CARBONDALE — A key sticking point in Southern Illinois University Carbondale Chancellor Carlo Montemagno’s newly unveiled plans for the university lies in the handling of graduate assistantships — the roughly 1,200 appointments for individuals who serve in teaching or research roles while pursuing post-graduate degrees.
The matter has generated rumors and confusion over the past two weeks, encompassing one of the major concerns aired at the open meeting co-hosted by the Faculty Association and the Graduate and Professional Student Council on Wednesday.
Initial reports from GPSC said GA funding would no longer come from state sources after May 2018 and would instead draw from grants obtained by faculty. It also emerged that GAs would no longer lead classes as instructors of record.
In a phone call Wednesday, Montemagno refuted the information about funding sources, but confirmed that GAs will henceforth be required to teach under the supervision of a faculty member.
“Our plan is to grow the number of graduate students, graduate assistantships, that we have. As you probably know, our strategy is to become an R1 institution. That means we have to move from about 100 Ph.D. students to about 300 Ph.D. students graduating in a year, and that means a significant increase in the number of graduate students that we have,” he said.
He said the responsibilities of instructors of record — including writing syllabi, choosing instructional materials and determining students’ grades — are “not really appropriate duties for a young graduate student.”
“We need to have those courses all being run and managed by faculty members, and of course we’ll maintain having education and classroom experiences as part of our educational paradigm for teaching graduate students. It’s an important element. But the control of the course should not go to the graduate students. It needs to rest with our faculty,” Montemagno said.
Asked how the administration plans to fill the gap in the university’s course offerings left by GAs, Montemagno said, “We’ll be using some of the faculty that we have and we’ll be hiring new faculty members to teach them.”
He added that new faculty members would “most likely initially be non-tenure-track faculty.”
“This is a very positive thing. We plan to increase the number of graduate students, we’re improving the experience that our graduate students have and our students have. This is a very, very positive development for our graduate education curriculum and for our students. And plus, the students who are instructors of record … now are going to be normal GAs. They’re going to have some time freed up to help them promote their own personal research,” Montemagno said.
He said graduate students’ teaching experience should include mentorship and supervision “so that experience is an experience which is profitable for the students and ensures it doesn’t negatively impact the students who are being instructed.
“So there’s no retreat from our commitment to providing that experience for our students. I just think it needs to be provided in a way that we ensure the quality of both the mentoring for the graduate students and the instruction of the students who are taking the course, again, remain the very best that we can do,” Montemagno said.
He dismissed the news about the shift away from state funding for GAs as “misinformation which is being promulgated” that has “no basis in fact.” State funding for GAs will remain consistent, he said.
“Obviously if I want to increase the number of graduate students that we have on campus so that we can produce 300 Ph.D.s a year instead of 100 Ph.D.s a year, we’re not going to get additional monies from the state to do that. So the funding for those additional students for the growth in the number in graduate students is gonna have to come from grants. It’s not going to change the base funding that we have, unless the state changes the base funding that we have for graduate students,” Montemagno said.
To learn about potential changes to graduate assistantships, GPSC President Johnathan Flowers said he has been in communication primarily with Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Stettler, along with a handful of other administrators. He noted that in previous years, GPSC was able to reach out to the office of the chancellor and communicate directly with the chancellor or his administrative staff.
“I’ve done my due diligence where appropriate administrative and institutional channels are concerned, and in many, if not most, cases received radio silence, or incomplete or inaccurate responses,” Flowers said.
He said the story about GA funding sources changed a number of times.
“… My last two weeks has been trying to sort truth from rumor, and it is the inability of the administration to communicate clearly their decisions where graduate assistants’ funding is concerned that has compounded this matter,” Flowers said. “So to be clear, any information that I provide to graduate students or the GPSC body or the university as a whole comes from the administration. The fact that I’ve had to go and revise my provision of information where GA funding is concerned almost six different times is a result of the six different ways that the administration has revised their standing line on GA funding.”
Flowers said that although the administration has denied that any GA positions will be eliminated, he believes the eradication of independent instructors of record will create an environment that suppresses the number of GAs on campus.
“Given the already reduced numbers of faculty, that means just by virtue of the limitations of personnel, you would have to reduce the available GA positions,” Flowers said.
He also questioned the faculty’s ability to serve in mentorship roles for teaching graduate students.
“The chancellor’s approach to replacing the lost experience of teaching is to develop mentorship opportunities, which is a problem, considering GPSC has already encountered resistance to the development of a mentorship program through Graduate Council, specifically due to the fact that faculty have already increased teaching loads, and it is perceived that our asking for additional mentorship structures on top of that would overburden faculty to the point where something would have to give,” he said.
Flowers said GAs already receive regular evaluations by faculty.
“I don’t mean to imply any malicious intent on behalf of the chancellor. I think this is merely an oversight and a lack of understanding in how the structure actually works on the ground, which is pretty much an entire critique I can make of the chancellor’s engagement with the graduate education enterprise at this institution,” Flowers said.
Flowers called the implication that graduate students provide a lower quality of instruction “a slap in the face not only to the graduate students who are doing the academic labor on campus and doing it very well, but to the faculty members who have dedicated their time and energy into cultivating us into the scholars and educators that we are today.
“You cannot, on the one hand, say we have excellent faculty and excellent programs and then on the other hand say, ‘Well, the students you have produced who are doing this instruction provide a sub-par education to our undergraduates.’ Those things seem in contradiction to me, and I find it frankly insulting that the chancellor would base his decision to eliminate students as instructors of record on a perception that GAs cannot provide quality education to our undergraduates,” Flowers said.
He said the ability to be instructors of record provides graduates with invaluable experience that they use on the job market.
“Loss of that means of professional development would impair future graduates’ capacity to successfully move into their professional field. Put another way, we would get more professional development as adjunct instructors in the community than in our home institution without being instructors of record,” Flowers said.
The change barring graduate students from being instructors of record will go into effect July 1, 2018, according to the chancellor.