The future of higher education was uncertain for the academic community following the passing of the House GOP tax plan in November 2017.
The plan included an omission of Section 117(d)(5) of the previous tax code. The provision stipulated that tuition waivers would not be considered taxable income by the federal government. Moreover, graduate students would not have to pay taxes on money that never “passed through their own hands.”
The omission garnered a collective response from university presidents, administrators, and graduate students across the country.
LSU President F. King Alexander penned an op-ed in the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, stating his displeasure with the affects of the new bill.
“Unfortunately, the new tax reform bill seeks to balance corporate tax reductions on the backs of students and the universities educating them,” Alexander wrote.
The University’s graduate student association sent an email to all graduate students informing them of the potential affect.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act became public law on Dec. 22.
The potentially devastating effect of this bill has highlighted a conflict between the State, the University, and its students.
Of the roughly 4,000 graduate students at the University, about 2,000 of those students work for the University as graduate assistants.
In July 2017, the University faculty saw a 3 percent raise in its salary, while students saw a 2 percent increase in their fees.
For graduate assistants who are both students and employees of the University, the raise in salary coupled with a raise in tuition in fees exacerbate their grievances with the University.
On a Friday afternoon in November of 2017, at the height of the graduate student tax controversy, three representatives of a graduate student unionization effort at the University met with The Daily Reveille at Highland Coffees.
English graduate assistant Kieran Lyons, sociology graduate assistant Vanessa Parks and biological science graduate assistant Bradley Wood discussed the efforts of the Graduate Student Union and their grievances as graduate assistants.
“[We are] advocating for graduate students as laborers at LSU,” Parks said. “LSU doesn’t work in any capacity to represent us as workers.”
Though a University- sponsored Graduate Student Association exists, the group is creating the Union out of the concern for acknowledgment.
“By definition [the GSA] cannot be antagonistic to LSU because they are LSU,” Wood said. “So what we are trying to do is form an outside organization that’s outside of the University, that falls outside of University policy.”
The Graduate Student Association constitution bylaws keep them from representing students as workers in a way that satisfies graduate assistants.
“The University decides to treat us as employees in one scenario, when it benefits them, like taxation; so our stipends are taxable income,” Wood said. “But they also treat us as students when we want health insurance. We have to buy individual insurance plans like [unemployed students] or go uninsured.”
The Graduate Students Union has circulated a petition that demands a halt to tuition and fee increases and demands that the state properly reinvest in higher education.
“We don’t think it’s right that the University balances its own budget on the backs of its students,” Wood said. “My fees went up to pay for my 5 percent pay raise.”
The group stated it is embarrassing that Louisiana is one of less than 10 states that continuously cuts funding for higher education.
According to a report published in The Advocate in April 2017, Louisiana has cut $700 million in funding for higher education over the past decade.
“Ultimately it wouldn’t be worth it to go to grad school if you weren’t independently wealthy or willing to go into extreme debt” Lyons said. “We’re under all of this stress to do research on behalf of the University. We don’t get to take vacation — your conferences become your vacation.”
In the sciences, a graduate student working in a lab or research center is often tied to a specific professor, Parks said. That professor is responsible for a student’s job in the lab, and their job in the future. If a graduate student has a bad working relationship with the professor, it is the student’s responsibility to maintain the relationship. In a lot of cases it is difficult to walk away or even voice grievances, Parks said. A professor could easily replace you with another highly motivated graduate student.
“Having anxiety or depression isn’t a thing some people have, it is a common given,” Parks said. “You understand that the people around you are suffering.”
Lyons mentioned that the options for international graduate students, who are essential to the University’s research model, facing abuse is even more grim if they are not familiar with the U.S. legal system or have any other resources.
“There is a lot of actual exploitation that goes on,” Lyons said. “People are working long hours for very little money and aren’t getting the publications that are a part of the handshake agreement.”
Graduate students who come from Southeast Asia and the Middle East for their five or six year Ph. D are often systematically exploited, Lyons said.
“We don’t get any kind of acknowledgement from the University or the powers that be that what we are doing is important” Wood said.
Graduate students have even expressed grievances with the University’s Student Health Center.
“Many grad students have to go off campus for mental health treatment,” Wood said. “One student was told unless you are coming in because you were just sexually assaulted, we cannot give you mental health services until two months from now.”
According to the group, some graduate students at the University have sold blood plasma to pay for groceries.
Wood mentioned that graduate students are predominantly what the University is. On top of outnumbering faculty, graduate students teach several classes.
“There are legislators who will debate, this spring, whether we should eliminate degree programs like creative writing, that don’t funnel into Louisiana based career industries,” Wood said.
Several graduate student employee unions have won recognition by Universities across the nation. The nearest organization is the University of Florida Graduate Assistants United.
“It should not fall solely on the family and students of LSU to pay for LSU,” Parks said. “It’s a public school.”
The petition the group is circulating demands the University and the state legislature discontinue the funding structure that puts a disproportionate financial burden on students.