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Faculty group backs pay bump for grad students

But vote sets no action at UA by Jaime Adame | March 11, 2021 at 3:58 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville faculty senate voted Wednesday in support of a resolution to increase the minimum stipend for graduate assistants to $2,225 per month, a boost of more than 50% for some students.

The faculty vote does not directly result in any action. Separately, UA administrators have said they are working to raise stipends. The university's top academic officer, Charles Robinson, said Wednesday that he expects a "fairly modest" increase.

Some members of the faculty group cited low pay compared with other schools as affecting the university's recruitment of top graduate students. As graduate assistants, the students often teach undergraduate classes or assist with research.

"We're just trying to make graduate student stipends a higher priority for the [university] administration," Michael Pierce, a sponsor of the resolution and an associate professor of history, said in the meeting, which was held online.

For a nine-month period -- a common length of time for graduate teaching assistant's stipend -- the total cited in the resolution would work out to be $20,025.

Graduate student teaching assistants in history now receive a nine-month stipend of $12,700 and math graduate teaching assistants receive $14,600, the resolution states. Stipend amounts vary by department.

Pierce said the amount in the resolution is based on a living wage for a single person in Fayetteville and also what is paid at The Ohio State University. In October, Ohio State announced that it was raising its minimum nine-month graduate assistant stipend to $21,280 by this fall .

In a vote on the resolution, 26 faculty members voted in favor of it and 14 were opposed, Stephen Caldwell, chairman of the faculty group and a professor in the music department, said in an email.

"I would love to give all those students that amount of money if I had that," Don Johnson, an agriculture professor, said in the meeting. He expressed doubts about how easily the university could afford such stipend increases, adding that, "I'm not sure $20,000 is the number."

Robinson gave faculty members a general campus report at the meeting's start, before any discussion of the resolution, and discussed graduate assistant stipends.

"We intend to put out some messaging on our intention to increase graduate statements really soon," Robinson said. "Now, of course, our increase to those stipends will be, you know, fairly modest, but there will be an increase."

Robinson said the university must be "fiscally responsible."

"We can't do everything that we want, that we would like to do, but we will do something. And right now what we're doing is trying to figure out how we're going to pay for this increase to those stipends for our grad students," Robinson said.

Several other large public universities pay more, including the University of Missouri, which pays a minimum stipend of $16,389 to graduate assistants for a nine-month appointment, according to its website. The University of Kansas pays a minimum of $17,750, budget documents state.

Not all universities have adopted as high a minimum stipend level. The University of Oklahoma's minimum stipend for graduate assistants is $1,152.50 monthly, or $13,830 annually, according to school documents.

At UA and other schools, stipend amounts vary by department and also vary in length, with some doctoral students paid over 12 months, for example.

Tom Jensen, a UA marketing professor, in the meeting referred to competition for students between schools.

"Even at the current doctoral-level stipend, plus a fellowship on top of it, we lose candidates to other universities," Jensen said.

Pierce responded, "I think that's the problem all across campus." UA's history department still attracts some top students, but "on the whole, the quality is not where it used to be," Pierce said.

Graduate students in August held a rally outside the Arkansas Union asking for higher stipends, doing so after 82 signed a letter in July asking for emergency stipends of $2,500 for those receiving a stipend of less than $15,000. The letter cited the pandemic and also called for higher stipends generally.

No such emergency stipends were paid out, but the university's top administrators formed a group to examine graduate student pay. The group has included participation by members of the university's Graduate-Professional Student Congress, a body of elected student leaders.

Robinson, in his remarks to faculty members, said the group made a recommendation to boost minimum monthly graduate stipends. The amounts of increase recommended were "a little bit more" than $200 per month for master's students and between $300 and $350 per month for doctoral students, he said.

"I don't know that that's where we're going to land. I don't think we'll land any less than that," Robinson said.

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