COLUMBIA — On July 21, Leona Rubin got an email saying MU could no longer offer health insurance subsidies to its graduate student employees. 

The next day, she sent an email to Ed Knollmeyer, the University of Missouri System's director for risk and insurance management.

"(Subsidy program coordinator) Karen Gruen informed me that you believe we can no longer offer student insurance to graduate students. That will be VERY BAD," Rubin, MU's associate vice chancellor for graduate studies, wrote. "We will need a solution fast (really fast) or begin notifying students and programs if this is going to change."

On July 31, Hank Foley, then MU's senior vice chancellor for research, graduate studies and economic development, looked over alternatives to the subsidies and offered Rubin a frank assessment of the situation: "OK — this sucks."

But graduate students had no knowledge of the scramble going on within the university's upper echelon late last summer. Emails to the students would come without warning two weeks later, kicking off a semester of protest and breathing life into an effort to unionize graduate student employees.

Tensions between graduate student assistants and administration reached new heights Friday, when an attorney for the UM System informed the Coalition of Graduate Workers that it would not be recognized in contract negotiations. The coalition, which students approved as their collective bargaining representative in an election last month, is planning a lawsuit to challenge the system's position, which holds that graduate students are not employees.

Emails obtained through an open records request shed some light on the days leading up to Rubin's Aug. 14 announcement that the health insurance subsidies would end. While faculty and graduate students were in the dark, Rubin was struggling to get opinions and direction from Foley and Provost Garnett Stokes.

In interviews with the Missourian, faculty members and MU's previous Graduate School dean blamed the fiasco on former MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin's structural changes to graduate studies administration and faulted university leaders for not pushing back on controversial legal advice from an outside law firm.

Neither Stokes nor Foley responded to inquiries for this article. In a recent email to the Missourian, Rubin said top administrators have worked to improve communication among themselves since last fall, but she acknowledged busy schedules can slow administrators' decision-making process.

“Clearly, the three or so weeks we had between notification and the start of school was not enough for this process to happen,” Rubin wrote.

'I don't think they want to make a decision'

Less than an hour after Rubin's July 22 email to Knollmeyer, Rubin emailed Stokes, Foley and MU Vice Chancellor for Finance Rhonda Gibler about the impending cuts.

At issue was an IRS ruling on the Affordable Care Act that prohibits employers from giving money to their employees for health insurance, an evasion of the ACA's push for companies to provide full coverage for their workers.

If the IRS had enforced the ruling, fines could have run MU $100 per employee per day.

Knollmeyer sent out a notice of the opinion to graduate studies officials on all four campuses on July 23. The University of Missouri-St. Louis announced the next day that it would end subsidies.

But the process moved slowly on the Columbia campus, where roughly 2,600 graduate assistants enrolled for the fall semester. Foley, Stokes and Gibler hadn't responded to Rubin's email by the following Monday.

"So far there has been no response from our budget office to my email so I may go and camp on (Gibler's) doorstep," Rubin wrote to then-UMSL Graduate School Dean Judith Walker de Félix. She added a smiley face to the end of the sentence. 

On July 29, after a meeting with UM System General Counsel and top graduate studies officials from two other system campuses, Rubin tried again, this time adding the following officials to the conversation:

  • Loftin
  • Ellen de Graffenreid, vice chancellor for marketing and communications 
  • Mary Jo Banken, MU News Bureau executive director
  • Kelley Stuck, UM System assistant vice president of human resources
  • Kenneth Dean and Pat Okker, senior associate provosts

Again, no one replied.

In a recent email, Loftin said Rubin's message was his "first real indication that there was a serious issue at play," but he was also busy at the time working on boosting research and MU's status in the Association of American Universities.

On July 31, two weeks before frustrated faculty, politicians and students began pelting her inbox with questions and catharsis, Rubin shared cost estimates for subsidy alternatives and a draft of the email she would send Aug. 14 to graduate students and directors of graduate programs with Foley, Gibler and Banken.

They could cancel the subsidy and not replace it — the university could get around promises made in offer letters if providing the subsidy violated federal law — “and have everyone hate us (more),” Rubin wrote. They could also go the other away, paying all graduate students 100 percent of the subsidy to the tune of about $7.5 million.

Rubin recommended a middle ground, giving all students on waivers 60 percent of the subsidy in the fall at a cost of about $4.5 million.

