GSAC An Open Letter to the University Community
Graduate Education and the New Building Program
Given the University's recent decision to embark on its largest building project in a generation, we, the graduate students of the University of Pennsylvania, wish to present to the University community a clear statement of our present concerns and our hopes for Penn's future.
We would like to express our support for the many initiatives undertaken by the current administration to increase the quality of undergraduate education and to improve the quality of undergraduate life on campus, such as: the creation of the new college house system, expansion of the information infrastructure, and improvements in undergraduate advising. Still, like the rest of the University community we are concerned about some of the recent decisions regarding capital expenditures aimed at expanding the existing physical plant. The Senate Executive Committee (SEC) has apparently expressed similar concerns (Almanac November 10, p. 4).
As students and soon-to-be alumni, we have become lifetime members of the University community, and we hope that the University's One University principle will continue to govern major financial decisions. The distribution of resources in a university need not be a zero-sum game: with proper consultation and thoughtful planning, Penn can use its finite resources to benefit multiple constituencies simultaneously.
Therefore, we wish to propose a list of focused areas toward which Penn might devote its contributions to a plan for graduate education, areas that would simultaneously improve the state of graduate students and other constituencies on campus.
First, the University wants more Penn-affiliated, stable families and individuals to move into West Philadelphia--a desire that is already backed by several programs designed to encourage faculty and staff to live west of the Schuylkill. Curiously, no such plan exists to encourage graduate students and their families to live in West Philadelphia, even though graduate students typically attend Penn four to five years at a minimum. Graduate students can help fill the houses and apartments that will be left vacant as more undergraduates move into University-run dormitories.
But in recent years increasing numbers of graduate students have chosen to live in Center City and the suburbs, where rents are only marginally higher and they feel safer and closer to the cultural and social life of the city. The University could reverse this trend by initiating a plan, comparable to that currently offered to faculty and staff, of subsidizing the rent or mortgages of graduate students who choose to live in West Philadelphia. Such a plan would have the added advantage of helping graduate students to be more active and visible members of the university community, as well as solidifying the housing environment around campus.
As it is, the University actively discourages graduate students from living on campus: consider that the standard stipend for students on the basic university fellowship or on a teaching assistantship, accounting for federal taxes and spread over the nine months of the school year, amounts to $1,038 per month; whereas a one-bedroom apartment in Graduate Towers costs $815 per month this year. This means that a student on this stipend and living in this apartment pays 79% of his income on housing.
Second, we think the University could earmark funds to help graduate students pay the cost of health insurance. At present, school and departmental policies vary regarding how and how much assistance is provided, and many graduate students have to pay premiums out of our stipends. When individual schools do pay, they do so from general funds designed for graduate education. By creating uniform standards across the campus, and by providing some additional funding so that health insurance does not come at the expense of stipends, the University could quickly and easily improve the quality of graduate student life. Given that many of the University's peer institutions already have such programs in place, such a change might soon be necessary for recruitment of graduate students in any case.
Third, the University could easily provide more space specifically for graduate students, to encourage them to spend time on campus when they are not working in the laboratory or the library, or attending class as students or instructors. A proper lounge in the renovated Houston Hall, designed with the input of graduate students and wired for computer access, would be an excellent start. A central facility to allow graduate students to print materials during the day for courses regardless of our school would also be a great help.
Graduate students play an integral part in the educational process at every university, and Penn is no exception. Through teaching, research, grading, advising, and mentoring, graduate students have enormous impact on every aspect of university life. GSAC, the Graduate Student Associations Council, represents all Ph.D. students at the University and all graduate students in the School of Arts and Sciences. We call upon the University to act on these proposals in consultation with us and other constituencies around campus. This letter has been passed by resolution of GSAC, and is cordially submitted to Almanac for the consideration by the University community.
Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 20, February 9, 1999