COLUMBIA — MU graduate students spoke Monday of unionizing, staging a mass walkout and suing for breach of contract in response to the university’s decision to abruptly end its subsidized health insurance last week.
These ideas drew loud applause from about 500 graduate students gathered at a forum at Middlebush Hall, led by the Graduate Student Association and the Graduate Professional Council.
In a Friday morning email, MU associate vice chancellor for graduate studies Leona Rubin notified students that the university would no longer provide health insurance subsidies due to an IRS interpretation of the Affordable Care Act. The subsidies would end effective Saturday.
“Our Student Health Insurance Plan from Aetna is considered an 'individual market plan,' and graduate (teaching assistants) and (research assistants) are classified as employees by the Internal Revenue Service,” the email read. “The IRS has ruled that institutions of higher education are employers subject to this ruling and as such cannot provide subsidies to their employees, in our case, graduate students.”
State Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, attended the forum and said he was so frustrated by what happened he had trouble sleeping Sunday night.
“I made it very clear to administration, and I will continue to make it very clear: You are owed an apology for how this was mishandled,” Kendrick told the students.
Kenneth Bryant Jr., president of the Graduate Student Association, said the end of the university’s insurance subsidies is only the latest instance of graduate students being slighted. In June, the MU Office of Graduate Studies announced that it would raise stipends for all graduate teaching assistantships while cutting tuition waivers for students with 10-hour appointments to 50 percent, according to previous Missourian reporting.
“As a population, we are being exploited,” Bryant said. “We are vulnerable.”
Matt McCune with the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students said the university’s timing was unacceptable, seeing as the university was notified by the UM System on July 21 that the subsidies would have to end.
“Why did you wait 'til 13 hours before my insurance expired?” McCune said. “If you’re an international student, they waited until 14 days after your new insurance started.”
McCune said the University of Alabama, Louisiana State University and University of North Texas are among the schools where administrators have ended insurance subsidies for graduate students.
Organizers urged graduate students to contact legislators, seek support from faculty and alumni, share their stories on Twitter and YouTube — anything to rally support for legislative changes and inspire action by the university.
In lieu of subsidies, MU is offering all graduate students a one-time fellowship. The amount of the fellowship varies by position:
- Domestic students working 20 hours per week: $1,240
- Domestic students working 10 hours per week: $620
- International students working 20 hours per week: $709
- International students working 10 hours per week: $620
MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin released an apology and explanation to graduate students after the forum, which ended with hundreds of graduate students marching to the MU Columns.
“I have heard from many of you regarding the hardship that changes to the graduate student health insurance subsidy places on our students and their families,” Loftin's statement read. “I am also aware that you were given only a one day notice of these changes and that graduate student leadership was consulted only a few hours before the announcement was sent out by the Office of Graduate Studies.
“For this lack of appropriate notice and prior consultation, I apologize to you both personally and on behalf of the university's administration.”
Loftin said he has requested the creation of a task force that includes university officials and graduate students for recommendations on providing affordable insurance. The recommendations are due to Loftin by Oct. 31.
Supervising editor is William Schmitt.