Santa Cruz fires striking teaching assistants

Graduate students had been seeking help with high housing costs

March 2, 2020
Strike placards

The University of California at Santa Cruz has fired 54 graduate instructors who went on strike in a bid for higher stipends to cover housing costs around their campus just south of Silicon Valley.

The students, as part of their strike action, had been withholding grade reports from the fall semester for the classes in which they served as teaching assistants.

Santa Cruz had warned the graduate students to submit the grade reports by 21 February or face dismissal. It waited another week before fulfilling the threat.

“We have been left with no choice but to take an action that we had truly and deeply hoped to avoid,” Santa Cruz’s interim provost, Lori Kletzer, said in a letter to the campus community.

Another 28 graduate students who participated in strike action were told they would not be considered for jobs in the spring semester, a student activist group reported.

Graduate students working as teaching assistants at universities across the US have been protesting low pay and raising other job-related complaints. The situation is compounded across the California system by housing shortages in much of the state, and is especially acute in the economically prosperous areas around Silicon Valley.

Single-bedroom apartments in the Santa Cruz area rent for an average of $2,600 (£2,000) a month, while the graduate students are paid about $2,400, the American Association of University Professors said in a statement backing the Santa Cruz students.

“The university needs to recognise that this is an unsustainable situation,” the AAUP said.

Professor Kletzer, in her letter, said Santa Cruz understands the “real need for greater support because of the high cost of housing in Santa Cruz and limited campus housing available to them”.

But she said the university has provided financial supplements to help with housing and other costs facing its graduate students, and remains willing to discuss more options, but can’t let its undergraduates go without their semester grades.

The 54 teaching assistants who were fired accounted for 4 per cent of the grades still being withheld, Professor Kletzer writes.

The union that represents more than 19,000 academic workers across the California system, UAW Local 2865, said in a statement that it was “shocked by UC’s callousness, and by the violence that so many protesters experienced as they peacefully made the case for a cost of living increase”.

The complaint referenced an incident weeks earlier in which police confronted protesters on the Santa Cruz campus, reportedly arresting at least 17 of them.

More than 3,000 faculty members worldwide have signed a statement expressing support for the teaching assistants and promising not to attend events at California campuses where graduate student instructors are striking.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also issued a statement calling the university’s actions in the case “disgraceful”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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