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DI: Respect to GEO

November 20, 2009

UI community should grant more respect to GEO members

Anando Naqui, guest columnist

Posted: November 19th, 2009 – 10:30 PM

Updated: November 19th, 2009 – 10:30 PM

I would like to address the situation regarding Teaching Assistants, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), the strike, and more specifically, how this entire situation is being handled.

I am not a graduate student on campus, and so I believe that I can offer a perspective that is often overlooked. I am a second-year undergraduate in mechanical engineering. Unlike most students, I am not from Illinois, but rather the great state of Maine. As an engineering undergraduate, I am removed from both the body of graduate students and the humanities departments that are more inclined to strike. Yet, as a member of the UIUC community, and more importantly, a human being who values equality, honesty and transparency, I have become simultaneously intrigued and appalled by the conduct of the University — my university — in its treatment of the GEO and its members who are crucial to the health of the University community.

Every large University, public or private, relies heavily on the use of TAs to facilitate or even lead classes, and our University is no exception. Nearly every class that I have taken, and for almost every class offered, there is at least one TA. Often times there are two TAs in the case of courses with labs. They hold office hours, grade labs, tests, quizzes and papers, and get few accolades in return. Many times, the only reasons TAs receive mention is if they have an accent, or made a mistake grading. But the work of TAs is some of the most important work done on campus. Just as it takes a deep understanding of the material to give a lecture, explaining concepts in depth and answering specific questions regarding topics covered in lecture also takes a great deal of knowledge on the material. A course is a dichotomy between broad topics and detailed explanations of those topics. Leading a discussion section is an interesting balancing act between pre-meditated lessons and impromptu explanations that answer students’ questions. Alienating a group that is so intrinsic to the operation of the University is a move the University should avoid at all costs.

Now let me be very clear here: I don’t have a doctorate, I don’t run nationally recognized research programs, I haven’t launched humanitarian aid efforts, I haven’t run multimillion-dollar corporations and I am not on the board of important organizations. It is very clear to me, however, that the University is utterly butchering the situation with the GEO. Most notably, the letters to the faculty and students from the Office of the Provost were written in poor taste and without regard for the basic dignity of the TAs. Attempting to force a wedge first between the GEO and the faculty, and then between the GEO and the students, are moves that are tragic in intentions and futile in practice. Find guidance from the actions of historical figures such as Tsar Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln who pioneered revolutions from above. By freeing the Serfs, Alexander avoided mass revolt while solidifying his position in the annals of history as a benevolent leader. Lincoln launched himself into the pantheon of great American Presidents with his Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address. What both of these historical figures also have in common was a great understanding of the circumstances troubling their nation and people and the potential consequences of changing the status quo. Expecting faculty to cross picket lines shows a fundamental flaw in the understanding of this situation. Expecting students to bite on the bait of “Our highest priority is to ensure that students’ academic progress will not be impeded” is almost foolish. Veiling intentions with language laced with cute (but hollow) phrases and clever sentences only makes the University look like a culprit. Actions like moving the bargaining meeting to a remote location such as Willard Airport indicates to anyone remotely familiar with the situation that the University is trying to obfuscate the actions of the University and wreak of “strike busting.” Calling out the GEO through mass e-mails for disrupting the harmony of the University is eerily suggestive of the Mohawk Valley Formula. Evoking such nefarious practices will only drive a wedge into the University community, and in the long run,Illinois will be worse off for it.

What it comes down to is that every worker deserves a living wage, along with dignity and the respect of their employer. By giving the GEO a fair wage and contract, the University will show the community that we are taking steps in the right direction and trying to improve our recently tarnished image. Together we can eliminate our weaknesses and improve our strengths. May the Administration of the University be guided by truth and honesty, and may the entire UIUC community ­— undergraduates, graduates, faculty, staff, administration and friends — be able to move forward in harmony.

Anando Naqui

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