Over the last several weeks, the UC Davis Department of Spanish has faced a growing stir of uncertainty within its graduate department.
With the recent announcement of additional cuts to the department’s operational budget, graduate teaching assistants and doctoral students are being forced to step up their workload, with less funding.
“There are two main issues at stake,” said Matthew Russell, one of 56 graduate students in the Department of Spanish. “One is that in past years [in the Spanish department] they switched the title of ‘teaching assistant’ to ‘associate in Spanish’, which acted as a promotion, and provided more funding [to students] in better financial times. Now with the budget cuts this is not possible, so the second issue is the salary cut, which comes out to about $80 a month.”
While the change in title and a nearly $1,000 annual pay decrease represents only a small piece of the national recession, these changes have had a major impact on the lives of students and faculty on a local level; especially those who are already facing economic hardship, said several graduate student representatives.
Many graduate students who work as TAs use their limited salary to support spouses and young children who are not covered by the university’s health and medical insurance, Russell said.
Graduate students are also given five years to finish their dissertation, but are only guaranteed by a year-to-year contract. With these changes in the budget, students question the future of this five-year time frame, and fear that those unable to finish in five years may no longer be given the opportunity to acquire an additional sixth year of funding.
“I think that some people are concerned because they were so surprised by the decision that they were worried we could get another ‘bomb dropped on us,’ and we’d have even less time to finish,” Russell said. “But these two professors [Cecilia Colombi and Robert Irwin] assured us in our meeting that isn’t going to happen – everyone is going to have their five years guaranteed, because otherwise you can’t finish a PhD in under five years, and TAs are really fundamental for the survival of the department.”
Cecilia Colombi, chair of the Spanish Department, has been working alongside fellow faculty members to mitigate the negative effects of the changes. Colombi is one in a team of students and faculty who have been working to clear up misconceptions, and support those who have been effected the most.
“The cuts will be hardest on sixth year doctoral students – and our concern for them is why we have decided to revert to standard TA pay rates for all TAs,” Colombi said. “We let the students know that we are employing every strategy possible, to guarantee all of them five years or, as much as possible, six years of TA support.”
Colombi also emphasized that these cuts are only a small example of many made throughout the university, and both faculty and staff are being affected as well.
“Faculty salaries have been frozen, and many faculty members will be required to teach an additional course next year, again without any increase in pay,” she said. “Many open faculty positions have gone unfilled, which has increased class size, advising and administrative responsibilities for faculty. The budget crisis is affecting everyone.”
Despite university and faculty support, the Spanish Department’s changes have also created problems for the department’s international graduate students, who, according to Graduate Affairs Officer Kay Green, represent eleven out of the 56 students in the program.
“The cut really affects international students, because they can’t get loans, and they also can’t get a job outside the university,” said Kelly Bilinski, a graduate student within the Spanish Department. “For those of us that are from [the United States], worst case scenario is we can look for a job elsewhere or take out loans – they don’t have those options.”
Despite the news, both students and faculty recognize that it could have been worse – no jobs were cut, students and faculty have a wide network of support, and the department as a whole is using this event as an opportunity to strengthen the relationships between the faculty and graduate students within the department.
“The professors in the department really are very concerned, and they’re working with us as much as they can – all of the decisions that have been made have really been made with the health and welfare of the department in mind,” Russell said.
“This whole situation is just causing an overall evaluation of the program, which is a good thing – because of this small crisis that we’ve had, there have been new forms of communication opened between the graduate students and professors, and in the future, I think there may be more space for input and reform.”
MICHELLE IMMEL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org