LSU’s Memorial Tower displays the time on Monday, March 20, 2023, on Tower Drive in Baton Rouge. (Matthew Perschall for Louisiana Illuminator)
LSU was given $8 million in the state budget on the promise it would raise its minimum pay for all Ph. D.-seeking graduate assistants to $23,000 per academic year — the highest among schools in the Southeastern Conference — but many qualified students aren’t seeing the benefits.
In phone and email interviews, seven Ph. D.-seeking grad assistants at LSU confirmed they were offered stipends significantly below the newly-advertised minimum. They also shared that many of their friends working in doctoral programs are in the same boat.
Many of these students spoke to the Illuminator on the condition they remain anonymous out of fear they could lose their jobs or even their visas.
Graduate assistants do much of the labor required to keep a university running, including research and teaching freshman courses. They are typically offered a tuition waiver and stipend for 20 hours of work, although several told the Illuminator they work many more hours without additional pay.
Md Tanvir Ahmed Sarkar, a student senator representing graduate students, said he was offered a stipend of just $14,000. A graduate adviser in LSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering informed its graduate assistants who were being paid with grants given before 2022 they would not receive the new minimum stipend, Sarkar said.
LSU announced the new pay rate in February, months before the legislature appropriated money for that purpose. The stipend hike was hinted at in memos circulated around the university during fall 2022 in the months following the hiring of LSU Provost Roy Haggerty, who spearheaded the efforts.
An LSU official confirmed the pay raise was going to happen regardless of the appropriation, which was nowhere near a sure thing. The $8 million LSU requested was added to the final version of the state budget bill, which was released just minutes before the legislature adjourned June 8.
A memo Haggerty and LSU Graduate School Dean Jim Spencer released to faculty and graduate students last October indicated the university planned to finance the stipend increase by eliminating a small number of positions.
It’s unclear exactly how many Ph.D.-seeking graduate assistants will not receive the new minimum wage, but Sarkar said he believes the number to be around 150.
The graduate assistants interviewed made between $14,000 to $20,000 for nine months. The lowest rate of pay for a graduate assistant at LSU is around $11,000. If Sarkar’s estimate is correct, it would cost the university less than $2 million — perhaps closer to $1 million — to raise every graduate assistant to the promised stipend.
The Illuminator reached out to Haggerty to explain why the university is not using the extra cash to ensure all qualified graduate assistants receive the advertised pay rate and to clarify what criteria LSU is using to decide who receives the increased stipend.
In a statement, Haggerty declined to explain LSU’s use of the cash appropriated by the legislature but indicated the university had okayed the lower rate of pay for some graduate assistants.
“LSU A&M is raising the minimum stipends for all terminal-degree-seeking students to $2,556/month,” Haggerty said in a statement. “We encourage those with funding from external sources to increase their GA rates to the same as LSU A&M, if they are able to rebudget the funding. Going forward, we require all grant proposals to use the $2,556/month minimum in their budgets.”
The $2,556 monthly rate comes out to $23,000 for nine months.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, who was involved in negotiations on the final version of the budget, expressed disappointment that LSU is not following through with its commitment.
“It’s always a trust issue,” Magee said. “If things are not followed through on, the next time they ask for money, we will be more skeptical or critical and less likely to do it.”
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Several graduate assistants interviewed for this article are international students, who could face deportation if they take on additional employment in violation of the terms of their visas.
With these working conditions, several students said they feel like LSU is exploiting them.
“They’re treating graduate students as slaves,” one international student said of the university.
The student, who studies engineering, said despite being paid a $14,000 stipend for a 20-hour work week, he frequently works 30 or more hours.
“I think they are abusing us because we are stuck here and they have the power, and they can fire us easily and they can get rid of us whenever they want,” he said.
Another international student studying engineering shared that when he pushed back on being offered a lower stipend, his adviser “politely threatened” him by telling him he should be grateful for his position because the professor gets many applications for potential replacements.
Sarkar said he plans to enlist the help of United Campus Workers of Louisiana, a chapter of an international communications workers union, and the Graduate Student Association. He said he hopes to petition LSU administration to follow through on its commitment so that every worker can pay their bills.
“The current pay rate that we are getting is not enough to survive,” another graduate assistant said.
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