In case you haven’t been keeping score, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for all of its accolades and international renown, has been rotting as a beacon of education and academic freedom for the past decade.

Nevermind the laundry list of former administration who have been either reassigned or outright fired. Nevermind the Board of Trustees and decades of administration that have turned a blind eye to a divisive and racist mascot that continues to permeate its culture. Nevermind the Salaita scandal that had them censured by the American Association of Academic Professors. Nevermind the “clout scandal” that led to the resignation of the President, the Chancellor, and seven of nine Board of Trustee members. Nevermind that its major sports programs are quite literally the absolute worst in its conference, and arguably, in all of the NCAA, relative to other “Power 5” conferences.

Nevermind that our state, which technically presides over this land grant University, is deeply in the red, and just came out of the longest impasse on a state budget in the history of the United States of America. Never mind that our current standing with major lending institutions is just a hair above “junk” status. Nevermind how that has and will continue to affect every fabric of its being, and for the communities that exist within it, for years to come.

Now, the GEO (Graduate Employee’s Organization) is on strike again, and has been for 11 days — the longest in its history, since its founding in the early 1970s — and it does not appear as though there will be a “compromise” as far as the bargaining table is concerned. Ultimately, this will define whether UIUC fully adopts a corporate model, or if it will continue to be a university where the pursuit of education and collective sharing of knowledge will prevail.

At issue this time is the same as it was last time: tuition waivers and what defines graduate student compensation. The complexities of it, however, have changed. 

Tuition waivers are an essential part of graduate education. Here’s how it works: When a graduate student is hired on campus through her or his department — as a research assistant or teaching assistant, for example — the department, and university, by extension, waives tuition for the student. It is common practice among highly regarded institutions, and arguably the most important way to attract and retain quality graduate students. At Research 1 institutions — that is, institutions that prioritize faculty research — a healthy graduate program is essential for departmental and faculty successes. An institution such as the University of Illinois does not achieve preeminence without graduate students assisting and freeing up time so that the faculty can go on to excel in their continued research and ultimately, to keep publishing so they can win awards to further create opportunities for themselves and others.

See how that all plays together?

Failure to ensure tuition waivers makes the University of Illinois less desirable to potential graduate students.

You can read more about the history of the issue at the GEO website, for one perspective, and at the UIUC Human Resources webpage on labor relations, for another.

In 2009, the last time the GEO had a major strike, it lasted for two days, and ended with an agreement that would guarantee tuition waivers to all graduate student employees, and that would, in turn, restrict the administration from being able to strip current and prospective students from that vital component of their compensation. The most recent agreement was signed and in place from 2012, until last year, 2017.

A “side letter” was written, which you can read below, and that is what is now being debated. 

The administration tried to challenge it, twice, and an arbitrator ruled on the side of the GEO, twice.

Those rulings essentially upheld the language of the “side letter” and so now, because the administration has no legal recourse, they want to change it, and, in a truly pathetic attempt to earn favor on the issue from its faculty, has tried to pit them against GEO.

It didn’t work.

In his March 2nd letter via campus massmail, newly appointed Provost Andreas Cangellaris wrote that the language of the “side letter” has led to decisions that “restrict a department’s ability to reclassify an existing graduate program to a self-supporting program.” He went on to state that “the original side letter cedes your authority as faculty members to make the decisions that determine the future of this institution.”

The Campus Faculty Association (CFA) responded, and swiftly. They disagreed with the Provost’s assessment. CFA President Dana Rabin wrote:

“The GEO does not have the authority to prevent faculty and academic programs from creating new programs or changing existing programs. Decisions regarding the status of graduate programs are made by the departments and reviewed by the Graduate College and the Education Policy Committee before being approved by the Faculty Senate.”

Their full response letter can be read here.

Above: Professor Dana Rabin, President of the Campus Faculty Association, is denied entry into Henry Administration Building to occupy President Killeen's office in solidarity with the GEO. Credit: GEO Facebook Page.

How quickly this administration seems to forget who they were when they, too, were faculty or staff. When they were likely, and hopefully, part of a similar union that had protections in place, and contracts to ensure the semesters that lie ahead.

Laborers tend to protect fellow laborers, and rarely do they cross each other. At an institution of higher learning, it is no different. If what Provost Cangelleris stated in his letter were, in fact, true, it would have been known, and the faculty would have been the first to bring it to their attention.

But they didn’t, because what he is suggesting is rooted in mistruths, or worse, in outright lies.

There is something fundamental, something almost universally understood, amongst any employer worth a damn. It is known. It does not matter if it’s a small mom and pop dime store or a massive chain like Wal-Mart. It does not matter if it is a massive R1 University like UIUC or a small LAS college like Knox or Illinois Wesleyan. It is horizontal.

You listen to the needs of your employees, and you not only hear their insights about what they do, and what they want, you pry in order to make sure they are accommodated. You take care of them.

You either take care of your employees, or you suffer the consequences. In most cases, it is the labor that suffers.

A well compensated and satisfied employee base sets the basic tone for an entire operation. If there is dissatisfaction amongst some, it inevitably becomes endemic of the culture.

To use an old adage: “One rotten apple spoils the barrel.” It is not just something one says, or a simple aphorism. It is a literal truth.

The administration and the Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois must eradicate what is rotten in its barrel, immediately. Any other conclusion, or further prolonging what is being asked, will lead to the same destructive and unhealthy environment that has been cycling for the past generation, perhaps even longer.

And If we’re being completely honest about the integrity of UIUC, it cannot point to much in its recent history. Indeed, it is only its faculty and graduate students and attending students that are worthy of any hard earned praise. This new administration has an opportunity to undo a lot of poor choices in the past two decades, by making the right choices.  

On this issue, we stand with the GEO, and wish to implore Provost Cangalleris to start his tenure by listening to his employees. He is parroting a tired, and mostly insulting, line of thinking in order to protect the powers that be from having to offer what is fair, and what is just.

We’ve often heard from the administration that there is not enough money to accommodate the GEO’s demands, and also grow the University and compete academically, at a high level.

To that end, we remind them that if you cannot afford to take care of your employees, then you cannot afford to be in business. 

Which is what this is: a business. It's time for them to just own that, and fix what’s wrong.

Only then, will they find true success.

Smile Politely’s Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Seth Fein.