Victory on SU Abroad Paris Noir & A Reaction to SU Administration Stalling on Graduate Student Health Insurance

We are delighted to announce that due to incredible student organizing, especially by students in the Student African American Society, the SU Study Abroad Program has been pressured to re-open the application period for Paris Noir this summer. Further questions remain about fewer funding options available for the program, and other changes and inconsistencies, but we believe this yet again shows the great impact activism can have!

We are also sharing a reaction to SU administration’s announcement that it is stalling on forcing grad student employees onto a more expensive, shabbier health insurance plan. This is written by Sam Castleberry, a current SU graduate student employee. He will speak at today’s press conference at 4pm, HL500. We also encourage your participation at Thursday’s Health Insurance Rally, noon, Hendricks Chapel.

Yesterday, Rebecca Reed Kantrowitz and Ben Ware released a letter to University Senator’s announcing that the University intends to “reevaluate the insurance plan options for graduate students who serve the University as teaching, graduate, or research assistants.” While this letter has been hailed by some as a reversal of the decision to remove GA’s, TA’s, and RA’s from the employee health insurance plan, the actual language of the letter remains vague. Specifically, the letter never says that GA’s, TA’s and RA’s will remain eligible for the employee health care plan beyond the Fall of 2016. Rather, the letter says, “This means all graduate assistants will be allowed to remain on the University-sponsored employee health insurance plan until a transition to the student health insurance plan is deemed agreeable by representatives of the GSO and the University administration.”

My reading of this document is that the administration still intends to remove us from the employee health insurance plan in the future, only this time they’ll seek TA, GA, and RA input. While there is some relief in knowing that the administration will not make any moves without GSO input, this is a far-cry from a guarantee, and quite possibly a stall tactic. The letter also mentions a new “Student Health Insurance Benefits Group,” a group that, according to the letter, will also allow graduate students “to review the best plan for graduate employees going forward.” If we can stay on the employee health insurance plan, then why do we need to meet with a “student” health insurance benefits group to discuss our health insurance going forward? It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to read between the lines, and if anything, this letter continues to affirm a lack of transparency in regard to the issue that will most impact GA’s, TA’s, and RA’s.

We must refuse to label this recent announcement as a “victory,” as much as “a skeptical relief” for those GA’s, TA’s, and RA’s, who are the underpaid academic labor force driving this institution. It is unconscionable that the University even considered moving us to a reduced benefits plan at a higher cost in the first place—a move that would have disproportionately affected low-income graduate students, families, and disabled individuals.

When we first discovered that the University intended to remove GA’s, TA’s, and RA’s from the employee health insurance plan, we were stunned. We were even more taken aback when we discovered the University had planned the benefit reduction for several months. But perhaps the most disconcerting fact, is that the University did not intend to announce the reduction in employee benefits until even later this semester. The announcement of the reduction of GA, TA, and RA benefits was intended to come at a time when most of us would be working on our finals, grading student papers, and leaving for the summer. It would have made it extremely difficult for us to mobilize, and we’re naive if we don’t interpret that strategy as a direct tactic intended to thwart our ability to respond.

Even though the University pays vague lip service to possibly keeping our employee health benefits, we still need to ask, “What happened to the promises for transparency? Moreover, why were GA’s, TA’s, and RA’s not involved in a decision that would have a direct and adverse impact on their bodies? And what will keep this administration from attempting this again in the future?” What clear promises does the recent letter actually spell-out? Why did it take the threat of unionization to get an (un)clear response? Why does the letter never respond to the GSO censure of the administration? If we can keep employee benefits why is there a “Student Health Insurance Benefits Group” that will discuss future graduate employee benefits? Will the administration hold any further decisions in abeyance until graduate TA’s, RA’s, and GA’s return from the summer break?

Though we sleep a bit easier tonight, thinking that our cherished employee health benefits are off the chopping block, I suspect it won’t take long for our sense of suspicion and anxiety to return. We didn’t win a victory today. The administration still has some hard questions to answer. I would encourage all GA’s, TA’s, and RA’s to attend the GSO meeting on Wednesday, at 5:30pm in Eggers 010, to discuss whether or not a union can help better protect our future.

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THE General Body to Hold Press Conference Tuesday at 4 PM

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O​n T​uesday, April 7 at 4 PM,​ s​tudents from THE General Body will hold a press conference o​n Syracuse University’s campus in the Hall of Languages, Room 500. This press conference comes on the heels of THE General Body’s most recent request for a meeting with the Chancellor, which was denied on Friday night.

Join the Facebook event here.

“Despite the fact that students sat in for 18 days in November, and the Chancellor’s repeated public claims that his administration is consulting with students, in fact we have had no direct contact since November 12, 2014,” said Becca Glaser,​a​n organizer with THE General Body.

