Friday, February 08, 2008

Stipend policy fallout

To follow up the emails from Dr. Cunningham, let me summarize what’s happened from my perspective over the last year and a half, since I’ve held the position of GSO President.

The agreement with the university and the March center was worked out by the student council (formerly “All-Hill Council”) over the course of several years. The council agreed to contribute $750,000 for the first 2-3 years of the center’s opening, in exchange for the prospect of revenue sharing if and when March began to show a profit. The agreement was not binding, and the university had pledged to make up any difference if the students fell short of the pledge. This money was raised by increasing the incidental fee significantly for all full time students at OHSU.

As Dr. Cunningham stated, PIs were not consulted on this decision, and many were not happy to be forced to pick up the tab. The graduate council established an ad-hoc committee to investigate the exact nature of all fees that grad students and their PIs were responsible for. The committee delivered a number of recommendations that were voted on by the grad council (and can still be found on the GC webpage). At that point, the faculty agreed that PIs continue paying all mandatory fees for their students (which included the full incidental fee).

During the incidental fee task force meetings last spring, the faculty representative (Holly Jimison) and myself expressed the concerns about the March fee. We agreed to support the continuance of the March portion for one additional year (2007-08), but only with numerous stipulations that included the reevaluation of the agreement prior to the seating of the next incidental fee task force. It was felt that it would negatively affect the relationship of the students and the university to back out of the handshake agreement when the March had only been open for a few months. There were also concerns from blocs of medical students that if we fell short of the agreed amount, forcing the university to pay that portion, that the funds would be raised by increasing their tuition. We suggested the establishment of an opt-out mechanism for students who didn’t want access to March, but this was not feasible to put in place for this year.

Addressing this issue has been a priority for the GSO this year. We have representatives on the Student Council executive committee (Dustin Johnsen) as well as the March Advisory Committee (Carmen Doom). The overarching goal was simple – get affordable access to March for students who desire it, but allow students to opt out of the fee if they preferred not to pay it.

Each November, the graduate council discusses stipend levels to be set for the next year. Although we have been accustomed to getting a $500 raise each year, this is by no means a policy. With the current financial climate (at both OHSU and NIH) this is sometimes a heated debate. It certainly was this year, with many faculty favoring freezing stipend levels for next year. The idea of a one-time $1000 raise, concomitant with placing the burden for March on the students caught traction. The way most grants are structured, stipends and tuition are easier to account for than one-off fees. The price of graduate students is increasing for PIs at OHSU – the SOM is increasing the amount of tuition charged per student (it’s gone from $0 to $250 a term to $500 a term next year, and may increase up to $1250 a term in the next few years). In order to maintain health insurance for dependents of grad students, a “resource fee” has been established that distributes this cost amongst all mentors, so as not to overwhelmingly burden individual PIs, but to maintain need-based access to additional health care for student-parents.

I presented this potential policy change at the GSO meeting in December, one week before it was voted on at Graduate Council. I personally found this agreement to be acceptable. Although I would have preferred the support of the faculty through the negotiation process, I was confident we would “fix” the March agreement to allow for an opt-out mechanism. (And also liked the idea of getting the faculty off my back about this). The students in attendance were less enthusiastic, and asked me to oppose the proposal, or at least attempt to stall the vote until further discourse could be had. I did. The proposal passed anyways.

This didn’t really affect our plan of attack on the March agreement, but it did add a sense of urgency, which was relayed to the Student Council, as well as the Provost’s office.

What does change the plan is the state’s decision to lift the tort cap, and subsequent proposed budget cuts by the university. Among other things, President Robertson announced that the university would have to consider the possibility of closing or outsourcing the March center. This was not surprising, considering the center projects to lose over $1 million dollars this year.

So what does this mean? With the university considering pulling support for March, I feel there is no longer any obligation for the students to support it either. Even if it remains open, there is no reason to think the agreement with the students will remain the same next year. We would work to ensure a student rate for access, but I don’t anticipate (and will strongly oppose) any “mandatory” fee. In the case that March is closed/outsourced, the student council is already considering the possibility of re-establishing a small fitness facility in the upcoming student union (where the old gym was anyways). The university is expected to make a decision in the next week, and we’ll relay that information as soon as we have it. In making decisions going forward, we will be aggressively soliciting opinions/ideas from all students.

Bottom line? I don’t think we’ll be getting a bill for the March center next year. (And if we don’t, you’d be able to pocket a $1000 raise.)

I admit to doing a less than stellar job at keeping all the students up to date on these details. Our communication systems are horribly flawed – I can’t personally send email to the entire GSO. I do present this kind of information at all the monthly GSO meetings, and promise to get meeting minutes posted here in a more timely fashion. I also subscribe to the “no news is good news” theory – I (and other GSO/Student Council Reps) do a lot of behind the scenes work. Maintaining the status quo isn’t an easy task, and rather than causing a panic by announcing all the possible problems, it’s usually easier to solve them, and hope nobody noticed. Had I known this announcement was being sent out this week, I would have posted this info earlier.

The real issue here is the financial support the university is giving to the basic sciences and graduate education. We shouldn’t be at the point where this type of accounting shift is driving a wedge between students and faculty. I am encouraging the graduate council representatives, program directors, and department chairs to discuss this openly with the students, so we can work together to fight for our piece of the pie at OHSU.

We’ll update information on this blog as it becomes available. Please use the comments section to discuss this openly.


Anonymous said...

As a former (!) student, two year GSO representative and Student Council Member, I want to add my two cents to this issue. Students should know that most of these decisions regarding financial student support of march were made years ago and our GSO and Student Council officers have spent the last year or two taking care of the fallout from these past commitments.

No bitching to Eric is allowed. If you think things should be different, go to GSO meetings and get involved. The "I don't have time" excuse does not apply here. Our elected representatives demonstrate the novel idea of successful multi-tasking. I suggest you give it a try if you are unhappy with the current situation. I think you will find, as I did, that there are numerous possibilities for innvolvement that you will find rewarding and that will, imagine this, also enhance your CV.
Best of luck.

Anonymous said...

I don't have time.

Anonymous said...

I'm kinda sick of being told that if we wanted our opinions to be heard, then we should be involved in GSO. First of all, that is bullshit. The point of GSO representation, or any government for that matter, is that there are officials who represent the entire body of people. I'm getting a PhD, if I don't have time to play politics or be involved in every decision making committee there is, that doesn't mean my opinion on how my stipend is spent doesn't matter. But instead of being interested in representing what a LOT of students told them, it seems some student representatives are more interested in doing whatever they want. Because the people who have the time and interest in being involved in student government and various task forces obviously have free time and would likely be more interested in a wellness center or student union. Other students though have families and children or other obligations that would keep them from both representing themselves at such meetings or using such ammenities. And yet they have to pay out of their pockets so that student with LESS responsibilites can have MORE fun. Basically a few students with too much time on their hands screwed the rest of us. Thanks.

And to be clear, I'm not saying that GSO or student government is a waste of time. It really is extremely important, and has done great things (I'm pretty happy to have vision and dental insurance). Lots of people involved in GSO and All hill are interested in representing the students' best interesets (like you). I'm not saying that choosing to use your free time to be involved with such things is bad. But many student don't have that free time or choose to use it elsewhere. They were obviously not considered when it was decided that mandating a ridiculously high gym fee was a good idea.