US university suggests AI could help ‘offset’ striking instructors

With 3,000 graduate students picketing for higher pay, Boston University dean encourages faculty to ‘think creatively’ about using technological alternatives

April 2, 2024
Boston University graduate worker students are striking in Boston, MA to illustrate US university suggests AI could help ‘offset’ striking instructors
Source: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Boston University has suggested during a strike by its graduate student instructors that faculty use artificial intelligence tools to “offset” some of the lost labour.

The BU union, representing about 3,000 graduate students involved in teaching and research work, went on strike late last month after eight months of negotiations aimed at improving pay and benefits.

BU’s dean of arts and sciences, Stan Sclaroff, in a note to his faculty and staff, suggested a series of strategies for coping with the strike that include the use of “generative AI tools to give feedback or facilitate ‘discussion’ on readings or assignments”.

“We encourage you to think creatively about how you can best conduct your teaching during these challenging times,” Professor Sclaroff told the faculty.

BU officials, asked to clarify their intent with regard to AI and teaching, acknowledged some possible growth in that realm, noting that the university’s provost, Kenneth Lutchen, assembled a task force on AI late last year designed “to assess both the potential and pitfalls of AI in our university setting”.

The task force is due to report its findings later this semester, and “until then, it’s premature for us to speculate about AI’s future at BU,” said a university spokesperson, Rachel Lapal Cavallario.

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In the meantime, Ms Lapal Cavallario said, neither the dean nor the university itself “believe that AI can replace its graduate student teaching assistants”.

US higher education has seen a wave of strikes and other labour unrest among graduate student workers in recent years, because of factors that include stresses of the pandemic and the more pro-labour orientation of the Biden administration.

In BU’s case, the striking graduate workers report being paid between $27,000 (£22,000) and $40,000 per year, well below the $62,000 annual income level estimated as necessary in the Boston area. BU also is among several universities in the area charging more than $90,000 a year for tuition and living expenses.

The union representing BU’s striking workers, Local 509 of the Service Employees International Union, complained in a social media posting that it saw disrespect in BU’s call for AI alternatives.

"We are extremely disappointed by the university's suggestion that the use of AI could even begin to supplement the hard work that graduate workers pour into mentoring students, facilitating discussions and teaching,” the union said in a statement. “We sincerely hope that the university would reconsider this suggestion and instead focus on properly compensating the people who do the work that is crucial in keeping the university running.”

More generally, though, AI already is making steady inroads in augmenting or replacing educators in the US, predominantly for now at grade school level. A nationwide survey last year by the Walton Family Foundation found that a majority of grade school teachers already use ChatGPT as part of their job.

At BU, AI technology will not replace all the teaching functions performed by graduate students, who will keep their role in leading discussion groups, Ms Lapal Cavallario said. Yet where discussion groups have been affected by the strike, she said, “professors should consider a wide range of teaching tools available to them to offset the absence of a striking teaching assistant, and the use of technology, including generative AI”.

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