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FAQ: Student Academic Appointees

Apr 5, 2022

Indiana University is internationally recognized for the excellence of its graduate education programs. Numerous programs are regularly ranked in the Top 10 in their fields nationally by US News & World Report Best Graduate Schools. Talented students from around the world increasingly seek out IU to pursue their graduate level education as evidenced by IU’s continual growth in graduate program enrollments.

Our graduate students are highly valued for their academic and research contributions both within their course of study and to those undergraduate students who benefit from their teaching excellence. We are dedicated to ensuring that our graduate students’ academic and personal well-being are supported.

While the majority of IU’s 10,000 graduate students choose to pay for their education through outside jobs or loans, others receive financial support through opportunities to perform academic work for the university. Our students who choose this path, not only perform important work, but also gain valuable experience in their fields of study. We value the role they serve in advancing the university’s excellence.

Recently, a small group of these students has chosen to work with a national labor union to try to force IU to negotiate with them on graduate student compensation, the amount they pay in tuition and fees, and other related issues. This would greatly diminish the ability of students to work directly with their schools to address individual needs and concerns.

The FAQs below are designed to clarify important key facts and provide essential background information.


Which union is trying to organize graduate students at IU?

The United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), a national labor union, is focused on trying to organize graduate students at college campuses around the country. Their local chapter is the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition (IGWC-UE).
 
Is the union trying to represent all graduate students?

No, it appears that the union is only seeking to represent a group of students called Student Academic Appointees (SAAs). SAAs fill paid roles such as associate instructors, research assistants, graduate assistants, faculty assistants, or other similar roles. While there are over 10,000 graduate students at IU Bloomington, only about 2,500 serve as SAAs.
 
Why are they called Student Academic Appointees (SAAs)?

IU has many different employment classifications, which are divided into two main categories: academic appointees and staff. These categories help determine how individuals are compensated, what benefits they are eligible for, and so on.
 
Academic appointees are mainly faculty members. But because SAAs fulfill some of the same duties as faculty—teaching, grading papers, conducting research—they are also considered academic appointees. This means they are treated like faculty and receive many of the same benefits as faculty. This includes health and dental insurance, academic freedom protections, and access to grievance procedures. But because they fall under a student classification, their time for studying is protected by limiting their work hours to no more than 20 hours per week.
 
Staff, by contrast, tend to work in non-academic positions that help the university function. They hold jobs in dining services, building maintenance, emergency services, and so on. The rules that govern their employment are different from academic appointees because the nature of their jobs is different. A key distinction is that some staff are allowed to unionize. The Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition has suggested moving SAAs under staff policies, to allow them to unionize, but this change would mean giving up academic freedom protections, current grievance procedures, and other benefits that recognize SAAs as similar to faculty. Importantly, individuals classified as staff must work full-time hours in order to qualify for benefits such as insurance coverage and tuition waivers. With SAAs working only part-time as students, moving to a staff classification would also jeopardize their access to these benefits, as well.
 
Is it true that IU doesn’t consider SAAs to be employees?

While not considered staff, SAAs are employees, and we value the important work they do for the university as academic appointees. They are, however, only part-time employees. The terms of their appointments are limited to 20 hours per week and for 10 months a year, in order to acknowledge their primary relationship with IU is as a student.
 
SAAs are compensated through stipends, departmental grants and fellowships, and tuition waivers. Also, all are provided with health and dental insurance as long as they work at least 15 hours per week. Last year, the university invested, on average, over $51,000 into each SAA in these various forms of compensation and benefits.
 
How are compensation levels determined for SAAs currently?

Compensation for individual students is determined by the schools and departments that employ them. Schools and departments are the subject matter experts for their areas of study, and are better positioned to respond to the needs of individual students than central administration. This decentralized structure is why schools and departments are the university’s primary channel of communication with graduate students.
 
Why is IU opposed to recognizing a union for SAAs?

SAAs’ primary role at IU—the reason why they are here at all—is that they are first and foremost students pursuing degrees. Unionization changes the focus from their full-time education to their part-time work.
 
A single union representing all SAAs would erode the existing relationship between individual students, their advisors, and their schools. Currently, schools can directly and quickly address the concerns of individual students because they are the primary channel of communication. Unionization, however, would not only remove those decisions about SAAs from individual advisors, departments, and schools, but it would require concerns to be addressed through an industrial labor union with little understanding of the academic environment at IU, or in a given school.
 
The union is talking about a strike this semester for non-research work. Who would be affected by such a strike?

The union is considering a strike on teaching-related work this semester, encouraging SAAs not to teach classes, grade assignments, give exams, or turn in grades. They have further stated that, at the present time, they are not considering a strike on research-related work. This means the main consequences of their actions would fall squarely on undergraduate students. The academic progress of undergraduate students would suffer, and some seniors may have their graduation delayed as a result. Some undergraduates hoping to take summer classes may even have trouble accessing financial aid if their courses this semester aren’t completed.
 
How would IU respond to a strike by SAAs?

A strike is the refusal by some individuals to do the work they have been employed to do, so being on strike has the same consequences that any employee’s refusal to perform one’s responsibilities would have. IU has long-standing policies that address failure to fulfill responsibilities. The policies that SAAs agreed to work under very explicitly state that failure to fulfill academic job responsibilities may result in suspension, termination, and prohibition on future appointment to SAA jobs. IU would pursue these courses of action in order to protect the academic progress of undergraduate students.
 
If SAAs don’t form a union and don’t strike, how can they advocate for themselves with IU?

All schools and departments hold regular meetings with SAAs, and this is always the first avenue for communication. SAAs worked with the College of Arts and Sciences in 2018, which led to reduced fees in 2019, and a new minimum stipend for the College starting in 2020. These actions amount to a stipend increase of 15% for some students.
 
Another avenue is the Graduate and Professional Student Government, which is recognized as the elected voice of all graduate students with representation from each school. The Vice Provost for Graduate Education meets with GPSG leadership every two weeks to address concerns of graduate students.
 
In addition, while most of these issues are best addressed by individual units, the central administration will step in to assist units when necessary to help improve the well-being of our students. IU’s new provost, Rahul Shrivastav, spent his first few weeks holding listening sessions with SAAs in every school. As a result of those meetings, he spearheaded a campus-wide raise of 5% for all SAAs; raised the campus-wide minimum stipend; and formally confirmed that tuition waivers apply beyond the school that issues them. He has also established as a formal policy that all SAA appointments will be greater than 37.5% FTE, assuring (as is currently the case) that all SAAs have access to excellent health and dental benefits.

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