions or complaints. 

The appeal of this establishment is its role as an impartial third party. The credibility of the office rests on its reputation for independence, fairness and objectivity. The fact that the Office of the Student Ombudsman does not side with individuals, the University or any other parties involved creates trust between students and the institution.  

Disputes the office hears cover issues as wide-ranging as grades, academic dismissals and student employment concerns, to name just a few. Every dispute almost invariably carries criticism of academic officials in the department or the school policies.

The amount of compliance at UT has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2013-2014, the OSO served 1,400 students. The fall 2014 session saw a 77 percent increase over the previous fall semester and a 114 percent increase over the fall of 2012. The students the OSO serves include undergraduate, graduate and professional students.

The tension between universities and students is surely timeless, but it started receiving serious attention in the late 1960s. The occurrence of a series of incidents at Hornsey and Guildford Colleges of Art, Birmingham University and the London School of Economics led universities to develop coping strategies to deal with student protesters questioning the character, purpose and management of higher education. Now, with issues related to abuse of power, bullying, intimidation, nepotism, etc., firmly planted on everyone’s radar, action needs to be taken to make sure students are being heard and protected.  

At the OSO, the current staff includes one part-time student ombudsperson and two part-time assistant student ombudspersons. The only full-time staffer in the office is an administrative associate, who is not a student.  

“The biggest criticism of the office was, and continues to be, that there is no continuity of service because a new student is hired every year and comes to the position with only a vague idea of how to carry out the role,” former ombudsperson Amber Holloway said. 

Not only does it take the office a lot of time to train new staff, but it also causes the organization to look disjointed.

The proposal presented by GSA recommends adding the full-time ombudsperson to the existing staff. This new professional will provide coaching and training on dispute resolution skills and facilitate constructive discussions between parties who use the office’s services. By doing that, students can expect a more effective conflict resolution procedure.

Liu is an advertising graduate student from Beijing.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated since its original posting.

Editor’s Note: Graduate students Brian Wilkey and Vance Roper were recently elected president and vice president, respectively, of the Graduate Student Assembly. They served together part of this year after David Villarreal stepped down from the presidency early last semester.

Daily Texan: Why did you decide to run again for president? 

Brian Wilkey: Vance and I had an interesting year, both of us starting from different positions. By the time I took office in August, David [Villarreal] had stepped down. By the time we got caught up, it was November. I had only two and half months where I could effectively be working. That’s not a lot of time to do things. But Vance and I have felt we made a great partnership, we are very proud of what we have done. We believe the next steps of GSA are very plain before us, and we thought they are the right direction to take, so we thought, “Let’s do this another year.”

DT: Speaking of change there’s a lot coming to UT. How do you handle the transition to the new president [of UT], the recent transition to a new chancellor and to new leadership beyond UT?

Wilkey: The main job as [GSA] president is relationship building. I look forward to those chances to build relationships, with the new president [and] the new chancellor to make sure that from the start, the concerns of the graduate student body are being heard. I am looking forward to delving in with the relationship with the new Student Government and some college councils. 

DT: Do you think graduate student concerns are being better heard now than they were this time last year?

Wilkey: I think part of it is just that we are little more organized. You have a lot of people talking about graduate student concerns, but some of those concerns are housing, some are stipends, some are academic grievance processes, but if we all yell at the same time, no one is going to hear what needs to be done. Vance and I came in and made a big deal of organizing and made sure we spoke in a resolute voice with the message that we wanted to say. By that standard, I think yes, graduate students are being better heard. I think the same concern raised last year are being raised this year, but we have new and more innovative ways of discussing that with the policymakers and the administrators. 

DT: Can you say more about that?

Wilkey: For example we have the housing committee. Approximately 2,400 responses [came back] from its recent survey. Considering 12,000 graduate students and professional students, that’s about one out of every six for a group that for the most part doesn’t participate  in the University traditionally. This committee reached out to the constituents and made sure they participated. We have people sitting on different committees now that weren’t represented by us before. 

We found some better ways to get everyone engaged. Because every graduate student has a concern. COLA’s very concerned about TA stipends and TA positions, and we are trying to make sure that COLA organizes a college council, just like the graduate student engineering council, a place for them to be just graduate students to make sure they are sharing best practices.

DT: How likely do you think it is that new graduate student housing will be built in the near future?

Wilkey: No administrator is going to say is going to happen in the near future. Everyone is going to tell you the party line is just planning right now. We have no idea. I know it’s a big project which a lot of people are passionate about, so it’s hard to believe that we are not going to see progress.

DT: So maybe first we’ll see improvement in existing graduate student housing?