However, “decisions about how to spend $4.5 million are beyond my pay grade and not in my budget (though they are in Rhonda’s)," she wrote.

Foley added Stokes to the email conversation and lamented the situation that afternoon, but he deferred to Gibler to evaluate the financials. 

Foley, who had just returned to work after open heart surgery, and Stokes weren't oblivious. Foley reached out to Regina Vasilatos-Younken, a former colleague at Pennsylvania State who runs its graduate school, to see if she had an answer to the IRS ruling. Stokes sent a similar missive to Nancy Marcus, the graduate school dean at Florida State, which was in the middle of bargaining for a new agreement with the graduate student union. 

Neither school could offer concrete advice; they were wrestling with the same questions as MU. Rubin also heard from Alabama, Auburn and Louisiana State, where subsidies were eliminated.

Rubin’s growing frustration with indecision shows in messages to Karen Gruen, the subsidy program coordinator. 

On Aug. 3, Gruen told Rubin that students were asking why their promised subsidy money hadn't shown up in their accounts — they had payments due Aug. 15 — and Rubin lamented the dysfunction above her. 

“I have the provost thinking we are moving too fast and legal saying we are moving too slow,” Rubin wrote in reply. “The outcome is we do nothing for a few more days.” 

Two days later, she emailed Stokes and Gibler new cost estimates on one-time fellowship payments for the fall. Rubin also emailed Loftin’s assistant, Ann McGruder, asking to meet with the chancellor that Friday, Aug. 7, or the following Monday.

On Friday, Gruen checked in to see if there was any news.

“No,” Rubin replied. “I have request (sic) time with the chancellor-no answer. I sent (Senior Associate Provost Ken Dean) and the Provost new costs, no answer. I’ll keep trying but I don’t think they want to make a decision.”

Her frustration was even more pronounced in an Aug. 12 email to Banken after she spoke with Loftin. 

"Drives me crazy that I had this pretty much ready to go last Wednesday and have been waiting for someone at a higher pay range than mine to say ok about spending the $3 million (on one-time fellowship payments)," Rubin wrote.

Graduate School shuffle

MU astrophysics professor Angela Speck, a member of MU Faculty Council's executive committee who spoke at graduate student rallies in the fall, blamed the indecision on Loftin’s 2014 shakeup of graduate studies.

Rubin’s predecessor, former Graduate School Dean George Justice, reported to the provost, MU’s chief academic official. But Loftin made Rubin an associate vice chancellor under the umbrella of the Office of Research, Graduate Studies and Economic Development.

Placing graduate studies under Foley, who was in charge of research and economic development in addition to graduate studies, made responsibility for decision-making unclear in August, Speck said.

Justice agreed. “Moving the former Graduate School under the office of research made graduate education (in my view) a part of the research mission of the institution rather than where it rightly should be: at the heart of the university's efforts in education," he wrote in a email to the Missourian.

"Dr. Rubin is just as strong an advocate for students as I was. She didn't have the place in the institution for her deep commitment to be registered in the most effective way.”

In 2014, Loftin said he was making the change to let faculty make more curriculum decisions while the new office of graduate studies handled administrative duties.

He stood by the move in a May email to the Missourian.

“Dr. Rubin reported to a Vice Chancellor level leader (the Provost) as Interim Dean of the Graduate School and to a Vice Chancellor as Associate Vice Chancellor for Graduate Studies,” he wrote in the email. “Thus, I saw no diminution of her 'administrative' ability to 'advocate for graduate students.'”

Judith Walker de Félix, the former graduate school dean at UMSL — where students learned of canceled subsidies July 24 — said the confusion at MU also complicated coordinating pushback against the UM System’s legal opinion.

“To us on the outside, (the dissolution of the graduate school) seemed to have left a gap in graduate leadership at MU, slowed decision-making on that campus, and made it difficult for UMSL and MU to issue a joint response to the UM decision," she wrote in a recent email. 

Ben Trachtenberg, MU Faculty Council chair and an associate professor of law, also zeroed in on the failure to push back against a legal opinion that would clearly harm graduate students.

“Outside counsel correctly diagnosed a potential risk,” he said, referring to hefty IRS fines MU could have faced. “But the job of an attorney is to give advice. That does not remove the need for us to consider how that opinion affects the values of the university.”

Legal leaps

Top administrators did question the opinion of Jefferson City law firm Stinson Leonard Street, emails show. 

