NMSU students to rally Tuesday for better graduate working conditions

Protest follows votes of no confidence in leadership

By: - November 15, 2021 5:50 am

New Mexico State University Graduate Workers United held an in-person and virtual forum on graduate student wellness on Nov. 12. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

LAS CRUCES — Kathy Key-Tello is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in fiction and English at New Mexico State University and a graduate student working as a teaching assistant.

Key-Tello suffers from multiple psychiatric disabilities. Unable to afford the health care plan offered by NMSU, she went to the wellness clinic on campus, where the cost of care is covered by tuition.

Once there, she was told there is no psychiatrist on staff. The clinic will help patients if their case is minor enough, she said, but her medical history is too extensive to get help from the facility.

“I love my class and I love teaching, but every single time I run into a psychiatric emergency, I have to ask myself, how much is my life worth?” she said, while sharing her experience during a forum on graduate student wellness on Nov. 11. 

The forum was part of a series of events organized by the NMSU Graduate Workers United to highlight three main issues they are organizing around: no tuition remission, inadequate or no health care and low wages. They also want better grievance procedures.

A rally on Tuesday will be their latest effort to draw attention to their fight.

Survey: 60% of grad students can’t find health care

Key-Tello makes the minimum stipend for graduate workers at NMSU, $18,435 per year, working as a teaching assistant for mandatory undergraduate courses. She designs the entire curriculum, grades assignments and is available to help her 27 students. She also works at NMSU’s writing center.

Unlike 80% of NMSU’s peer institutions, graduate workers here do not get their tuition reimbursed, said Ali Hyder, a graduate worker in the Astronomy Department and organizer with NMSU Graduate Workers United.

Key-Tello pays $6,461.20 for tuition out-of-pocket each year, making her take-home pay from the university just $11,973.80 per year, or 93% of the federal poverty line for a single adult.

Even if NMSU provided tuition remission, graduate workers would still fall below a living wage for Doña Ana County, said Matt Varakian, a PhD student and organizer with NMSU GWU.

And unlike 74% of its peer institutions, NMSU does not provide health care to its graduate workers, Hyder said. The plans available to them have high monthly premiums, large deductibles and poor coverage overall. A survey found 60% of NMSU graduate workers said they could not find a health care plan that was affordable and covered what they needed.

“Maybe most importantly, if you have a medical emergency on campus, the closest hospital to campus is not covered by the majority of marketplace plans,” Varakian said.

NMSU told Key-Tello that because her stipend is so low, she would qualify for a tax credit in the health insurance marketplace. However, the tuition paid back to NMSU doesn’t count and she is married, and must include her husband’s income on her taxes, which makes her ineligible for that relief.

The health plan NMSU offered Key-Tello had a $200 monthly premium, and a $9,500 deductible.

The public is invited to join a student demonstration in support of the ASNMSU and Faculty Senate votes of no confidence in the NMSU president and provost.

3 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 16

Outdoor Stage, NMSU Corbett Center Student Union

NMSU is obligated under federal law to provide health care to its international students, but Varakian said those plans have been very volatile, the providers have changed, coverage has changed year to year and there’s been poor communication about what’s covered and why prices have been going up.

Graduate workers, undergraduate students and faculty have been trying for two years to get the NMSU administration to improve graduate students’ working conditions, with no result. So, they formed a union and by May 2021 a supermajority across all graduate departments had signed cards formally expressing their wish to form a union.

The legal battle was being overseen by the NMSU labor board but is currently in the process of being transferred to the statewide labor board, Varakian said, which union organizers see as a victory because of the board’s previous Aug. 17 ruling establishing all graduate workers across the state as public employees under the law.

Today, our administrators are forcing our students to choose between doing that and putting food on the table, or getting adequate and routine medical care, or paying rent.

– Dr. Andrews Perez-Rojas, counseling psychologist, assistant professor, NMSU

NMSU administration recently allocated $638,825 per year to pay for four new top administrator positions, which as of Nov. 12 were not filled, according to a presentation by the union. The schools’ president, chancellor, vice chancellor and provost make salaries of $500,000, $450,000, $317,000 and $300,000, respectively.

“What this should tell you is that the priority of this administration doesn’t lie with us,” Hyder said. “It doesn’t lie with the well-being of the graduate student body, and it doesn’t lie with ensuring that the research community in this town is actually good, and that it fosters a good learning environment.”

A lack of support for the people who make NMSU run led the Faculty Senate to overwhelmingly approve a vote of no confidence in President Dr. John Floros and Provost Carol Parker on Nov. 4, said Dr. Andres Perez-Rojas, a counseling psychologist, assistant professor and co-director of training for the Counseling Psychology PhD program in the Counseling and Educational Psychology Department.

Dr. Andres Perez-Rojas, a counseling psychologist, assistant professor and co-director of training for the Counseling Psychology PhD program in the Counseling and Educational Psychology Department at NMSU endorsed the NMSU Graduate Workers United union on behalf of the school’s faculty on Nov. 12. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

The Faculty Senate accuses Floros and Parker of misappropriating NMSU funds, unethical hiring and promotion practices, deliberate circumvention of due process, rejection of principles and practices of shared governance, and broader impacts of systemic failure of leadership.

“Universities, particularly public universities, are meant to allow students to pursue their dreams and improve their lives, their loved ones’ lives and the lives of their communities,” Perez-Rojas said. “But today, our administrators are forcing our students to choose between doing that and putting food on the table, or getting adequate and routine medical care, or paying rent.”

Years of frustration has also led undergraduates to get involved, with a similar vote of no confidence in Floros and Parker by the Senate of the Associated Students of NMSU and an endorsement of the union by David de la Cruz, its president pro tempore.

Both the student and Faculty Senate resolutions denounce the poor working conditions for graduate students and the non-competitive hiring practices of NMSU leadership.

Garrett Moseley, of Albuquerque, is an undergraduate in criminal justice and government and student senator who is helping to organize a protest Tuesday meant to provide a place for the public to show support for the votes of no confidence and demand accountability from the administration.

“We have the Faculty Senate who passed the resolution, we had the ASNMSU Senate, but we feel that the protests will tie it all all together,” Moseley said. “And this is where the students themselves kind of get to come in and show their support for the no confidence resolution.”

He said he wouldn’t want the anger on campus to discourage anyone from coming to NMSU.

“I love New Mexico State, I wouldn’t trade coming to the school for anywhere, and it’s unfortunate that we find ourselves in this position, but in the end, I think the students fighting also shows their love for this university, but it’s tough love,” he said. “I like my university, but I also am going to hold my university accountable.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.