Students from THE General Body have continued to organize since the sit­in ended, with some significant gains. Following a two­year student campaign and an 18­day sit­in by THE General Body last November, Syracuse University made l​ocal, ​n​ational,​ and i​nternational news this week for becoming the​ largest university in the world​ to prohibit direct investments in oil, gas, and coal companies.

“It is important for the school to connect dots between fossil fuel companies and climate change with their announcement, but we don’t want this news to divert attention from the other pressing social justice issues on campus,” said Ben Kuebrich,​a​n organizer with Divest SU and THE General Body. “We have to hold the administration accountable for its opaque, undemocratic decisions around the sudden closure of the Advocacy Center, the mandatory and expensive changes to health care for graduate student employees, broken contracts with student scholarships, and its failure to commit to supporting students with marginalized identities.”

THE General Body continues to push for financial transparency, a commitment to crucial student needs in the university’s new Fast Forward strategic plan, fiscal transparency, and holding the administration accountable to promises made during the 18­day sit­in. Students also continue to push for a timeline of action on issues including the need for sexual assault services in the wake of the closure of the campus advocacy center.

Download the press release here.

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A Message from Tatiana Cadet and Fatima Bangura, SA President and Vice President Candidates

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Dear Student Body,

We, Tatiana Cadet and Fatima Bangura, officially launched our campaign for the 2015-2016 Student Association Presidency on Monday March 30, three weeks before elections.

We were moved to act and organize after reviewing the other Student Association (SA) presidential tickets, Aysha Seedat and Jane Hong, and Abell and Dawson, and now others. We are not confident that their platforms adequately reflect the needs, wants and safety of students of all backgrounds and identities here at SU. Their platforms only address student issues on a surface level and do not venture to truly analyze the causes and effects of the current student experience at Syracuse University, neither do their platforms ask for input from the student body.

As SA President and Vice President, we will address and push back against the rise in tuition. We will strive to build and strengthen the relationship between student organizations and the Syracuse City community. We will improve the relationship between SA and the student body. We will address the feelings of insecurity and fear of students at SU and take steps to eradicate this fear. We will accomplish these goals by embracing four staple principles throughout our year-long term: Strengthen Community, Improve Security, Improve Student Association and Address Your Student Issues.

Fatima and I are not interested in making false promises or saying all of these things just to get elected. These are values and goals that we have been championing since we each stepped foot on the campus of SU. After reflecting on our involvement in other organizations, we believe that SA, the organization with the strongest relationship and direct line of communication to the administration, is the perfect place to continue launching efforts that will positively impact every student on this campus.

We have developed a few plans of action to begin taking steps to solve these student issues, but we also want to continue to develop and embrace some of the resources and programs SA has already implemented thanks to the hard work of students in SA.

Other important issues we will tackle are: the polarization of colleges, departments and programs and how it denies access to students based on their college, major, etc., the division between and mistreatment of transfer students, the transparency of decisions and information within SA to all students on campus, bias within the Safety Escort service, further action on sexual assault on campus and the ‘Yes means Yes’ policy, policies in place for the Bird Library entrances, and the safety of students of marginalized identities.

Seedat has been a member of SA for years and has done good work with the Student Life Committee, but she is disconnected from what many students want and need out of a new SA president. Instead of continuing with the current structure and exclusive atmosphere of SA, we want to improve the relationship and communication between SA representatives and students in all schools, classes and majors. This does not mean that all of the hard work she and her committees achieved will go to waste, on the contrary, we will build upon the strong foundation and resources that students in SA have built and created.

Abell’s platform highlights important issues that students have raised concern about ever since THE General Body created a document of student grievances last semester. Transparency and relations between the Department of Public Safety and students are real issues, but Abell and Dawson fail to outline tangible solutions that are not already taking place to solve these issues.

SA elections will take place the week of April 13 and will end on April 16. All undergraduate students are invited to participate by logging into their MySlice account and selecting or writing in the name of the person they believe will genuinely represent the needs of all students at SU. We believe that we, Tatiana Cadet and Fatima Bangura, legitimately recognize and represent the greatest needs and wants of the undergraduate student body at SU.

If you want your voice to be heard, write in Tatiana Cadet for SA President on April 13-16.

Your write-in candidates,
Tatiana Cadet and Fatima Bangura

What are the issues that you face as a student at SU? We want to know! Please e-mail us your questions and concerns at TatiFati4SA@gmail.com

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Update: A Message to the SU/ESF Community

We are looking for accountability from the administration. Last Tuesday, THE General Body reached out to Chancellor Syverud requesting a meeting with him and his executive team (The full text is at thegeneralbody.org). Despite having publicly stated that his administration is committed to working with us, they instead emailed saying we would be hearing from liaisons who have no relevant decision-making powers or accountability to the items the administration agreed to address last semester.