In her July 22 email to Ed Knollmeyer, Rubin expressed disbelief that the Affordable Care Act would actually deprive students of coverage.

“I read the document,” she wrote, referring to a notice about the IRS ruling sent out by the industry group College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, “and really don’t understand why it impacts students or why the ACA would want to throw tens of thousands of graduate students from across the country out of their coverage.”

Steven Bloom, the director of federal relations at the American Council on Education, has been working with regulators in Washington, D.C., on the issue since last spring. He said he was similarly baffled when the IRS advisory, largely ignored by most education lobbyists when it was issued in 2013, began wreaking havoc on campuses last summer. 

“When you read the notice, it sort of takes a leap of faith to see how it applies to what we’re doing,” Bloom said.

But when Rubin suggested stalling any decision to allow lobbying efforts to run their course, legal shot her down, she wrote in an email Aug. 2.

Bloom sympathized with university lawyers’ worries about the hefty fines but said it would have been “kind of astonishing” if the IRS had started collecting them while negotiating with higher education lobbyists.

And ultimately, Trachtenberg said, conversations with faculty and graduate students would have made the eventual blowback of canceling subsidies clear to administrators.

“If there had been consultation, there could have been a conversation with Rubin, Loftin, faculty leaders and leaders of the graduate students,” Trachtenberg said. “And it would have quickly become apparent that taking away subsidies was not going to go over well.”

Rubin reached out to Trachtenberg in an email July 31, but he wrote back that he would be out of town from Aug. 1 to Aug. 10. 

"I'll keep you informed by email," she replied, "but changes in the student health program are being driven by the ACA, IRS and legal and is time sensitive so it can't wait till you return. I'll try to touch base with (MU Faculty Council's academic affairs committee chair Art Jago) and (Faculty Council student affairs committee chair Tim Evans) next week."

Trachtenberg said he didn't hear more until Aug. 13, the day before the announcement, in an email from Rubin laying out the scale of the problem.

Rubin met with leaders of the Graduate Professional Council, the university-recognized graduate student government, the day of the announcement. 

Pointing fingers, pointed questions

She didn't have to wait long for a response to her mass email Aug. 14.

"You should feel ashamed of yourselves," one student wrote to Rubin and other administrators. "By stripping graduate students of their health insurance benefits, you diminish our quality of life and make it even more challenging to complete our degrees."

"And the law allows for literally no advance notice of the termination of employee benefits (current Aetna plans expire at midnight tonight)?" another student asked. 

State Reps. Stephen Webber and Kip Kendrick, Columbia Democrats, weighed in, too. They wanted to know why they heard about the cuts from angry students instead of MU leaders.

The day after the announcement, Loftin barred Rubin from making any additional statements on the insurance issue without de Graffenreid's approval. (De Graffenreid has since left MU for Duke University). 

Loftin's announcement of a task force charged with finding a solution the subsidy problem acknowledged a "lack of appropriate notice and prior consultation" before Rubin's announcement. 

"The students are tweeting that they can no longer trust me or the office because I sat on this information rather than tell them," Rubin wrote to Foley Aug. 17. "The Chancellor's letter about the task force clearly puts the blame on me in a very public way ... I think when you get back we need to talk about a transition plan so you have someone here that can help you."

Ultimately, after a week of talks with Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and UM System officials, Loftin announced subsidies would be paid as promised, and Foley took responsibility for the gaffe with students and faculty. 

The day after Loftin's announcement, he sent a letter to Trachtenberg shouldering responsibility for Rubin's call.

"Fear of breaking an IRS advisory with the apparent risk of huge financial penalties looming over us led to an expedient decision that trumped our academic values," Foley wrote. "Had I been able to give Dr. Rubin more of my time last month to work through this properly the outcome would have been different."

"Thank you for the detail and candor of your letter," Trachtenberg wrote back. "Leona has taken a lot of fire over the past week, and your willingness to shoulder some of the responsibility is laudable."

"Thank you!!!" Tim Evans wrote. "I am tired of the blame game. Leona is great, but some of her communications needed another view."

But Rubin was unmoved.

"Sorry you did that Hank," she wrote. "It wasn’t all you and I’m not that green."

Supervising editors are Mark Horvit and Elizabeth Brixey.

  • Austin Huguelet was an assistant city editor in spring 2016. He also worked as a reporter and infographic designer.

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