Budget proposal sparks concern over GSA workplace environment

Professional staff salaries and benefits under consideration to balance budget


A fight over how to cover a $29,000 budget shortfall was the latest in a recent wave of turmoil for the Graduate Student Association (GSA) that included the resignation of its vice president, executive board turnover and accusations of workplace harassment.

Students reacted strongly at a Sept. 6 GSA Senate meeting to a tentative budget proposal from Treasurer Anastasia Stepanova that would either cut student services or reduce payments to professional staff by $70,000.

Stepanova, a Ph.D. student in linguistics, acknowledged neither option was ideal and said the Senate could decide on any combination of the two. The issue was tabled and will be revisited at the next Senate meeting on Oct. 4.

Some constituents feel the suggestion to cut vital staff members’ salaries was inappropriate and contributes further to what has become a hostile work environment for professional staff. Several students said during the meeting the GSA wouldn’t exist without professional staff. The Anthropology Graduate Student Association released a letter calling Stepanova’s proposal “unethical and illegal.”

Stepanova said she made it clear the $70,000 cut was a randomly selected value, and said she was not advocating firing the GSA’s two professional staff members, Gena Zimmerman and Stephanie George.

The budget proposal came a day after former Vice President Amy Miu resigned, citing medical issues from an untenable work environment. Miu said she was concerned over practices within the current e-board and had received six harassment complaints from staff members during her tenure.

“I ask that the graduate student body take care of the organization so that it can remain as a voice for future graduate students, and a recent and genuine concern, to take care of current GSA staff, especially the professional staff, i.e., potential discrimination, intimidation, or harassment,” Miu said in her resignation email.

Miu could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, GSA President Tanja Aho, an American studies student, is on an incapacity leave due to immigration issues, she announced at the meeting. Jen Schechter, a Ph.D. linguistics student, was appointed interim president.

Stepanova said she values the permanent staff and doesn’t have a personal agenda or issue with them. She said in the past, students were misled to think professional staff’s salaries couldn’t be adjusted.

“At no time was it ever suggested that we fire permanent staff,” Stepanova said.“However, I do not morally agree to only present cuts to the student programs and increase fees, which has been done on a regular basis, without being transparent as to which lines the Senate has control to adjust.”

Rebecca Biermann, a Ph.D. student in physical anthropology, said she doesn’t think it makes sense to cut professional staff’s salaries.

“You can’t actually anticipate that reducing the amount [spent on professional staff] would save you money,” Biermann said. “Because they would quit, and rightfully so. They do everything for us. At the last meeting, we literally couldn’t get the projector to run without them. Nothing works, down to the littlest thing, nothing works without them.”

Schechter said she is concerned how staff will interpret these proposals.

“It hasn’t been approached sensitively,” Schechter said. “It hasn’t been approached in a way that our employees feel safe in their jobs.”

Increased scrutiny of personnel costs is driven partly by an increase in graduate students requesting research funds through the GSA budget.

“When you look at a budget and see two people who take up a portion of the budget, you think, ‘I want more funding and I can’t get funding from anywhere else, of course cut these people,’” Schechter said.

The problem then becomes how to explain to busy, underfunded graduate students the indispensable nature of professional staff, Schechter said. Biermann said she thinks many graduate students are simply too busy to grasp these budgetary issues.

“There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how our personnel costs are one-fifth to one-third of our budget,” Schechter said. “We’re a nonprofit organization: of course this is a fifth of our budget, we need them in order to go on existing. Gena’s been here 45 years. She knows exactly how to continue operating the GSA. Coming in as a new officer, I don’t have that same knowledge, I have to go to them. They have to train me to do my job.”

Ariel Noffke, a Ph.D. student in the anthropology department, co-signed AGSA’s letter, which criticized cutting professional staff.

“I don’t think we should preserve the fact that we get pizza at every Senate meeting over people’s jobs. Some things should go first, and I don’t think it should be this,” Noffke said.

Schechter said she feels the budget shortfall was inaccurately presented as a crisis, when this is just the nature of non-profits, she said.

“You’re always pulling a hundred here and a hundred there to cover things and reallocate things in non-profits,” Schechter said.

Schechter said she has formulated several budgets which don’t require cuts to student services or staff. She said she will submit them to the GSA’s financial committee before Wednesday’s Senate meeting.

“No one with Stephanie’s background and knowledge would take the job for what we pay,” Schechter said. “What do you think she’s worth to you? Not the number on this piece of paper. This isn’t how you run a business or how you manage staff.”

Schechter will make the case to GSA’s Senate on Wednesday to keep professional staff salaries out of the budget discussion.

Sarah Crowley is the senior news editor and can be reached at sarah.crowley@ubspectrum.com.