Most of the issues which led us to take action last fall have not been resolved. Unfortunately, even more issues have arisen since then, demonstrating that the administration has learned little from recent community outcry. They continue to make decisions which negatively affect the SU community, as evidenced by (in necessary abbreviation, as there are SO many issues we could mention):

  • The new health insurance mandate, which affects all undergraduate and graduate students, especially low-income students.Graduate TA/RA/GAs will pay more money for worse health care coverage.
  • The recently-proposed $495 million sports stadium, alongside claims that SU doesn’t have the money to hire additional counselors, staff at the LGBT Resource Center, or continue its original commitment to scholarship programs like POSSE.
  • No public budget proposal or timeline for implementing thedirectives of the Chancellor’s Workgroup on Sexual Violence Prevention, Education, and Advocacy.
  • Inconsistencies regarding cancellation of SU Study Abroad programs, in particular, Paris Noir.
  • The drugging of four SU Law students by a fellow law student(s), and these reported incidents’ mishandling by the administration, which has failed to provide timely and adequate information on student survivors’ rights under the Clery Act and Title IX. These reports have not yet been publicly addressed by the administration.
  • The lack of transparency and collaboration around the SU Mission/Vision Statement and Strategic Plan.

We’d like to continue working with all interested groups, including the Chancellor and his executive team, in creating the kind of university where all students, faculty, staff and community members are valued and respected–not in word, but in collaborative action. We again call on the Chancellor and his executive administration to meet with us to be accountable to items they said they would address, and come to agreements on those they ignored. Among other upcoming events, we are holding a Press Conference on Tuesday, April 7 and a rally on April 14th. Look for more information and get involved! We invite you to be part of this movement. Follow us on Twitter and check back on this blog for frequent updates.

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Message to SU Graduate Program Directors Regarding the Changes to Health Care

In light of the recent changes to graduate students’ health care, we, THE General Body, feel it is important to be transparent with current, potential, and incoming students about these changes. As it stands, the administration has, without consulting students, changed graduate teaching, research, and other assistants’ employee health coverage from the employee plans to the student plans. The administration has sent a message to incoming graduate students suggesting that the plan is an improvement. This is false; the new plan’s benefits are currently unknown and we cannot say whether they will be better than the employee plans. For those of us who were recruited on different terms, we are now seeing an unexpected increase in our expenses, an increase that will hit people with chronic health conditions, people who have children, and lower-income graduate students particularly hard. It also devalues the work of graduate employees.

We have seen the Associate Dean of the Graduate School’s April 3 letter to prospective students alerting them of these changes, but we are concerned that the letter is not transparent about the additional cost and hardship that will be incurred by students. The available information is vague and sometimes contradictory; we have attempted to get a sense of some of the costs that students will incur from this new plan:

  • Under this plan, graduate employees will be forced off of the employee plan and onto the student plan
  • International students report that the student plan will cost $700/year more per person and there will be benefit reductions
  • There is no vision or dental coverage in the new plan
  • The new plan costs $1890 a year for a current single student with no children. According to GSO members, the cost increase (including tax implications) is about $856 more per year
  • A TA with a spouse and two children on their insurance would pay up to $4,615 more for this plan
  • If we understand the university’s FAQ correctly, for new domestic students entering in Fall 2015 and voluntarily purchasing the Aetna plan, their sum will be $2,742.
  • The plan necessitates both co-pay and co-insurance  (a percentage of the procedure, test, etc. paid out of pocket). At the GSO meeting, one student said he needed 4 MRIs this year. This cost him $40 each in co-pay. With the new plan, he said it would cost him between $500-600 per MRI.

According to an e-mail from GSO President Patrick Neary sent April 3, 2015, the agreement has already been signed with AETNA. The GSO has publicly censured the administration for this unilateral decision, and this Wednesday, graduate students and faculty allies will be meeting to discuss unionizing in response. THE General Body is also organizing meetings and actions in response.

As graduate director, you could potentially make a public impact by voicing your opposition to this undemocratic, nontransparent change, which clearly does not have student interests in mind. It’s clear that the administration wants to make it more difficult for students who do not have a significant financial safety net to attend graduate school. As you know, this seriously compromises the diversity and strength of our programs, and potential to recruit students. Along with graduate students in other departments, we urge you to speak out against this blatant injustice by making a public statement, urging the department to make a public statement, and supporting the GSO’s censure of the administration.

