Two Harvard professors share their thoughts on the latest from the US Republican Party’s tuition waiver tax plan.
Recently the House of Representatives essentially voted to destroy graduate education in the United States. By taxing tuition waivers as income — and therefore treating their taxable income as two to three times the amount graduate students are actually paid — the Republican tax bill would effectively put graduate study outside of the reach of all but the independently wealthy. While the Senate version of the tax bill does not include this provision, it is far from certain what the final bill after the reconciliation process will look like.
Facing a threat to their academic and professional careers, graduate students across the country are organizing to defeat the GOP tax plan. They have written op-eds in major newspapers, talked to local media, hosted actions to call Congressional representatives, and pressed their university administrations to make statements, provide guarantees on preserving wages and benefits for enrolled students at their current level, and lobby in Congress.
It is unsurprising that graduate students, who have already been organizing to have their labour recognized and valued through unionization, are leading the battle against this attack on higher education. They want representation in university decision-making and a national voice on issues that affect them — a path available to them through unionization.
The response from Ivy League university administrations range from a muted “we are monitoring the situation” to a more pro-active “call your representatives”. Asking graduate students to speak up against the Republican tax plan is a funny twist of fate for many university administrators who have been bemoaning the “politicization” of academic relationships because of unionization efforts by graduate students. Asking graduate students to engage in political action against the Republican tax bill while simultaneously thwarting their unionization efforts is, quite simply, hypocritical.
As faculty members with an interest in our students’ lives and as former graduate students ourselves, we are aware of many of the issues students already face during their graduate education. Graduate students have no guarantees in the face of cost of living increases. Pay raises are often at the mercy of the university’s endowment performance. Health insurance can increase by hundreds of dollars a year without warning.
There are other issues where campaigning through unionization could bring benefits. Access to mental health services in many institutions, for example, is a travesty. A recent report from the Social Science Research Network found one in ten female graduate students at major research universities reported being harassed by a faculty member.
These are the issues graduate student unions across the country are taking on in order to create diverse and family-friendly workplaces. They are doing the hard work of political organizing to improve their lives: the same work that is allowing them to mobilize in the face of a federal administration threatening to roll back critical rights and protections across the board.
This organizing by students threatens the governance structure at universities, so it is unsurprising, although disappointing, that universities — including our own institution — are fighting student unionization. As a result of administrative failures to follow labor laws, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the independent federal agency in charge of enforcing labor law, recently ruled that the Harvard graduate student union election was invalid due to the employer failing to follow labor law. Instead of holding a new election as ordered by the NLRB, the Harvard administration has filed an appeal to the highest court of the NLRB, risking voter protections in union elections nationwide.
Successful collective action requires the presence of robust institutions where different stakeholders can regularly engage in complex, contentious and, yes, political issues. Student unions are one such vehicle. They provide equal and meaningful representation for graduate students; demand accountability from university administrations on a range of concerns; and, in these critical times, stand together with university administrations on issues of national importance. University administrations would do well to recognize and value the labor that makes their campuses run.
J Wesley Boyd is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance and faculty member at the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School
Emmerich Davies is an assistant professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education