A sea of red filled the south end of Francis Quadrangle on the University of Missouri campus on Aug. 26 as hundreds of graduate students, faculty and staff gathered to protest recent actions of MU administrators.
The afternoon of Aug. 14, MU graduate students were notified by email that they would not receive the health insurance coverage promised to them by the University. For some, this news came just hours before their current insurance plans expired.
“It was crazy,” said Anne Cafer, a graduate student in rural sociology. “We got the email and I spent the whole afternoon trying to figure out what to do. It [graduate student protest plans] started forming on Facebook, talking about how do we get our voice heard and figuring out how we have a unified message.”
Graduate students were shocked by the email, and many turned to their graduate directors to find out what had happened, but the faculty knew just as little as the students.
“They (the graduate students) were concerned with what this meant and there wasn’t anything to tell them,” said Anna Ball, director of graduate studies for the Agricultural Education and Leadership Program. “We found out at same time, so all we could tell them was that we have the same information as you do and will will tell you what we know when we know it.”
This was the tipping point in what many graduate students thought was a series of mistreatments towards the graduate students, starting with the closing of University Village apartments and the day care center attached to it in 2014. A forum was held by the Graduate Student Association in Middlebush Hall three days after the notice about losing the insurance. Shortly after, the Forum on Graduate Rights was created to develop a list of demands.
Many graduate students thought the failure was in the University system for not communicating with the graduate students as soon as they could. University of Missouri St. Louis students were told weeks before the Columbia campus grad students were told.
On Aug. 18, the Forum on Graduate Rights sent their list of demands to MU administrators. The demands included: pay at a rate above the international poverty line, full tuition, health care, more affordable housing, on-campus university-sponsored childcare facilities and an elimination of auxiliary fees from colleges and departments.
Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin later issued a statement apologizing for poor communication and informing the students that their health insurance would be covered, although it did little to address the graduate students’ other demands, stating that they were mostly budget related.
“In addition to health insurance,” Chancellor Loftin’s statement read, “(the Forum on Graduates Rights letter) addresses a number of issues that are closely linked to the University’s budget. MU’s budget priorities are addressed through shared governance, primarily through the Budget Allocation and Advisory Committee, in which graduate students have ongoing representation.”
However, the reinstatement of health care was not enough to stop the graduate student protest. The Forum on Graduate Rights issued a statement clarifying their demands on Aug. 23. It stated that if their demands were not adequately met, they would walk out on Aug. 26.
The walkout resulted in many classes taught by graduate students being cancelled. Hundreds of graduate students, undergraduate students and University faculty and staff met at the columns and signed petitions outside Memorial Student Union. At the rally, red-shirted graduate students held signs reading “Grad Rights,” as others shouted their demands through megaphones.
While some rallied, other graduate students decided it would be best to stay in class and talk to the undergraduate students about what was happening.
“I think there is power in educating,” Cafer said. “The University still listens to undergrads, because they bring in the money and it helps to have that group advocate for you.”
Since the initial protest, the graduate students are still collecting signatures for their petition, as well as working on a report stating why the believe they should be given health care among their other demands.