Graduated change: SU’s Graduate Student Organization plans to better advocate for student needs

To President Patrick Neary, the Graduate Student Organization is “coming out of a dark age.”

Just five years ago, the GSO, which represents the interests of Syracuse University graduate students, had only about 12 members. There was a surplus of money the organization didn’t utilize and there wasn’t a spark to better the lives of Syracuse University graduate students.

Now, Neary and GSO’s 40 members want to become an active voice for graduate students on campus. This year, the organization has goals of improving the living wage for graduate students who are teaching assistants, bettering contracts and increasing the participation of graduate students within the organization.

“I’ve watched the GSO grow from an organization that does very, very little franklythat had surpluses and couldn’t figure out how to spend all of the fee, to an organization which is the reverse situation,” Neary said. “Which I think is better.”

Since its founding in 1968, the GSO has evolved to where it now funds other graduate student organizations as well as career services, and provide grant programs to graduate students, Neary said.

Gabrielle Chapman, associate dean of the Graduate School, has worked closely with the GSO on different projects during the last couple of years. She added the organization has been more effective because of an increase in returning members each year. This, she said, has contributed to better organization and more activity.

“This year, they’re really just trying to do the right thing for students,” Chapman said.

Graduate students make up about 30 percent of the SU student population. In the fall of 2012, there were 6,231 graduate and law school students, including part-time students, out of the total 21,029 student population, according to the university’s website.

Of these graduate students, 1,400 are teaching assistants that are employed by the university, Neary said, and about 60 percent of those TAs fall below the living wage.

This is a statistic GSO is working to change.

Last semester, GSO conducted a survey looking at how many graduate students earn below the living wage versus above living wage in the Syracuse area, he said. The university does a lot in assuring wage fairness, he added, but the administration “has never done much” in terms of tracking graduate students.

It’s considered a violation of a teaching assistant’s contract if the student has an additional job outside of his or her respective department, unless the departments sign off on it, he said.

Because of this, GSO is hoping to generate pay increases for TAs for the 2015-2016 academic school year. Changes cannot be made to the 2014-2015 budget because it is already set.

“Part of our point is that if you’re not going to raise pay, especially for departments that are in a low amount of money each year, can you lock us out of that clause?” Neary said.

Neary added that every employee at SU receives a cost of living adjustment each year. Graduate students receive the largest adjustment, with about 3 percent per year. Other employees usually receive about 1 percent. Despite this increase, the graduate students still receive the lowest amount of compensation.

“We are definitely always trying to always acknowledge that the university has done very nice things for us paywise in the past,” Neary said. “This is less of a pitchforks and torches versus we’ve identified some problem areas, and we would like to fix them.”

The below living wage has been a consistent issue, said Pat Dawes, GSO comptroller. From what Dawes has seen, he said this has traditionally been the case for graduates that aren’t in the mathematics or a science department, such as humanities students.

The GSO plans to have an “aggressive timeline” for pursuing this initiative, Neary said, in which he will be making a presentation to the University Senate’s budget committee in October about these potential changes, as well as meeting with the Graduate School dean.

‘I think they’ve been as responsive as the administration can be,” Dawes said. “Syracuse University has a large bureaucracy, so it takes time to change.”

Dawes added the GSO is recommending the university define a set minimum wage based on what is a livable salary for teaching assistants, instead of allowing it to vary from department to department.

Another initiative the GSO is focusing on this fall is trying to make sure TAs are better notified of when their contracts are being renewed.

The GSO, Neary said, hopes to push departments to inform TAs of the status of their contract renewal earlier. There have been instances, he said, where TAs were informed of their contract renewal a week before the semester started.

“Which means a week out, you don’t know if you have employment or not and you’ve already signed your lease,” he said.

At the Wednesday GSO meeting, which was the organization’s first official business meeting of the year, Neary said he’s negotiating with the administration to create a deadline for TAs to be aware of their contract status. The goal, he said, is to have an across-the-board deadline at the end of May.

GSO’s final, major initiative for this semester is to improve participation within the organization.

“We’re missing a lot of people,” Neary said.

While involvement has improved during the years, GSO plans to reach out to departments that lack representation.

Dawes, the GSO comptroller, said the goal for this year was to get as much campus representation as possible.

“It’s a fairly long-term problem just because graduate students do have such busy schedules, but we have been getting better,” Dawes said. “I’ve been a member of GSO for four years now and we’ve had minor increases every year.”

But to increase representation, Neary said, GSO needs to focus on the students.

“We’ve done a great job talking to the administration, but not so great job talking back to students,” Neary said. “Now we’re doing a lot more directly for students.”




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