August 31st, 2017

PRESS RELEASE: Activists made the University of Michigan pay students for diversity labor: with tuition waivers, stipends, union protections, and health insurance.

Starting this September, graduate students will be paid to help the University of Michigan implement its diversity strategic plans and they will be compensated in a way that’s never been done before: with full tuition waivers, stipends that cover the cost of living, and health insurance benefits. This marks the first time that any university has provided union-level pay and benefits to students who do diversity work on campus, thanks to a campaign led by a coalition of labor and racial justice activists.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) and the Multicultural Leadership Council (MLC) campaigned aggressively for the creation of formal positions that offer high levels of compensation for students. Jamie Tam, who chaired GEO’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committee and is a member of the MLC, describes their rationale: “Students from marginalized communities often do diversity work with little or no pay. When we expect free or cheap labor from vulnerable groups, it actually exacerbates social disparities. That’s unacceptable.” Velma Lopez, a member of the GEO DEI Committee, explains that  “Fair compensation shows we recognize [marginalized students’] lived experiences, value their expertise, and that we need their leadership.”

The proposal to create unionized positions for students to do DEI work was initially rejected by the University during GEO’s contract negotiations. Despite demands from the campus community, administrators refused to discuss the proposal for months, only agreeing to fund the DEI positions after the union authorized a two-day work stoppage the week before final examinations, when the absence of graduate student instructors would have halted university operations.  

The University is now contractually required to hire at least six graduate students as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Graduate Student Staff Assistants (DEI GSSAs) who will be compensated with tuition waivers, living stipends, and union benefits effective September 2017. While this fell short of the initial proposal to create 23 positions, the shift in campus mentality has already taken place; three additional DEI GSSAs are being hired because of some administrators’ desire for students with high levels of DEI expertise to help implement diversity programs.

These positions are particularly unique because they include health insurance benefits. Vidhya Aravind, a student involved in the campaign, describes how access to healthcare through these roles makes the difference: “As a brown, trans girl, I find myself constantly doing DEI labor to make my academic environments more inclusive but I struggle at home with the costs of healthcare, which I need to transition. Health insurance would allow students like me to survive and still be able to do this work.”

At a time when colleges are struggling to address hate crimes and racial tension on campus, the creation of highly paid student positions to do work that combats bias and discrimination is a novel solution. “Now more than ever, we need to be paying attention to how we are valuing or not valuing diversity labor. There are consequences to climate and safety when we don’t value it enough.” – Jamie Tam

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Press Release: Activists made the University of Michigan pay students for diversity labor