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Letter to the Editor

Grad student fellowships aren't a substitute for good wages

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Letter to the Editor

On November 20, the provost announced that in order to support graduate students and maintain the competitiveness of our programs, the university is launching a multi-million dollar fellowship initiative. 

Reading this message, I had a strange moment of déjà vu. A year and a half ago, our graduate student union, UAW 4121, and the university were in contract negotiations. Jerry Baldasty, the previous provost, told a room of several hundred of us that the university had “no money” to raise our wages — but that during his tenure he had made efforts to secure more fellowships for graduate students. 

Now before I explain the problem with fellowships, let me say what’s good about them. I’ve benefited from two over my six years here. Most of the time I teach for my pay. One fellowship was a supplement to my regular teaching stipend and involved meeting throughout the year with a group of fellows to talk about bugs, climate change, and history. Good stuff. The second fellowship bought out my teaching load and let me spend a whole quarter focusing on my own work. I’m grateful for both, and hope that both fellowships continue.

But while fellowships benefited me as an individual, they are bad as a system for supporting graduate students. The spots are limited and, for both of the fellowships I received, I knew there were a number of friends and colleagues who were denied that funding. 

That’s not the only problem. Fellowships, when they buy out teaching, are often tied to the regular amount of our stipends. I love the work that I do, but my compensation for this year is $24,822 — a dismal amount to earn in Seattle. While a fellowship might allow me to get more work done, it doesn’t make up for bad wages. 

Now the university has several responses to our low wages. The first is to point out that grad students make a high hourly rate. That’s true. But the university likes the hourly rate because it hides the total which, as council member Kshama Sawant pointed out in a public letter to President Cauce last year, is thousands of dollars lower than what counts as a living wage in this city. 

The university’s second response is to point out that the wage increases in our previous two contracts were quite large. That’s also true, but it’s important to remember that, when it comes to wage raises, we only have them because we fought in bargaining against the university, which resisted us every step of the way. Now the administration brags for paying us wages it never wanted to pay us in the first place. In fact, in 2018 the university’s first offer was an effective 10% pay cut, and the 2% wage increases we ended up with don’t even keep up with inflation and cost of living. The better way to look at these large increases in the old contracts is that they are signs of how low our wages were compared to comparable institutions, and how little the university was willing to pay us only a short seven years ago — and how little it dreams of paying us now.

This is a problem of distribution rather than necessity. What we have now instead of good wages is a multi-million dollar fellowship initiative. Let’s do some rough math, using my wages as a standard for the 4,000 or so other graduate students covered by our contract. At that rate, a million dollars is roughly a 1% pay raise for everyone, so for every million dollars put into fellowships, you could instead raise everyone’s wages by an additional percent. At that point, you have to wonder why the university prefers to go through the trouble of creating and administering a new initiative that will inevitably advantage some students over others. 

Fellowships provide great opportunities, but they aren’t a substitute for good wages, and they won’t keep the university competitive. Seattle is an expensive city to live in. Many of my friends survive the University of Washington by taking on other jobs, not just in the summer, but during the school year when they would rather be focused on their teaching and research. This puts us at a serious disadvantage compared to students at other universities, whether they make more than we do or simply live somewhere cheaper. Boundless, indeed.

So here’s my advice to the provost: believe us when we say that the university does not pay its graduate students adequately, and that fellowships won’t solve that problem. But even if you don’t believe us, I know who will: any student deciding between coming to UW or going somewhere else.

Alexander McCauley

UW graduate student, English

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