In addition to taking a public stand on this issue by writing a statement of support, we ask that you alert your department’s current and prospective students to these changes immediately. You can assure the prospective students that we will be working to support graduate students’ rights to quality healthcare and sustainable financial security.

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GSO Censures the Administration for Changes to Health Care Plan

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April 2, 2015
Graduate Student Organization
216 Bowne Hall

Dear Chancellor Syverud:
On April 1st, 2015 the Senate of the Graduate Student Organization voted unanimously to censure the university leadership for its actions surrounding the recently announced changes to student health insurance. The Senate is appalled at the lack of transparency leading up to this decision, particularly the lack of announcements to those it would impact as the requirements and plans were being constructed.

Additionally, the Senate is outraged that this decision process, one that materially affects students in a substantial manner, did not involve students prior to when a final decision was reached. The GSO insists the University include students in university policymaking, particularly when it impacts students to a large degree.

The Senate calls for all graduate teaching, research, and other assistants employed by the University to remain eligible for the employee health insurance plans, as they have been in this and past years. We censure the university leadership for moving to take this benefit away from all graduate assistants. The GSO is committed to maintaining employee insurance plan eligibility for all these students, regardless of degree type or other categorization. Graduate teaching, research, and other assistants are core to the
instructional and research mission at Syracuse University, comprising up to one-third of the full-time equivalent instructional personnel. The university devalues and demeans the work these students perform by not recognizing them as eligible for employee health benefits. The current plan also presents severe cost increases and an unacceptably unclear benefits picture if it were to go forward, including questions about dental coverage and a total lack of vision coverage. The university needs to send a clear message that it will not diminish the insurance benefits to these students.

The Senate is alarmed at the substantial confusion and cost increases for international students that the new health insurance requirement has created and censures the university leadership for its role in creating this confusion and cost increase. Students across the university are still awaiting a complete plan description, full justifications for the move away from the HTH insurance plans, and a full explanation of the necessity to raise costs for most international students by approximately $700 annually. International students require further information concerning how the new Aetna Student Health Plan will interface with their requirements as international students studying in the US. The GSO insists this information be made public and no further actions are to be taken to implement this plan without GSO Senate input.
Graduate Student Organization Senate

PDF of letter available here.

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Good News, But More Work to Do: A TGB Update

We have exciting news and a lot more work to do. First, our next meeting is this Thursday April 2 at 8:30 p.m. in Hall of Languages 500. Please join us as we continue to gather momentum and take action as we near the end of this semester. Your thoughts will be helpful! We need to continue to work to apply pressure in many ways so that we can continue to work in solidarity to get real, collaborative change at SU.

Things to celebrate:

1. Thanks to dedicated student activism, especially with a combination of Divest-SU/ESF and THE General Body, SU officially announced it is divesting from direct investments in fossil fuel. The New York Times and Democracy Now! picked the story up. Obviously, a lot more needs to happen to stop/slow climate change, and the university is still invested in mutual funds which invest in fossil fuel, and still maintains a fairly environmentally unsustainable infrastructure, but it still shows that activism works.
2. We have also noticed that the Chancellor seems to be making tiny steps towards at least talking a good talk about ending sexual assault, relationship violence, and gender-based violence at SU. This is directly related to our hard work, though we need to see A LOT more REAL change, and REAL MONEY going into this. Take Back the Night was incredible this year, as always, but a reminder of how widespread rape and sexual assault are, at SU/ESF, and elsewhere.
3. The ADA Coordinator Hiring Committee is making progress and interviewing final candidates, however, there is some dissent and problems about how this committee has proceeded.
4. The GSO has asked Chancellor Syverud to do an actual, not just a pretend, investigation of how his administration and DPS treated TGB during the sit-in.

And yet…

Think of all the things the Chancellor is NOT addressing. We have noted again and again, for instance, that he continues to ignore anything to do specifically with students, faculty and staff of color, and/or GLBTQI students.

Next Steps/ACTION:

Yesterday, we contacted the Chancellor to request he meet in a public, open manner, with THE General Body, to continue the dialog and work the administration has claimed to want to work on (see our letter here). We have yet to hear a reply of any kind. 

When (if) we do secure a meeting time with the Chancellor and his administration, we will send a call-out email and post on the blog so we can have as many people there as possible. There will likely be other actions this semester, too!

In TGB structural news:

We have begun a “steering committee” to try to keep things as democratic as possible, while keeping a clearer sense of ‘power’ and communication. This steering committee will rotate out who wants to be on it. There’s definitely more room for those who might want to be part of it! Come to a meeting, or email THEgeneralbody@gmail.com, if you want to be on this more nuts and bolts sort of planning work.

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