Takeaway: Our international graduate workers were plunged into uncertainty once again last week when an SAS-NB memo indicated that the administration intended to cancel pay and tuition remission for TAs and GAs who live outside the country—whether by choice or not—this fall. We’ve been assured since then that this memo does not reflect settled policy, which is welcome. However, the administration needs to commit publicly to not canceling pay and tuition remission—and quickly, so international grad workers are not left in fear about a future that is a little over a month away. Below we detail how international graduate workers led our union’s response to this threat. We expect the university to reverse this cruel policy that flies in the face of the rest of higher ed—and if they don’t, we are prepared to take action.
Our international graduate workers are facing another grave threat to their livelihoods. Late last week, we learned that the Dean’s Office in the School of Arts and Sciences in New Brunswick sent out information to departments advising international TAs and GAs that the university would categorically refuse to pay them to teach and work and would cancel tuition remission if they remained outside the United States this fall.
We were assured this week by Paula Hak, head of the Office of Academic Labor Relations (ALR), that this guidance doesn’t reflect a “ruling” by ALR. In response to a query about a department memo containing the information, she wrote: “While units are free to send whatever guidance they feel are appropriate, please be advised that, to date, ALR has not issued any ruling on this issue…The attached FAQs did not come from ALR and I was not made aware that the FAQs were recently disseminated or that they referenced ALR.”
We are heartened that Vice President Hak says canceling pay is not settled policy. But this leaves the threat that they could lose compensation and tuition remission hanging over the heads of our international grad workers, little more than a month before the fall semester. The administration needs to respond to this issue immediately and stand by its commitments to all grad workers.
The threat itself flies in the face of the commitments of many other universities—including, as far as we know, all other universities in the Big Ten—to safeguard the international students who are so vital to all our institutions. International grad workers working remotely in the fall should have the same rights as any other instructor: to teach and work from wherever they are, and if that happens to be another country because of the pandemic, so be it.
There is no legal reason whatsoever for Rutgers to claim they can’t pay international grad workers who teach remotely from their home country. In the past, TAs and GAs who completed their work assignments from abroad—while, for example, doing field work—were paid. Non–Tenure Track faculty and Part-Time Lecturers who live abroad and teach online get paid. Additional paperwork might be required, but this isn’t about compliance with immigration law. This is about whether Rutgers management would make a choice to further punish international graduate workers.
Our international grad worker colleagues had their lives upended by the Trump administration just two weeks ago when ICE sought to overturn its own previous policy of allowing international students on F-1 and M-1 visas to maintain their legal statuses even if they are taking all courses online because of the pandemic. The national outcry—including from our union and from Rutgers and its new president Jonathan Holloway—was so great that the Trump administration backed down in a week, even before a federal court forced them to. And yet some Rutgers administrators still want to follow a Trumpian playbook.
And make no mistake: the blame belongs with those administrators who put department chairs and program directors in the position of trying to interpret and advise on shifting US immigration law and policies. Union members contacted numerous deans, not to mention department chairs and middle-level administration, over the weekend, and they expressed shock that the university would take this position.
We can only assume the policy comes from the very top level, and in particular from John Hoffman’s Office of General Counsel. Indeed, the department memo we learned about last week included an attachment, dated early May, from Barbara Lee, who stepped down July 1 as Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs. In it, Lee not only reiterated the categorical position that international TAs and GAs who remained abroad would have their compensation and tuition remission canceled, but she anticipated the objection that Rutgers was out of step with the rest of higher ed: “We are not willing to take the legal risks that some peer institutions apparently have decided to take. Please do not forward information from other Big 10 institutions or other peers, as the circumstances of their graduate students are not the same with respect to the nature of the appointments or the contractual protections that our graduate students have.”
Is this how international grad workers, already faced with the threats of the Trump administration, deserve to be treated by an institution that otherwise relies on them to help keep the university running? Does our own union deserve to be slandered by Lee’s ridiculous attempt to blame hard-won “contractual protections” for this new threat faced by international students?
This is not something our union tolerates. As soon as they learned of the memo last week, the International Students Working Group—after helping lead a national resistance to the ICE rules earlier this month—sprang into action, notifying other union officers and members, compiling information, and working with us to reach out to department chairs, program directors, and administrators. We were greeted almost universally with sympathy and dismay at top administrators’ apparent attitude.
This week, we learned that the memo was based on information not sanctioned by ALR. This is a welcome clarification. But there must be a public commitment very soon that Rutgers will stand with so many other peer institutions in honoring its obligations to international graduate workers. If we don’t get that commitment, we are prepared to act to put pressure on management. Canceling compensation and tuition remission would be a clear violation of our contract since it is a unilateral change to the terms and conditions we negotiated.
In any case, we urge international grad workers to get involved in the International Students Working Group, which has played such an important role these past weeks; email [email protected] and ask for the ISWG to get in touch.
This outrage illustrates the choices that lie ahead in the new presidency of Jonathan Holloway. At the start of this month, we welcomed “a new day” for Rutgers, and we were heartened to see that President Holloway spoke out quickly to challenge the ICE rules that threatened international students. But we also recognized the profound challenges he faces in setting a new course for Rutgers. One of those challenges is the remaining leadership in the Office of General Counsel, Human Resources, and Finance and Administration, who are left over from the failed Barchi/Christie administration. They continue to implement cruel policies that undermine the core missions of the university: learning, research, and service to all our communities.
Our union is fighting for the future—of Rutgers and far beyond—and that fight starts with defending our international grad worker colleagues.
Todd and Becky
Todd Wolfson, President, Rutgers AAUP-AFT
Rebecca Givan, Vice President, Rutgers AAUP-AFT
Rutgers AAUP-AFT Facebook page: https://facebook.com/RUaaup/
Follow us on Twitter and Instagram: @ruaaup
Find the latest messages to members and union statements here.
Read how Rutgers AAUP-AFT is confronting the crisis here.