Visual Arts Graduate Students Organize Around Promises For Increased Funding


Photo of the Visual Arts Grad Student town hall
Photo Courtesy of Joe Riley, PhD Student Art Practice

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Before graduate students across the University of California system joined together demanding a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), UC San Diego Visual Arts graduate students organized a department town hall in order to address complaints due to decreases to program funding.

After months of repeatedly voicing concerns over decreases in funding and increases to their cost of living, Visual Arts graduate students circulated a letter demanding their department’s administration meet the administration’s goal to fund all graduate students at a minimum of around $2,364 a month.

Executive Vice Chancellor (EVC) Elizabeth H. Simmons announced last October that there would be comprehensive reforms to graduate funding such that five years of financial support would be guaranteed to all doctoral students. This included an effective mandate that, by Winter Quarter 2020, all graduate students must be supported with at least 50% funding, equaling approximately $2,364 in their monthly salary.

Source: Visual Arts Graduate Funding Town Hall Slides

A survey conducted by UCSD Visual Arts graduate students shows that the average offer given to graduate students for winter quarter totals $1,475 a month. For many students in the department, $1,475 a month is not enough in a city where the cost of living is estimated to be nearly double that. For international graduate students in the department, the insufficient income comes with the added stress of failing to meet their visa’s income requirements and being put at risk of deportation.

“[This town hall is a part of] a mass movement among our students who are fed up and have nothing to lose coming together in solidarity… We are short of local living wage—feelings of precarity and unsustainability [among students] who are going into overdraft for groceries,” said Jonah Gray, a Visual Arts doctoral student and one of the town hall’s organizers.

Visual Arts graduate students are increasingly turning to teaching positions outside of their department to make ends meet. College writing programs offer increased pay, but graduate students teaching in these programs say they are overworked and underpaid. A teaching position in a college writing program is a 50% appointment that includes 20 hours of work a week, but Visual Arts students reported working anywhere between 40–80 hours a week.

“You will be at the college five days a week, 10 to12 hours of presence not including reading, communication with [the] program or students, preparing lessons and, most importantly, the grading,” said Visual Arts doctoral student and town hall organizer Christoph Schrieber. “Grading in such a course is 30 students. Two exams and three writing assignments—pages that you have to read and grade based on 26 parameters that take a lot of time.”

Administrators present at the meeting agreed that the current system is failing them but were hesitant to make concrete promises. Graduate Division Dean James Antony said he is committing the rest of the academic year to meeting with administrators and the writing programs to improve how funding not tied to employment and teaching assistant (TA) positions are allocated.

Antony wants to set up an online portal to transparently publish where TA positions need to be filled to help ensure positions do not go unfilled. He described the current system of allocating positions as “haphazard” with problems due to “lots of historical cultural reasons.”

Antony said his ideal system would include every department receiving predictable resources to send out five-year funding packages, and that every doctoral student would receive a fellowship, one non-working funding year, and a combination of two to four different resources.

“This place moves glacially slowly and I might get killed at the pace I’m trying to move,” said Antony. “2021 or 2022 at latest where we are having all these conversations with division deans and grad deans, so we know we can afford [the cost of living].”

Although EVC Simmons was slated to attend the town hall, her office told The Triton in an email that Simmons could not personally attend due to scheduling constraints.

The EVC’s office shared that the Visual Arts Department decided to reallocate department funding, not typically spent on graduate student income, to ensure all graduate students receive an income equal to a 50% appointment. These funds do not replenish quarterly so it is unclear how the department will meet the 50% appointment mandate come spring quarter.

“Going forward, any student who falls outside of a funding commitment has the option of working with their department to find an open TA-ship or other funding opportunity,” said the EVC’s office in an email to The Triton.

The EVC’s office said it expects to complete analyses related to the new funding model by the end of the calendar year, and they aspire to have it in place for the 2021-entering cohort of graduate students.

Sahana Narayan is a Staff Writer for The Triton. You can follow her at @saharadesert00.