Lecturers, graduate students, undergraduates and other members of the University community gathered in Regents’ Plaza prior to yesterday’s Board of Regents meeting to voice their concerns about issues at the University.
The rally was a mix of about 100 University students and lecturers who spent the afternoon trying to persuade regents and administrators to address issues of concern, including allegations of a breach of contract on raises for lecturers, a proposed continuous enrollment policy for graduate students and concerns about a possible tuition increase next year.
Members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization and their supporters gathered to protest the proposed continuous enrollment policy, which is currently under development. The policy would require Ph.D. candidates to remain students at Rackham — and continue paying tuition — from their admission through their graduation, despite breaks they may take or independent research they may conduct.
Rackham student Patricia Chen said the continuous enrollment policy doesn’t make any logical sense and sets many students at a disadvantage when paying for their education.
“The continuous enrollment policy they have is completely unacceptable,” she said at the rally. “It’s going to end up hurting people already having a difficult time — all the people who are already at the margins having a difficult time because they have families or because they don’t have funding or because they’re international students.”
At the rally, Rackham student Shaun McGirr, who also serves on the Continuous Enrollment Working Group, said the policy will hinder students’ options and diversity at the University. The CEWG is an organization that has communicated students’ concerns about the continuous enrollment policy to Rackham administrators.
“Basically it ends an option at the moment, which is called tuition-free detached study, which allows a whole lot of flexible uses,” McGirr said. “Our really big concern is that this reduces diversity at the University of Michigan.”
McGirr, along with three other Rackham students, also spoke in front of the Board of Regents at its monthly meeting after the rally. McGirr presented the regents with a petition signed by over 750 graduate students who oppose the policy and urged the regents to block it from being implemented.
Rackham student Marie Puccio spoke at the meeting to outline why so many graduate students have concerns about the policy.
“We believe Dean Weiss and Rackham, though well-intentioned, have pushed this policy forward without adequate consultation of those affected,” she said. “Without providing a strong rationale, they are completely overhauling the current system and without considering the unintended negative consequences of the policy for those students who currently use tuition-free detached study or will require it in the future.”
Rackham student Tiffany Tsang, who serves as president of the Rackham Student Government, told the regents she thinks many Rackham students are opposed to the policy because they don’t fully understand what the policy will do.
“A significant number of students are still clueless about the policy,” she said. “Of the remaining students, many have been fed misinformation, and of the group that has the correct information, some are supportive, especially in the biological and physical sciences.”
In response to the speakers at the meeting, University Provost Teresa Sullivan told the regents that the continuous enrollment policy is still being worked out, which is why she believes there is so much confusion and opposition to the proposal right now.
“The fact that there are perhaps more questions than answers now is because there really has not been an implementation of those yet, that phase is just now starting,” she said. “I think I would just ask that we all keep an open mind as we go through the implementation phase and see if we can make it work.”
Several of the regents expressed concern about the impact the policy could have on graduate students who have families.
Regent Laurence Deitch (D–Bingham Farms) said he was concerned with the policy and was especially troubled that it may be unfair to women who have children while in school.
Echoing Deitch’s sentiment, Regent Julia Darlow (D–Ann Arbor) asked Sullivan for clarification about the policy regarding maternity leaves and leaves of absence under the new policy. Sullivan assured the regents that maternity leave and personal leaves of absence would be available.
Regent Denise Ilitch (D–Bingham Farms) questioned whether the regents would be able to review the policy before it was implemented. Sullivan told the regents she would brief them in the fall, since the policy is currently under development and isn’t scheduled to take effect until Fall 2010.
In an interview after the meeting, Rackham Dean Janet Weiss said she was currently working to address students’ concerns, but that concrete reassurances wouldn’t be available until more planning has been completed.
“I am concerned about the same things that they are concerned about and I am doing my very best to put in place the funding piece, the policy piece and the advising piece that will all speak to their concerns,” she said. “I want to address them, I plan to address them and it will just take some time to do that.”
Weiss said she is working to ensure that no graduate student is forced out prematurely because of financial changes that may affect some students.
When asked whether consideration had been given to implementing the policy for incoming students and maintaining the existing policy for current students, Weiss said it would not be logistically possible. Weiss said a split implementation would be too cumbersome on the administration and information technology operations and would be highly confusing to faculty who handle funding sources for graduate students.
Members of the Lecturers’ Employees Organization also participated in yesterday’s rally and regents meeting. LEO was protesting the handling of its contract with the University, claiming that University administrators have been hiding money for faculty pay raises in funds that are not considered when making equal pay raises for lecturers.
LSA Lecturer Marc Ammerlaan, who serves as co-chair of LEO, said at the rally he was planning to speak at the regents meeting because he was hoping the regents would urge administrators to go back to the table with LEO to settle the dispute without arbitration.
“We really have been pushing to get this issue settled in talks, and I think only the regents can make the provost come back and talk to us,” he said. “I do think that this is the last best hope, otherwise we continue on and go through the arbitration.”
In the meeting, LSA Lecturer Elizabeth Axelson told the regents she was seeking a renewal of collaboration between LEO and the University and to rebuild their now strained relations.
“We’re looking for greater cooperation, we’re looking for good faith in our negotiations and in the implementation and the maintenance of the contract that we share and we’re looking for a kind of restoration of trust at this point,” she told the regents.
LEO’s contract with the University stipulates that “all employee full-time salary rates shall increase by the average annual percent increase, excluding retention, promotion and equity increases, for tenured and non-tenure-track faculty of the respective arts and sciences college at each campus.”
LEO claims that, because the University has decreased the percentage of money spent on normal pay raises and increased the amount of money spent on retention incentives and pay equity increases, the University is breaching its agreement to maintain pay raise levels among professors and lecturers.
In an interview after the regents meeting, Jeff Frumkin, associate provost and senior director for academic human resources, said LEO had a right to follow a grievance, but that it was up to LEO members to take the next step.
“We have a dispute about what the language means and we have a contractual procedure that ends in binding arbitration that will determine what that language means,” he said. “We’re waiting for the union to contact us to schedule arbitration. The ball is in their court at this point to reach out and say we’re ready to move to arbitration, we’re ready to schedule that arbitration.”
When asked about the University’s rationale for the transfer of funds from the traditional pay raise accounts to the incentive, retention and equity raise accounts, Frumkin said he was not comfortable speaking about the details of an ongoing arbitration.
Students from the Stop The Hike coalition were also present at the meeting and rally. They reminded the regents that they support a freeze on tuition if the state appropriations do not fall from last year’s levels.
Several students from the group also spoke at last month’s regents meeting. In response to their comments in March, Regent Andrea Fischer Newman (R–Ann Arbor) said she supported the group’s mission because it included the stipulation about state funding holding steady.
“I personally think it’s a rational proposal,” she said in March.
Members of the group who spoke yesterday urged regents and University administrators to do everything possible to ensure that if tuition is raised, it be raised by as little as possible to ensure continued accessibility to the University.
— Daily News Editor Jillian Berman contributed to this report.