Wilkey: That’s one thing we are considering. The housing committee is slowly dividing into two sections: the group working on new housing and the group working on current housing situations. Mostly, at this point, we’re just trying to assess and grab all the necessary data.

DT: Are there any differences between your platforms this year and David’s last year?  

Wilkey: One thing we are going to continue trying to do is a database for funding resources and graduate students opportunities. One of the things is that we see an increase of membership and participation, we want to keep going. Our goal is to make sure every department is represented. For me, I’m working on trying to help the GSA to become its “better self.” We get a lot of funding from the Student Services Budget Committee — that’s our primary fund. We don’t have an endowment, we don’t have extra cash for social hours or giveaways or lectures. And we would like to do that. So for me [the task] is to begin the process of helping GSA to find some additional revenue strings.

DT: What do you think of COLA’s task force report?

Wilkey: I think they did a very good job of highlighting just how hard it is to be a TA. Not just the funding issue, but you want to feel appreciated in your work. I think they found sometimes TAs didn’t. 

DT: The GSA called for town halls on issues TAs currently face. Has the administration been interested at all?

Wilkey: I don’t have enough information to comment on it.

DT: Anything else you want our readers to know about GSA for the rest of this term and next year?

Wilkey: It’s Graduate Students Appreciation Month. This month saw some of us in DC to do our advocacy lobbying in Congress. We are concerned about research funding, we are concerned about taxation indebtedness. And some climate issues. We are really excited to have a whole year at the helm. You are going to see more and more graduate students making changes and waves.

Graduate Student Assembly president Brian Wilkey (left) and vice-president Vance Roper, shown here at the January 27 GSA meeting, are running for re-election.

Photo Credit: Mariana Gonzalez | Daily Texan Staff

Brian Wilkey and Vance Roper were president and vice president of Graduate Student Assembly for over five months, and they’re looking to more than double their time next year.

Wilkey, human development and family sciences graduate student, and Roper, public affairs graduate student, are running unopposed for re-election of GSA executive alliance. Wilkey, then-vice president, took office after GSA President David Villarreal stepped down in Aug. 2014. Roper was appointed vice president in September.  

“Vance and I had a bit of a rocky start,” Wilkey said. “I spent a large portion of the first semester just kind of catching up to everything, and Vance was doing such a wonderful job. We kind of got into a swing of things in November, and then we decided, ‘Let’s have a whole year to do this.’”

Wilkey said GSA’s biggest accomplishment this year was restructuring their governing documents and passing the Graduate Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.    

“That was the idea that we could continue the projects we started and take it in a whole new level,” Wilkey said. “Our goal this year was to lay the ground work, and I think we’ve done a good job of that. It’s time to do a little bit of building.”   

GSA’s weekly meeting attendance increased from about 15 members last year to between 30–40 members this year.

“After having such a great turnout in just the matter of four or five months, we’ve had control of the GSA, moving things forward,” Roper said. “I really wanted to see that go into the next year.”

If re-elected, Roper said he plans to continue increasing graduate engagement, as well as improving GSA’s communication with the other legislative student organizations, which are Student Government and the Senate of College Councils.  

“I’m a big believer that we have a lot more in common than we don’t have, and I think it’s really time to reach across those lines,” Roper said. “I know, historically in the school, there’s been some divisions between the different [organizations], and I don’t think it needs to be that way. I think we have so many things we need to work on together.”

Wilkey said he aims to increase GSA’s funding next session, as well as advocate for graduate students in the legislature.

“I’m also very interested in taking the conversation of what graduate student life is to the campus, and also down to the capitol … about what it means to be a graduate student,” Wilkey said. “That we’re not here trying to hide from the real world; that we’re trying to become knowledge creators and policymakers.”

GSA housing committee can find meaningful solutions

Improving graduate student housing options has been discussed for years at the University. The average wait time for graduate students to rent a University apartment is one-and-a-half years — about as long as it takes most master’s students to finish their degree. To tackle this problem, the Graduate Student Assembly last semester formed a special housing committee consisting of six members. Its progress was discussed at Tuesday’s GSA meeting, the first of the semester.

“We have been hearing from our constituents for many years that they want to have a place that’s close to campus, and affordable,” GSA President Brian Wilkey told the Texan. 

GSA Vice President Vance Roper told the Texan that the housing committee has been designing surveys, planning to do focus groups to determine the ideal housing for graduate students.

However, their work won’t be easy. The cost of living in Austin has been rising for years now, and the options closest to campus tend to be centered on undergraduates.

The good news, according to Wilkey and Roper, is that administrators are listening to graduate students’ concerns and and often turn to GSA for information about graduate student housing needs.

