UCLA sent a clear message to graduate student mentors last month: It’s never the university’s fault.
College Academic Counseling, the university’s academic counseling program that pairs graduate student mentors with undergraduate students for academic advising, told graduate students serving as College Academic Mentors that starting next year, they would no longer be eligible for the tuition waivers and health care benefits they currently receive.
The sudden benefits cut followed the university’s realization that it incorrectly classified graduate student mentors as academic apprentice employees – a category that includes teaching assistants – instead of as student staff positions. Academic apprentice employees often receive salaries, health care benefits and tuition fee remissions, whereas student staff positions tend to only receive hourly wages.
Graduate students have argued the change would sabotage the program’s quality because it would deter CAMs from investing as much time and energy in it as they currently do. The university, however, has given them a firm answer: The benefit cuts are irreversible.
There’s no denying UCLA wasn’t following its own policies and needed to make amends. However, graduate students aren’t at fault for the university’s inability to follow its own rules. Suddenly gutting benefits that have become a mainstay for graduate student mentors isn’t just inconsiderate – it’s distasteful. UCLA should instead maintain the current benefits for a few years, so CAMs can adjust to the wage-only system, while raising mentors’ hourly wages to retain graduate students’ participation in the program.
CAMs serve a vital role on campus. They provide academic counseling to tens of thousands of first- and second-year undergraduate students and can act as a vital resource for undergraduate students seeking to apply for graduate school. Several CAMs said the health care benefits and fee remissions encourage them to serve for several years and build relationships with mentees, through means such as holding workshops on the Hill, attending orientation fairs and filling in for departments that are short on counselors.
These are not trivial commitments. Graduate students have numerous responsibilities, and the fact that they are able to interface with and develop extensive academic relationships with undergraduate students is no small feat for a crowded public university of more than 45,000 students.
But the university seems to have hardly considered these concerns. Robin Garrell, dean of UCLA Graduate Division, said UCLA’s decision was not up for question. While it’s imperative public institutions follow their own rules, UCLA appears to be using this reasoning to escape the point that the mentorship program will suffer notably if graduate students are not enticed to participate.
And we’ve seen this tactic before. Last year, the University of California justified cutting benefits for summer lecturers at four campuses, including UCLA – benefits these instructors had been receiving for 15 years – by arguing the universities had not been consistent with the UC’s policies.
Back then, little consideration was given for the fact that lecturers, who already are paid little for their work, would be disincentivized from working at UC campuses if they lost benefits. And now, little consideration is being given for the financial barriers graduate students must overcome to contribute to the campus through mentoring and teaching.
UCLA’s insistence on being consistent with its policies is understandable. But it also shows us just how consistently administrators break their own rules and disregard the campus community’s concerns.