GTFF picket-1

GTFF members and allies rally outside of Johnson Hall on April 18, 2019 to show solidarity for the negotiation efforts with a state mediator set to step in on April 26. (Emerald Archives)

The University of Oregon announced this July that it would be hiring 25 fewer new graduate employees as part of budget reductions and to address the current budget crisis facing the university.

Rajeev Ravisankar, spokesperson for the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, the union that represents GEs at UO, called the cuts “disconcerting,” and said they signified a tendency of the university to disregard the interests of GEs. GE positions give graduate students funding for tuition in exchange for working for the university as they pursue their graduate degree. 

“We definitely want to see a move in the other direction,” Ravisankar said. “We’re already hearing about how tough it is for GEs in classes with several hundred students. It could be read as indicating a trend of really trying to squeeze more out of the GEs that are already here.”

He explained that GTFF may have some ways of responding to employment cuts, including trying to get the university to set aside funds for summer GE employment and presenting information on the workload effects on GEs. 

A UO spokesperson did not provide the Emerald with a comment in time for publication, instead forwarding an emailed, faculty-wide statement from Provost Patrick Phillips about the status of GTFF bargaining.

Jaime Moffitt, chief financial officer and vice president for finance and administration, said the university is trying to grow its class size to increase tuition revenue to address the budget crisis, according to Around the O.

“It is never easy to make budget cuts. We know that this reduction is very hard on the people impacted and those who work with them,” said Moffitt, according to Around the O. “We are grateful to these employees for their service to the university. We are also thankful that we were able to limit the number of reductions by not filling vacancies, knowing that this still affects our work on campus.”

But the loss of employment opportunities for grad students may not be limited to UO, as statistics suggest that employment figures for graduate teaching assistants in Oregon have declined in the past 10 years.

CommercialCafe, a real estate market information group, published results in a study about the fastest declining jobs in the United States, claiming a 91% decrease in Oregon graduate teaching assistant positions from 2009 to 2018. 

The research, which was largely derived from data recorded by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, indicated that the number of graduate teaching jobs in Oregon dropped from 1,710 at the start of the period to 150 by the end. The BLS recorded a particularly large fall of employment figures between 2017 and 2018, with a reduction from 1,220 to 150. 

The Oregon Employment Department wrote to the Emerald claiming those figures were not accurately representative of the total number of graduate teaching assistants in Oregon, nor the change in those positions. 

When asked if those numbers referred to the total number of graduate teaching assistants employed in the state, the BLS commented that the figures were more representational of the number of workers in the average pay period, and not the total number of persons working in an occupation over the course of the year. 

The BLS defines graduate teaching assistants as those who “assist faculty or other instructional staff in postsecondary institutions by performing teaching or teaching-related duties.” Graduate employees who contribute non-teaching work, like research, are included in different occupational categories. “Graduate teaching assistants constitute a special case in terms of the evolution of their employment numbers,” wrote report author Diana Sabau, “as the data has oscillated over the 10 years we analyzed.”

Sabau said such a sharp decline might not be clearly due to job loss. “The evolution might be affected by how BLS reports on employment and if any changes are made to official occupation designations.” 

However, Sabau did not provide a conclusive answer as to why such a sharp decline seems to have occurred. The BLS could not provide specific comment regarding the issue by publication time.

Sabau said that in addition to the drop in employment, the median wage for Oregon graduate teachers descended by 15% over the 10-year period.

While the apparent statewide decline hasn't been focused on by GTFF, Ravisankar indicated that the issue is something that could be considered in the near future.

Corrie Parrish, a graduate student studying planning, public policy and management, said when she saw the graduate employee positions were cut in her department, she was “disappointed” but “not surprised.”

Parrish said for the 115 graduate students in the school of planning, public policy and management, there are about 40 GE positions available — making them “really competitive.”

“There’s a lot of people depending on this funding, and if they don’t get their funding, unfortunately, either they aren’t as successful in the program, they end up dropping out of the program or they never even start the program to begin with,” Parrish said. 

The decline in GE positions comes in the middle of contract negotiations between the university and the GTFF. The GE contract expired in March, and the union declared an impasse in negotiations Sept. 26 after 10 months of bargaining. 

Bargaining broke down over cuts to the GE health insurance and cost-of-living salary increases. The university and the union continue to negotiate, but if the union and UO don’t come to an agreement, the union could declare a strike as soon as Nov. 2.

“While we’re confident about where we stand as a union,” Ravisankar commented on the bargaining process, “we’re also disappointed with what we’ve seen with the university consistently.”

Parrish said in some cases, reducing the number of GEs on campus means they are responsible for teaching larger classes, resulting in less one-on-one time with discussion leaders. 

“I think that really affects the students’ learning,” Parrish said. “And those are things you don’t see day to day — that there’s a lot of work we’re doing, that we’re just as valuable, if not more valuable, than faculty members.”