To answer their questions, the committee will continue to gather information from the graduate student body in the coming months to best tailor its solutions.

As a graduate student, I applaud the committee’s dedication to better accommodating UT’s large community of graduate students.

Liu is an associate editor.

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.

Photo Credit: Erica Reed | Daily Texan Staff

In front of a crowd of graduate students Wednesday, President William Powers Jr. acknowledged a $96 million per year budget cut has slowed the University down.

Powers assured the group — convened for the first Graduate Student Assembly meeting of the semester — that all increases in graduate tuition have gone back to graduate students.

“It’s a big concern, and one of the challenges we cannot fall through [on],” Powers said. “We do give tuition waivers, but most departments are trying to be more strategic on how they use them.” Tuition wavers at many universities are also included for teaching assistants and researchers.

David Villarreal, communications director for GSA, said the meeting was his first time seeing Powers in person in his five years at the University. He said he hopes people realize how much the GSA can do on campus.

“We’re often just seen as workers in the background and in many ways taken for granted,” Villarreal said.

The Graduate School at the University is home to 13,000 students. Columbia Mishra, Graduate Student Assembly president, said the assembly’s goal is to make it easier for graduate students to interact with each other.

Powers addressed GSA on his thoughts about graduate education at the University.

“We really do take seriously the input you all give us,” Powers said. “You all bring our attention to some very important things and shape the trajectory of the University.”

Villarreal said GSA’s biggest goal that was met during the fall semester was the Graduate Student Exit Survey.

The survey was an initiative created by GSA to assess the University’s strengths and areas for improvement to help graduate students be successful.

WASHINGTON — The General Services Administration inspector general said Monday that he’s investigating possible bribery and kickbacks in the agency, as a central figure in a GSA spending scandal asserted his right to remain silent at a congressional hearing.

Inspector general Brian Miller, responding to a question at the hearing, said, “We do have other ongoing investigations, including all sorts of improprieties, including bribes, including possible kickbacks.”

Jeffrey Neely, who asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege before the committee, has been placed on leave as a regional executive in Western states.

Neely, summoned before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, could face a criminal investigation by the Justice Department — where his case was referred by the inspector general.

Neely was largely responsible for an $823,000 Las Vegas conference in 2010 that was the focus of Miller’s report. Three other congressional committees also are looking at the conference spending and a culture of waste at the agency in charge of federal buildings and supplies

“Mr. Chairman, on advice of counsel I decline to answer based on my constitutional privilege,” Neely said in response to questions from chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. The conference was the subject of a highly critical report by Miller issued on April 2. Taxpayers picked up the tab for a clown, a mind-reader, bicycles for a team-building exercise.

Martha Johnson, who resigned as chief of the agency after the inspector general’s report was issued this month, said the Western Regions Conference “had evolved into a raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event.”

Johnson, whom lawmakers accused of sitting on the findings for 11 months after receiving an interim briefing from the inspector general, apologized “to the American people for the entire situation.

“As the head of the agency, I am responsible. I deeply regret that the exceedingly good work of GSA has been besmirched. I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment.”

Previously, Neely had told inspector general investigators that a $2,700 party he threw in his Las Vegas hotel suite was an employee-awards event, according to a transcript of the interview.

“This is an award recognition ceremony ....” Neely insisted to an internal investigator. “That’s what this was. That’s...not a Neely party right. I was in a suite that wasn’t even mine.”

The investigator then confronted Neely with his email saying that he and his wife “are hosting a party in our loft room. There will be wine and beer and some munchies....” There was no mention of awards.When Neely insisted again it was an awards event, the skeptical investigator told him, “You realize how this looks?”

“I get it that it looks funny,” Neely said.

The inspector general has referred Neely to the Justice Department for a possible criminal investigation, according to a congressional committee official who was not authorized to be quoted by name on the subject.

It was not clear what the department was asked to investigate.

Neely, on leave as regional commissioner of the Public Buildings Service for the Pacific Rim, was largely responsible for the Las Vegas conference.

The Oversight Committees released internal memos that showed GSA officials debated last year whether to give Neely a bonus for his job performance. The officials were aware at the time that the inspector general was investigating the conference spending.

The now-resigned GSA administrator, Martha Johnson, granted Neely a $9,000 bonus over the objection of Deputy Administrator Susan Brita.

Brita wrote in a November 2011 email, that “based on what we know already” about the conference and a questionable awards program, “I would not recommend a bonus.”

Johnson wrote in an email, “yes on a bonus” in part because Neely had to serve in an acting capacity “forever and a day.”

Published on Tuesday, April 17, 2012 as: Ex-GSA chief pleads fifth on wasting money