Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

LTE: Lynch Graduate Workers Deserve Health Care — and a Voice

By Lindsay J. Clements, doctoral student and member of the Boston College Graduate Employees Union - UAW.

On Friday, August 9th, Boston College notified Lynch School of Education and Human Development (LSOEHD) doctoral teaching fellows that our previously-provided health insurance premium coverage was being revoked.

The reason given? Budgetary concerns. (I will remind you here that Boston College boasts 2.6 billion dollars in endowment). This new medical insurance policy placing the burden of paying premiums on students actually took effect on August 7th — two days prior to any student being notified.

To understand the gravity of this policy change, it helps to know how student compensation in Ph.D programs at Boston College works. As doctoral student workers, we are paid for two types of work: (1) teaching fellowships, in which we teach undergraduate and master’s-level courses; and (2) graduate assistantships, for which we conduct research or act as teaching assistants under the guidance of a faculty member.

We are assigned to work 20 hours per week devoted entirely to teaching, entirely to research, or to a combination of both teaching and research (generally 10 hours each).

We also receive our health insurance through Boston College. However, under the new policy, doctoral students who dedicate their 20 hours per week to teaching fellowships would no longer receive funding for health insurance. Students working in split teaching/research roles would now be eligible for only 50% coverage. Teaching fellows would have to pay a lump sum of $1,300 for the fall semester and $1,820 for the spring semester (half that with 50% coverage) at the beginning of each semester.

To put this in context, teaching an undergraduate course earns a flat wage of $5,000 per course, while each BC student enrolled in a three-credit course pays $5,679 to take that course. That amounts to each LSOEHD course bringing in between $85,185 and $227,160.

Under the new policy, these sudden costs represent 7.6% of our annual stipends. For those responsible for paying the full cost of the premium (and only earning $20,000 for the year), the bills would represent 15.6% of annual pay. This completely eliminates the $500-$1,000 raise that doctoral students were allocated this year, as well as a significant portion of the raises earned over the last four years.

Part of what makes these cuts egregious is that we in the LSOEHD are already among the lowest paid graduate workers at BC. This lower pay reflects, and reinforces, the broader societal inequities and financial burdens on those working in the fields of education and child and family services. As we know from the recent teacher strikes and walkouts in California, West Virginia, Colorado, and Oklahoma, educators (the majority of whom are women) are systematically underpaid and under-resourced.

Teaching fellows in the LSOEHD (many of them women) are similarly under-resourced relative to the broader community of doctoral students at Boston College, despite contributing a great deal to the university’s teaching and research missions. In fact, Applied Psychology and Human Development in LSOEHD is the eighth most popular undergraduate major at Boston College. Enrollment in our courses continues to rise.

Doctoral students work hard to support the LSOEHD with high-quality teaching and research. The official name of the Lynch School of Education was even changed to reflect our teaching, research, and scholarship in the field of human development -- work accomplished in no small part by doctoral students. We contribute to the awards, grants, and teaching that make Boston College a top-ranked institution.

Yet the new policy left us with a dilemma: with a substantial portion of our already-low pay suddenly eaten up by new healthcare costs, how can we continue to perform at a high level? Will I be the best educator I can be if I must constantly worry about paying my rent? If I feel unwell but cannot afford the costs associated with seeing my doctor, how will my students and research be impacted?

We did not accept this unilateral change. LSOEHD doctoral students voiced their frustrations to the school administration, and we started a petition calling on the university leadership to undo this policy. We are still asking all our colleagues, students, and supporters to sign on here.

Boston College is now reversing the policy. The problem, however, is that word of the reversal has only come through personal channels, such as students’ personal communications with deans and department heads. As a whole, the Lynch School has not sent out an official notice or an updated policy document confirming to all doctoral students that the change will be revoked.

The decision to revoke, and then reinstate, our health insurance premium coverage was made behind closed doors. Doctoral students did not have a direct role in the decision-making that affects us. Though this policy change is specific to LSOEHD, the overarching issue is not. Currently, the university has the power to make unilateral decisions about graduate student working conditions without warning or accountability.

In fact, it was a similar event - previous elimination of insurance premium coverage for graduate students - that prompted creation of the Boston College Graduate Employees Union-UAW and our ongoing fight for a fair union contract. A mutually-agreed-upon contract is the only pathway to ensure that sudden policy changes become impossible and that financial cuts will not simply be passed down to workers with the lowest institutional power.