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Graduate Student Worker Concerns at NAU

UUNA’s Open Letter on Graduate Student Worker Concerns

As COVID-19 continues to spike in Arizona, concerns for plans to return to Northern Arizona University’s Mountain Campus have grown amongst students, faculty and staff. These concerns are widely shared, and many graduate students and workers have expressed fear, trepidation and frustration with these administrative decisions. As both graduate student and instructional staff, graduate workers are ideally placed to provide feedback from both student and instructor perspectives.

Furthermore, we urge NAU administrators to be more transparent with financial expenditures. In the virtual town hall meeting on Tuesday June 24th, President Cheng and the Executive Board expressed that NAU would not be able to continue as a viable institution if the campus was not reopened for Fall 2020. We are gravely concerned with this statement because it seems the university is more concerned about financial operations instead of the health and the well-being of the Lumberjack community. The systemic lack of transparency regarding university planning and budgeting have resulted in an inability to respond proactively and in the best interests of the people during the pandemic.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic growing rapidly in Arizona, and the new August 12th first day of classes, graduate students and graduate employees are understandably concerned about how the decisions made this summer by the administration at NAU will impact them. Especially for incoming graduate students who are in the midst of relocating to Flagstaff, it is often unclear where to turn for answers. First and foremost among these concerns relates back to President Cheng's recent message to the University. She wrote that: "Work groups are currently developing plans to enable teaching and learning, student life, research and creative activity, operations, and events and engagement to resume in as normal a manner as possible with modifications to safeguard the health of our community, our families, and our neighbors." Finally many of our appointments for the upcoming academic year as a Graduate Teaching Assistant have been scheduled for an earlier first day of classes. 

These situations raise a number of important questions:

  • How are graduate students being represented in these work groups, since they take part in these activities as students, educators, researchers, and staff? 

  • Is there specific student representation (both undergraduate and graduate) on the relevant committees? 

  • Will the new start date allow an adequate amount of time for training and prep for all Graduate Assistants?

  • Some graduate students (current and returning) will have summer employment obligations or housing arrangements that prevent them from returning to campus in time for the adjusted start date. How will these numerous cases be accommodated?

  • Will Graduate Assistant salaries be adjusted to account for the earlier start date? Since there is no announced plan for Spring semester, and academic year appointments run for 38 weeks, a salary with an adjusted start date but the same end date should have its salary adjusted accordingly. If holidays (winter break, and spring break, for instance) are not counted toward the total number of weeks of employment, this adjustment should be greater.

  • In addition to adjusting compensation, will the start date of graduate student health insurance coverage be adjusted appropriately?

  • President Cheng's letter also made reference to "a mandatory course on mitigating health and safety risks for all faculty and staff." Will these same training materials be made available to (and required of) graduate employees? Will there be compensation for this additional training?

Inconsistent and Conflicting Information

Next, there appears to be conflicts of information that is being sent out by the Graduate College and by different departments. This is confusing and distressing for many graduate students and workers, who are concerned about the poor communication between their department and the administration. How is information being shared with departments, and how can this communication be made clearer and more transparent?

One purpose of adopting a HyFlex model for instruction is to provide students the opportunity to choose whether to attend courses in person or remotely, and to make that decision differently day-by-day. We would like greater clarity in understanding the parameters of HyFlex, and how this model will impact our academic freedom and privacy. Also, with this new course format comes additional labor in building course materials. How will this additional labor be compensated? 

Instructional Autonomy for Graduate Teach Assistants

Additionally, Graduate Teaching Assistants often serve as instructional staff, and not the primary instructor, and therefore will likely not be afforded the same opportunity to choose how to conduct classes. Especially for those instructional staff (not just GTAs) who are in at-risk groups or who have members of their household in at-risk groups, face-to-face instruction poses an additional risk to their health and safety, and not everyone will be in a position to speak up about these concerns. GTAs and other vulnerable faculty (the term VITAL faculty has been proposed for these groups   ( may feel particularly unable to voice their concerns. In what venue will graduate student and graduate workers be able to voice these concerns in order to receive clear and timely responses from the administration?

Devastating Cuts to Faculty

Finally, we would like to address the recent cuts and subsequent loss of faculty as very distressing and disruptive to our graduate careers. Many graduate students have come to NAU in order to work with a specific faculty member, and to lose their advisors, supervisors and mentors is both emotionally distressing and academically disruptive, particularly when these layoffs have been communicated with an alarming lack of professionalism, as has unfortunately been the case on numerous occasions. 

The caliber of NAU’s institution is degraded by these losses, and graduate students share concerns that the quality of their programs and this university has been compromised through these administrative decisions. Such sweeping job losses, resulting in the loss of health insurance for faculty and staff (and often their families) during a pandemic shows a concerning lack of compassion for NAU employees. As graduate students and graduate workers, who have sacrificed greatly to pursue academic careers, these decisions have shaken our trust in this establishment, and lowered our confidence in higher education overall.

We hope that these concerns will be addressed clearly and promptly.

Thank you,

The University Union of Northern Arizona

American Federation of Teachers

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