Smallorganization meeting photo by joshua levy

UH budget crisis hits Mānoa graduate students especially hard

Many may lose their TAships, forcing them to halt or quit their own academic journeys, or risk going into debt from student loans.

News Report
Will Caron

The budget crisis at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UHM) is already severely impacting the academic careers of some students. Many others could soon be in the same floundering boat. Besides concerns that undergraduates will be unable to access the courses they need, the graduate students that could have taught those courses are at serious risk of losing funding and teaching positions vital to their own education.

“I’m from California,” Biology Department graduate student Richard Coleman told the Independent. “If I don’t receive support from the university, I’d either have to take a leave of absence—which would severely disrupt my academic trajectory—take out student loans, putting me in massive debt, or stop at a Masters Degree and come to terms with the fact that I will not be able to continue my dream of receiving a Ph.D. I’m in the fifth year of my Ph.D. I’ve invested countless hours towards it and I can’t simply transfer somewhere else and start over again.” 

Coleman is only one of the many graduate students at UHM that are finding their academic future suddenly in jeopardy. Last week, proposed graduate teaching assistant (TA) position cuts in the Biology Department were leaked. According to the leak, instead of the usual 41 graduate TAs next semester, there could be as few as 25. Other affected departments at this point include the departments of Botany, Women’s Studies and Math.

Many of the students who are currently TAs in the College of Natural Sciences (CNS) will be out of a job. In addition to the high cost of living in Honolulu, students that previously had their tuition waived as part of their TAship would suddenly have to pay some $20,000 in tuition. International students are particularly at risk as their visas often state that they are only allowed to work at the university. For most of these students, losing a TAship and the tuition waiver it brings means taking a leave of absence or dropping out altogether.

“One thing is very clear for graduate students, and that is that we are viewed as dispensable,” said Biology Department graduate student Kaleonani Hurley. “Most graduate students have tuition waivers to cover their schooling, and therefore do not bring in money in the way that undergraduates do with their tuition fees. In fact, graduate students are not even legally allowed to form a union in the State of Hawai‘i because they are considered ‘student help.’ The dean has the power to make cuts in his college, and that has resulted in graduate students being the biggest target.”

In response, graduate students have planned a sit-in at the UHM Campus Center to protest the sudden and drastic cuts. Students will gather outside of the East-West Center at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, November 17, followed by a march around campus to the Campus Center courtyard from 9:30—10:30 a.m., culminating in a rally and press conference to begin at 10:45 a.m.

The rally is being organized by Fix UH Mānoa, the University’s newest Registered Independent Organization, as well as the Graduate Student Organization (GSO) and I Mua Mānoa, a group of concerned university and community members. Almost 100 students signed grievance letters that were sent on November 12 to Bill Ditto, the Dean of CNS, Brian Taylor, the Dean of SOEST, and Robert Bley-Vroman, the interim Chancellor. The letters outlined key steps that the group felt were “just and necessary for the future of the University,” setting a hard deadline for Friday, November 14. While meetings occurred on Thursday and Friday, Fix UH Mānoa says actions fell short of the demands.

“The graduate students feel that the consequences of the administration’s rash decision-making are too great,” said Christie Wilcox, a Biology Department graduate student and organizer for Fix UH Mānoa. “We are organizing our responses to the cuts, all of which will be loud and public. Next week, public actions will begin if these demands are not met.”

The students are demanding that all TAships for the spring semester be restored campus-wide, even if that means operating in the red, to ensure that no classes or sections are cut; and that, by the end of the semester, a new budget allocation model is proposed and made available for public comment.

“What the administration may or may not realize, but what will soon become apparent, is that targeting graduate students equates to targeting the undergraduates as well,” said Hurley. “Harmful effects of budget cuts trickle all the way down the chain to the undergrads, and they are probably the most vulnerable and least able to take action.”

Students say that the problem is a lack of transparency, particularly with regards to how funds are allocated on a year-to-year basis. Departments in CNS, for example, have been increasing enrollment as directed by the upper administration, yet have received no additional money to pay the faculty, instructors and TAs needed to teach their growing student body.

“What I’m most tired of is the politics,” said Hurley. “It’s very hard to know who to trust other than my own adviser. We have heard so many things over the last week, so many different people pointing fingers at each other. At this point, we need to find the real sources of these budget issues and force them to undo the damage they’re causing. For example, we got word that the Cancer Center has received the most money for this year, yet they don’t generate a single dollar in undergraduate tuition.  The cost of fixing the budget crisis for the College of Natural Sciences (roughly $1.5 million) is far less money than what the Cancer Center received. The problem is that the way money is distributed is not clear, and we need for our various colleges to have funds that are actually proportional to what our undergraduates bring in.”

It already takes the average biology major five and a half years to complete their four-year degree, in part because of low course offerings. The department learned last week of the proposed cuts to the TA positions, which will result in lab sections being cut from the schedule, courses losing their writing intensive designation (a graduation requirement) and the remaining TAs being forced to shoulder more sections with larger class sizes.

“As a student who applied for a TA position in the Spring, I was blind-sided by the notification,” said Coleman. “With less than two months before the end of the year, it’s impossible for me to adequately prepare to cover the cost of tuition and general living expenses for the Spring semester. My academic future is now uncertain. This budget situation did not simply creep in. There are people in upper administration who are not doing their job effectively.”

The Biology Department has decided to try and preserve funding for students whose advisers are within CNS. This means all of the graduate students at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB), Kewalo Marine Lab, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and in SOEST will not be allowed to apply for TAships—indefinitely—even though they are also Biology Department students.

And that’s just next semester—CNS will have to cut an additional $2 million for the fall semester, meaning there are likely even more TA cuts on the way. At the meetings last week, Dean Ditto said that even if he is allowed to prevent cuts in the spring, if the budget doesn’t change between now and Fall 2015, he’ll be forced to make $2.5 million in cuts, which would result in the slashing of all non-faculty instructors and 40 percent of the TAs within the CNS.

According to Hurley, based on what the faculty at her institute (HIMB) have said, there is no way to find enough money to cover all of the students at HIMB who could end up jobless next semester. “But the faculty have informed the HIMB students that they are working together to pool funds to try to support as many students as possible,” she said. There may even be plans in the works to try to open the dormitories on Coconut Island (the island in Kāne‘ohe Bay where HIMB is located) so HIMB students who might lose their apartments can still live on island and continue their research.

“The choice to target budget cuts at graduate students was made without consulting the students or the faculty, and notification is so last minute that neither the students nor their advisers have time to find alternative funding sources,” said Wilcox. “There’s no doubt these cuts are going to harm the university’s reputation and its ability to provide the education its undergraduates deserve. Furthermore, it’s shows a staggering lack of respect for the graduate students who serve as the workhorses of both the teaching the research arms of UHM.”

Supporters at tomorrow’s rally are encouraged to wear red.

Photo: Joshua Levy