The UA Faculty Senate passed a resolution Wednesday supporting increasing the minimum wage for UA graduate assistants to $2,225 per month.
The current minimum wage for GAs at the UofA is $9,387 for a nine-month contract and $12,516 for a 12-month contract, according to the resolution’s text. Supporting an increase in the monthly minimum wage to $2,225 — amounting to just over $20,000 for nine months — was approved with 68% of the vote.
In summer 2020, a group of graduate students participated in a small protest in front of the Arkansas Union. Following the protest, Chancellor Joe Steinmetz formed a committee of graduate students and members of the Graduate-Professional Student Congress and set a limit for potential proposals, which the GAs worked to raise, said GPSC President J.D. DiLoreto-Hill
“Ultimately we came to (a) recommendation that would give $1,500 a month for Ph.D. students and MFA students,” DiLoreto-Hill said. “For master’s students, the minimum (would be) raised to $1,250.”
DiLoreto-Hill said the committee members wanted to seek an annual stipend amount closer to $30,000, but that would cost the university an additional $4 million per year. GAs who would receive the raise are also disproportionately members of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.
“Because money is handled at the college level, that would be a very heavy burden for Fulbright to bear,” DiLoreto-Hill said. “So the Faculty Senate is discussing more or less of what we have established and have been working on since July or August.”
There are 1,529 GA’s working at the UofA during the 2020-2021 academic year.
Michael Pierce, an associate professor of history and the sponsor of the resolution, said he thinks the resolution, which is endorsed by the UA Fayetteville Education Association Local 965, is a matter of justice. He thinks graduate assistants should not have to rely on second jobs and government assistance to live.
“It’s a simple matter of justice,” Pierce said. “The people who are teaching courses shouldn’t have to rely on food banks, SNAP benefits and student loans in order to keep an apartment to feed themselves.”
The cost to live independently of government assistance in Washington County is $22,339.20, according to an MIT study. At the start of the 2020-2021 school year, 15% of UA GAs earned less than $11,250 for 9-month contracts and $15,000 for 12-month contracts, according to the resolution’s text.
Morality aside, Peirce thinks the resolution would be good for the university, he said. With prestigious graduate programs at many other U.S. universities, he thinks the university needs to adjust the wage in order to stay competitive.
“We cannot, as a university, keep attracting the best and the brightest graduate students by paying them such low graduate stipends,” Pierce said. “For instance, Ohio State now offers $21,000 a year to a nine-month TA, minimum. That’s about twice of what the University of Arkansas is currently offering.”
Charles Robinson, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, said university officials are planning to raise GA pay. Although he does not know yet how much the stipends will increase, the raise is unlikely to be less than what the committee recommended over the summer, Robinson said.
“The proposal we received called for (minimum) levels to be increased for master’s levels by $200 a month, and for Ph.D. levels a little more than $300-$350 a month,” Robinson said. “I don't know that’s where we’re going to land, I don't think we’re going to land any less than that, it’s possible that we may land higher than that.”
The issue of low wages for graduate students is endemic across the country, DiLoreto-Hill said. The pay is abysmal and the system is based on an outdated higher education and funding model, he said.
“It’s really made life difficult for graduate assistants because it's incredibly demanding work. You’re only getting paid for 20 hours and you’re doing more than 20 hours,” DiLoreto-Hill said. “The wages are very small, and so it’s a systemic issue.”
University officials are weighing recommendations, and plan to engage the university community on the topic. They are also examining ways to fund the stipend increase, Robinson said.
“Our increase to those stipends will be fairly modest, but there will be an increase,” Robinson said. “Whatever we don’t do, it’s not that we don’t recognize the importance of doing more, it’s just because we have to be fiscally responsible and we have lots of financial needs.”