Rajeev Ravisankar, a University of Oregon GE as well as VP for external relations at GTFF, speaks on the stairs of Johnson Hall. Following the vote to authorize a strike, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation holds a rally to demand a fair contract at Johnson Hall on Oct. 18, 2019. (Marissa Willke/Emerald)

It’s 11:59 a.m. on a Monday, which means I am surveying the lecture hall in Pacific Hall to find a seat which will allow me to speak to as few people as possible. Finding one, I take a seat in a desk that appears to have been designed as an infant’s high chair. Placing my notebook onto my seemingly 4-inch desk, I look around a hall of bare cement floors and railings covered in chipped paint as a graduate employee walks to the front of the class of 100 students to give her lecture. 

This GE, Chandler Lester, will work countless hours each week to produce lectures, homework, study guides and tests. When Lester isn’t creating content or grading work, she is working on her dissertation so that she can receive a doctorate in economics. 

Lester is just one of the many graduate employees at the University of Oregon that make up the foundation of the university's education system. Many of these GEs have been fighting for months with the university just to ensure that their minimum salaries and health insurance increases match inflation rates. 

As of Tuesday, Oct. 29, the university and Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation reached a tentative agreement after 95% of GEs voted to authorize a strike on Oct. 17. As the threat of the strike ends, most students and teachers will go about their daily lives just as before. But this tentative agreement shouldn’t be viewed as resolution -- it's simply one small step in the fight for education at UO. 

Rajeev Ravisankar, GTFF’s vice president of external affairs, spoke about why the GEs' fight was so important in an underlying issue. 

“There is this prioritization that is playing out where administrative salaries are untouched and you have these big capital projects going on, and it just doesn’t sit well with those of us that are doing the work that allows the UO to function. We hear this line, ‘That money’s for something else.’ Well, where’s the money for wages, for benefits, for our lives?” Ravisankar said.

Leaving my interview with Ravisankar, I walked past the under-construction Knight Campus and $39 million Tykeson Hall to my literature class, which was recently relocated after an “unfixable” furnace made so much noise that it forced us into a new classroom. 

The two perceived juxtaposing sides of UO is apparent all over campus. Deteriorating buildings stand across from billion-dollar campuses being constructed through a mix of private money and bonds. GEs fight for healthcare and minimum salaries while President Schill receives a $60,000 annual salary raise. Tuition increases while multi-million-dollar stadium renovations tower over the campus. 

President Schill responded to this disparity in a campus message last year. “The vast majority of construction projects and programmatic investments we are making across campus are the result of targeted donor gifts, specific state capital allocations, or auxiliary funding sources.”

Since he was first hired as president, Schill has prioritized private donations due to a decrease in state funding. While in theory this makes sense, allowing private donors to decide where and what money goes towards puts donors' interests ahead of the students'. Allowing the Knight family to donate $500 million to a research campus named after them isn’t doing what’s best for the students who are paying tuition to attend Oregon, it’s doing what is best and most lucrative in the long term for Phil Knight. 

“We have high-paid administrators who are getting raises in the same year they are discussing budget cuts for everyone else and tuition increases. That for me is an attempt to corporate-ize the university,” Ravisankar told me.

Schill has become a willing puppet to Knight and other private donors. While these donors are allowed to choose where their money goes, a restricted budget is shouldered by students, teachers and other staff members.

Going forward, Ravisankar said that he hopes to work together with other groups to focus on the larger issue of how the university functions as a whole in order to make sure that everyone’s concerns are heard. 

The GTFF not backing down and forcing the university to come to a tentative agreement with them should be looked at as a battle victory in a much larger war. It is a fight that can be seen throughout the country, whether it be the SEIU strike earlier this year or the Chicago Public School strike. We  must continue to fight to ensure that the education system in America is used to help everyone, and not just those looking to exploit it.