Department Head Retreat

The GTFF President was recently invited to speak at the 2014 Department Head’s retreat on September 19. He was unable to do so, but asked our VP of Grievances to do so on his behalf. Her statement to the University of Oregon department heads follow.

Hello and thank you for this opportunity to address you all. My name is Shawna Meechan and I am the Vice President for Grievances for the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation. I am here to speak about how the GTFF can work together with you to improve this campus and particularly the quality of graduate education. I first want to extend apologies from our President, Joe Henry, who was unable to be here today and asked me to speak on his behalf.

As I said, my name is Shawna Meechan and I am a third year PhD student in Political Science. I am about to take my final comprehensive exam this quarter and will advance to candidacy at the end of the term. The ability to advance through my program so quickly is a direct result of my GTF appointment. My appointment has allowed me to focus on my work without worrying about how to pay for tuition, healthcare, or the many other protections provided by the GTFF.

For those of you that are not familiar with the GTFF, you should know that we have been around for over 30 years and represent nearly 1500 graduate teaching fellows and research assistants on campus. We have consistently had between 70 and 80% full union membership throughout the years, as GTFs are very proud to take part in their union. During that time the GTFF has worked to ensure many benefits and protections for our members including tuition waivers, caps on fees, health insurance, and much more. We also have worked hard to improve the quality and funding of higher education in Oregon through our efforts to lobby state legislators in Salem. We are excited to partner with our brothers and sisters in SEIU, United Academics, and the UO administration to continue this important effort.

To that end, we were excited that the faculty were able to form their own union and completed their first contract negotiations two years ago. We fully support the faculty’s rights to be heard, respected, and fairly compensated for all the talented work they do for the University of Oregon.

Today, I specifically want to talk about how the GTFF can partner with the faculty, including the many department heads on campus, to improve the quality of our graduate programs. We can work together to build better recruitment, retention, time to degree, and graduation rates of grad students. In that vein, we have several major priorities this year:

First, we want to focus on shared governance of the University. Faculty, staff, GTFs, and undergrads should all have a role in setting the direction of this campus. We are excited that there is faculty, staff, and undergrad representation on the new Board of Trustees and we are hopeful that we can get a GTF representative soon, through amending state legislation. We also support the UA and the Faculty Senate’s rights to shared governance on this campus.

Second, we are always working to improve the quality of our graduate programs. We want the University of Oregon to have the highest ranked programs in the world. To do that, we need to recruit and retain the best and brightest scholars regardless of their age, gender, race, economic background, country of origin, parental status, or anything other than their actual academic skills and talent. This means that we need to improve access for parents and potential parents, support graduate employees during times of medical hardship, and ensure that the standard of living for graduate employees in Eugene is the best of all our comparator institutions.

The GTFF Health and Welfare Trust, which is run by and for GTFs, plays a huge role in both recruiting and retaining graduate students. Just this year, our Trust was able to negotiate a new deal with our insurance provider that increases vision benefits and provides major dental coverage while lowering our overall premiums. This insurance is a major draw for many incoming graduate students and we will continue to work to ensure it remains the best possible plan for our members.

Besides wages and healthcare, recruiting and retaining the very best GTFs involves providing high quality working conditions, fair treatment in hiring, and many other protections.

As I mentioned earlier, I am the Vice President for Grievances for the GTFF, so I would like to take some time to discuss how I would like to work with you all this year to reduce the number of problems we experience.

The vast majority of inquiries I receive as VP of grievances are the result of confusion and misunderstandings regarding how to interpret our Collective Bargaining Agreement. I am excited to work with all of you to ensure understanding and reduce future issues. In the case of any potential issues, I want you to know that I will always contact you first to see if we can find an informal solution before filing a formal grievance. In that vein, please feel free to contact me any time with questions you might have. I would also be happy to meet with any of you one on one if you have specific questions or would just like to review our CBA.

One way in which the GTFF is working to reduce formal grievances is by organizing GTFs within their department to meet and talk about issues. In doing so, we encourage GTFs to talk among themselves to develop a clear and concise voice to help inform you of possible issues within your departments without inundating you with individual and conflicting complaints. We hope that having concise, better prepared, and professional feedback helps you to best know how your GTFs are doing and what is important to them.

One way that each department can help to reduce grievance inquiries is to regularly update your GDRS and especially ensure that hiring procedures are current and followed, including policies regarding hiring criteria, ranking of candidates, and hiring committees. Consistency in these practices will always help to reduce any issues.

One issue that I hope we can work to reduce this year regards summer appointments. Some graduate students have felt heavily pressured to not take summer courses despite academic need. Relaxing some of these pressures and encouraging summer enrollment for degree advancing courses may help improve time to degree within departments. Additionally we would love to work with departments to advocate that the UO Administration consider different budgeting models that make summer enrollment costs less of a punishment to departmental budgets. We believe strongly that just as new budget models can be created, they can be altered and changed to best serve the needs of graduate programs and the entire campus community.

We have also experienced some issues surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace. There has been some confusion over what department heads are required to do when these issues arise with GTFs. Please know that if a GTF comes to you with a complaint of sexual harassment you must refer them to the GTFF in addition to the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity. It is very disappointing that we are still hearing about issues of inequality and harassment in academia. As department heads, you can play a key role in making your departments more accessible to women and underrepresented groups by having a no tolerance policy for harassment and discrimination and by assuring that funding is secured for reporting GTFs during investigations. By simply sending an email to your fellow faculty to let them know they should give the GTFs involved a fair shot at finding new labs and new committee members despite any rumors or investigations that are in process, you can personally assure that GTFs don’t leave this university amid experiences of harassment or discrimination. I hope that you will all work toward these goals, and again, I am happy to meet with any of you to help make your departments more accessible and equitable work spaces.

I also want to mention, a new campus-wide program that’s being introduced, that we hope all departments will participate in. This is the new workload allocation form that will be provided by the graduate school to all departments. Some departments have been using these or similar forms successfully for years. Workload allocation forms are simply a way for supervisors and GTFs to improve communication about expectations of what kind of work duties will be required and how time will be spent during the term. It is our hope that having this facilitated and clear understanding of work expectations will help GTFs and RAs to better manage their own time and continue to advance toward their degrees in a timely manner. We further anticipate that opening this line of communication between GTFs, RAs, and their supervisors will reduce confusion and frustration going forward.

Finally, I know you are all aware that the GTFF has not yet reached an agreement for our new CBA. We have worked with the administration for over 10 months to reach some pretty exciting new agreements on many parts of our collective bargaining agreement. We are hopeful that the remaining issues will be resolved soon. If you have any questions regarding this, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Thank you for your time and I would be happy to answer any questions you have in my remaining few minutes.