NMSU graduate workers rally at regents’ meeting for tuition coverage

Student workers pay tuition unlike nearly all high-level research schools

By: - March 15, 2022 4:00 am

Paramveer Singh, a graduate assistant in the Environmental Department at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, asked the school’s Board of Regents to provide tuition coverage for graduate workers. (Courtesy of the New Mexico State University Board of Regents)

Graduate students often work for the university they attend, and in exchange, have their tuition covered.

But not all grad workers get tuition coverage. That includes Paramveer Singh, a graduate assistant in the Environmental Department at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. 

On average, NMSU graduate employees pay $6,000 each year in tuition. That leaves their take-home pay at around $12,113, significantly below the federal poverty line of $13,590 for a single adult.

Singh said his fellow grad workers can no longer afford this. They were already crunched financially, Singh said, but now they’re facing rising rents, inflation and fuel prices that are “adding to the pain we endure.”

“As an international student, it takes us about two to three years to save enough money to buy a plane ticket to visit our family back home,” Singh said. 

The financial situation at NMSU is further aggravating this crisis, he added.

This is a highly exploitative situation, and it’s holding NMSU back from reaching our full potential as a research university.

– Paramveer Singh, graduate worker

“Now is the time for real action,” Singh said.

Singh was addressing the NMSU Board of Regents on Monday afternoon. Earlier, outside the meeting chamber, the grad workers union rallied along with faculty, undergraduate students, alumni and community supporters.

Graduate students delivered a petition signed by over 1,100 supporters to the regents, along with a series of public comments at the meeting.

NMSU officials hope to achieve a high research classification known as R1, the school’s student newspaper reported in 2019. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education is the nationwide system used to distinguish between different types of colleges and universities.

According to public information compiled by the union, of the 131 Carnegie R1 research institutions, 126 provide graduate workers with full tuition coverage and health insurance — and higher pay than NMSU.

Graduate students at NMSU teach hundreds of undergraduate classes every semester and contribute to the research mission of NMSU, students and faculty told the regents.

Tuition remission is a basic need for graduate workers, said Samantha Cooney, a union leader at the University of New Mexico. She went down to Las Cruces for the NMSU meeting, she said, to show solidarity with the graduate workers there.

By refusing to provide tuition remission, the NMSU administration and Board of Regents are preventing social mobility and diversity at the university, Cooney said, because Black and  Indigenous students, and other students of color, bear the brunt of bad working conditions and poverty wages.

“Millions of dollars are brought into this institution, because graduate workers work here,” Cooney said. “If you want to do well in research, pay your researchers better and give them tuition remission so that they are able to stay at this university and attain the level of research that you want to see.”

Over the course of several university administrations, there have been repeated calls and plans to raise NMSU’s status to that of a respected, high-level public R1 research university, said Neil Rosendorf, a professor in the Department of Government.

One of the things universities like that do provide is full tuition remission to graduate students, Rosendorf pointed out.

“Until then, NMSU will remain a second-tier institution, outshone and outperformed by peer universities,” he said.

Last year, the New Mexico labor board ruled that graduate students are public workers and so can unionize. In February, UNM dropped its legal fight against grad workers unionizing there.

Matthew Varakian, a fourth-year astronomy Ph.D student and NMSU organizer, told the regents that they continue to work against grad workers by claiming that they don’t count as employees, rather than work with them to negotiate solutions.

“Whether we are unionizing or not, it’s clear that tuition coverage is becoming the most basic level of support that a university should offer,” Varakian said.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham just signed a law providing free tuition to most undergraduate students at public universities across the state, saying the funding will strengthen the state’s economy and open the door for every New Mexican to build a better future for themselves.

But the new law doesn’t include graduate workers.

Iñigo García-Bryce, a history professor and former director at the Center for Latin American and Border Studies, said he is embarrassed to be a faculty member at NMSU, because he would not be able to do his work without his graduate assistants.

“What kind of world are we living in, then, that they don’t get tuition assistance?” García-Bryce asked the regents, “that you’re not willing to talk to them when they form a union?”

García-Bryce asked the board members for their thoughts about what people were saying to them, and none of the regents spoke up.

The board ended its meeting without discussing the grad workers at all.

“We always appreciate hearing from our university community,” NMSU spokesperson Justin Bannister said in a written statement on Monday afternoon. He said the issues brought up by the grad workers at the meeting are “something NMSU has been working to address.”

“In the past few months, we believe we have made some real progress in identifying some possible solutions and we look forward to presenting this information to our stakeholders and working with them to find a resolution,” he said.

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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.