You may not have read about the graduate student unrest that erupted at Mizzou recently.  But you should be aware that it could have occurred on the campus of virtually any other research university in the country.

It started when an unidentified someone in the graduate school administration at the University of Missouri-Columbia made a very clumsy decision to cancel a health insurance subsidy provided to graduate students who are on teaching and research assistantships.

Although that decision was quickly reversed, it never should have been made in the first place and the gaping wound it opened won’t close as quickly.

Mizzou graduate students on assistantships receive a monthly stipend in exchange for their time spent teaching and conducting research. For most, their tuition is also waived, or heavily discounted. For as long as anybody can recall, these TA’s and GRA’s have always straddled a bizzaro-world by virtue of being at once part-student and also part-employee. And typically they work full-time in both capacities for several years.

They have the rights, privileges and responsibilities of any other student on campus, but typically receive only a slice of the benefits extended to other university employees. To be sure, universities are subject to external pressures that contribute to this state of affairs, ranging from external funding pipelines to complicated federal and state rules. Collectively, however, they bear a responsibility for not working together to better control these external forces in a way that better accommodates the needs of graduate assistants.

Graduate assistants tend to be paid less than other full time employees of similar rank/duties. And rather than extend to these students access to the university employee health plan, a general solution is to provide graduate assistants a supplement to their stipend in order to purchase health insurance in the market. These supplements are less costly than putting the students on an employee health plan.

And that is where the rub lies. Stipends, tuition waivers and employee benefits cost a university money, whereas it is difficult for administrators to not think of students as people who should pay for access to a university and thereby provide revenue. TA’s and GRA’s in fact do drive revenue, but do so indirectly. Good teaching and good research helps to generate undergrad tuition and draw in research grants.

Administrators have the responsibility of watching the larger funds flow, and can easily lose the forest for the trees. In default mode, they tend to seek out ways to work the nebulous status of graduate assistants as student/employee hybrids to cut costs and to otherwise deal with them as if they are, well, just students. At Mizzou, in this instance the graduate students were treated in a way they would never treat their regular employees: they received an email announcing that in two weeks their insurance subsidy will be canceled.


I think it is fair to say that this Mizzou incident exposes a deeper and wider problem, one of administrators taking graduate students for granted. Minimally, these compensation packages should acknowledge the substantial contributions that graduate students provide to the educational and research missions on their campuses…and thus to the overall bottom lines of the revenue streams.

It is well past the time to do something about this problem. Administrators need to understand what most faculty get, as exemplified at Mizzou where the faculty have risen in protest with the students. The best students, the ones we most want to attract to our programs, the TA’s and GRA’s who will be the best at what they do and who will drive real success on our campuses and in our research groups, have scores of other universities that they can attend to specialize in virtually the exact same field of study. The smart administrator is the one who will resource these graduate students and their programs commensurate with their contributions.

Imagine a research university where graduate students suddenly stopped enrolling, and from which every graduate student who was there suddenly dropped what they were doing and left. Forever. As a faculty member I can tell you that it would quickly become a very craptastic place to work.

In full disclosure, I’m a Mizzou grad. Twice (BS ’84 and PhD ’88). My monthly stipend of $600 as a GRA was insufficient to live on but also all the motivation I needed to finish the PhD in 4 years. Half-way through new federal rules subjected that stipend to income taxes, worsening the situation for students who followed. Fortunately, I was grandfathered in to the “nontaxable scholarship” scheme of my time. Mizzou was a great place to learn and to train as a researcher, and I’m certain it is even better today. This problem of how administrators treat graduate students isn’t Mizzou’s alone and it isn’t a new problem, either.