COLA’s closure of task force meetings to chill proceedings

Riley Brands

It’s like Shared Services all over again.

It’s even being brought before students at the same time of year, in the warm, bonhomous glow of the early fall. Former animus has supposedly been washed away, or at least papered over, and replaced with a clean slate. 

When Shared Services was brought before students last year, administrators feigned interest in their opinions about the elimination of staff jobs.

This time around, though, their indifference will likely hit much closer to home as most of the jobs likely to be cut will be students’.

The College of Liberal Arts’ TA Task Force, which has been charged with examining issues that affect graduate students, including compensation, workload and assignment, will be meeting throughout the semester, having done so twice already. 

Among the many topics under consideration will be the reduction of the total cohort of TAs and assistant instructors across the college.

Underlying these initiatives is a well-founded concern among administrators that the college is struggling to remain competitive with peer institutions with its low stipends. And because funding for the college hasn’t changed significantly in recent years, that means cuts to the student workforce. As it stands, the college pays most of its TAs with bachelor’s degrees around $5,500 less (if one looks at the total amount they receive rather than the base stipend) than the $26,500 the University recognizes as the annual combined tuition and living expenses for an in-state graduate student. (It’s more expensive for out-of-state students, but many of those get in-state tuition as part of their benefit packages, which can many times include a benefit to defray that cost as well.) 

This is a serious issue. If enacted, the cuts could eliminate a large number of jobs. But at this point we don’t know how many or how quickly those jobs will be slashed — for a number of reasons. First, the college has been inconsistent in its own numbers. In an email sent out Aug. 6, Esther Raizen, the college’s associate dean for research, said that “we will need to decrease the number of our TA/AI appointments by 10 percent or so by 2016-17.” In a more recent email, however, dated Sept. 9, Raizen’s assistant, Lauren Bairnsfather, said the reductions would need to be made by next year. Second, the college’s stated goal of decreasing appointments by 10 percent doesn’t match the target of 700 appointments that one member of the task force said was being aimed for. (The college currently has more than 800 teaching assistants and assistant instructors.) And third, after last week’s meeting, which was open to the public, the college has decided to close all future proceedings to potentially prying eyes. 

Those meetings, which will lead to the creation of a draft report to be presented to Raizen, will likely determine much of the future course of events for the college. However, I fear that much of the course may already be set. 

At last week’s meeting, several non-members of the task force raised concerns about a number of issues, including how the college would be able to afford to increase TA/AI stipends to the necessary minimum by cutting appointments by 10 percent. 

Dean Randy Diehl, who led that meeting, admitted quite plainly that it wouldn’t. 

In other words, if the college truly wants to remain competitive with peer institutions, it will almost certainly have to make further cuts at a later date given that its funding has been stagnant in recent years. 

These are issues that deserve the full attention and access of the University community. While I understand the need for changes to the funding structure for TAs and AIs, these cuts could potentially yank away the livelihoods of more than 100 graduate students, people who already don’t get paid enough for the work they do. As the task force continues to meet, I hope administrators truly listen to what the student task force members tell them.

Brands is a linguistics senior from Austin.