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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Demolition of affordable graduate housing is another blow to UF’s graduate assistants

Opinions generic
Opinions generic

UF plans to demolish 36% of on-campus Graduate Family Housing, as reported in the Gainesville Sun and The Alligator. This is one instance in a series of recent decisions that shows UF does not value graduate students as much as it values our labor. 

Much of the other infrastructure changes set forward in the recently approved Campus Master Plan are narrowly focused on UF’s commitment to the undergraduate experience and reaching “Top 5” status in the U.S. News and World Report Public University ranking scale. 

However, unsettling recent events beyond campus development, such as the investigation into the June 2019 suicide of UF Ph.D. student, Huixiang Chen, and UF’s varying COVID-19 policies indicate to graduate students that both our campus resources and potentially our lives are disposable here.

For the past two years, graduate students have been vocal against the demolition of two  Graduate Family Housing Villages: Maguire Village and University Village South (UVS).

These buildings have been deemed structurally unsound and past the point of repair due to their being built in the 1970s. Despite this, details of any independent building inspection, along with reasonable estimates for costs of renovations, are kept a mystery by UF Housing and Residence Education, the bureaucracy responsible for the planned demolition. 

The UF Department of Housing and Residence Education indicated to graduate students early on that the motivation for demolishing the two villages stems from a desire for financial gain. There has been little interest in replacing the 536 bedrooms that will be lost with similarly affordable graduate housing to serve the low-income and primarily international graduate workers who call Maguire and UVS home. 

In fact, it was the work of UF’s Graduate Student Council, not UF Housing, which surveyed 254 current Graduate Family Housing residents and discovered 81% made less than $30,000 per year and 73% were international students, who already face disproportionate financial barriers to living and working in the U.S. 

Requests for negotiation and transparency from UF Housing on the matter of Maguire and UVS continually end in gridlock. 

UF Housing exercises its right to privacy as one of the University’s 18 direct-support organizations (DSO) — public-private hybrids not subject to Sunshine Laws. This enables UF to follow monetary incentives, act against the interests of the Gator community, and present cherry-picked data on housing needs — despite being a public land-grant institution. UF Housing has proposed no viable replacement graduate housing and continues to accept $25 application fees for a housing pool that has been reduced greatly by the quiet phase-out of Maguire and UVS apartments.

While UF Housing has been secretive in its decision-making process and a source of frustration for the UF graduate community, it is merely a DSO tool for senior UF administrators to execute plans in securing the coveted “Top 5 Public University” ranking and to garner more national attention. Results of the March 18-19 UF Board of Trustees meeting indicated UF is so dedicated to rankings that it will overleverage itself by $250 million to begin construction on the “Gator Residential Complex,” a 1,400-bed undergraduate housing facility to supplement UF’s “elite” on-campus living experience and “Top 5 brand.” 

While the $250 million project was vetted to improve undergraduate “involvement in academic and social experiences,” graduate students are left asking — what about us? Despite graduate workers being the primary laborers in achieving UF’s record research spending during the pandemic, none of these accomplishments or the expanded research potential ahead of us, garner real investment in our wellbeing.

UF has consistently placed graduate assistants at the bottom of their concern list. At the beginning of the pandemic, it took three and a half months for the labor union, Graduate Assistants United and UF to reach a Memorandum of Understanding protecting graduate assistants from being terminated due to productivity drops related to COVID-19. At the end of the Fall 2020 semester, UF was already pushing for faculty and graduate assistants to return to in-person teaching, despite a vaccine not yet being widely available. Many ADA accommodation requests from faculty and GAs to work from home during the Spring 2021 semester were denied

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Another illustration of UF’s flippant attitude towards graduate assistants is their handling of the June 2019 suicide of Electrical and Computer Engineering graduate assistant Huixiang Chen. Despite verbal and emotional abuse from his faculty supervisor, former professor Dr. Tao Li, which Chen cited in his suicide note, UF failed to remove Tao Li from campus until his grant money dried up after he was implicated for academic misconduct and instituted a 15-year publishing ban from their journals. 

Even after UF suspended him from campus, Tao Li remained on UF’s payroll until he resigned May 15 of this year. UF contracted with the law firm Gray Robinson to conduct the investigation into alleged mentor abuse by Tao Li that drove Huixiang Chen to suicide. After almost two years of radio silence, Gray Robinson submitted a bare-boned, three-page report in which they concluded no abuse had taken place. 

The findings of these investigations indicate that the threat to UF’s intellectual property was taken more seriously than the loss of one of our peers. Verbal and psychological abuse of graduate assistants by their mentors is a widespread, national problem and UF squandered their opportunity to show graduate assistants they will be protected against one of the largest occupational hazards in academia. 

The best part of UF is the people, and we must advocate for compassionate policies towards the overworked and overlooked portion of UF’s population that is graduate workers. We have outlined UF’s many missed opportunities in advocating for its graduate students and workers, which in the most extreme case, ended with the loss of Huixiang Chen. 

Please, UF, learn from these mistakes and invest more resources and time into your graduate community: starting with affordable housing and protection from workplace abuse. 

Amanda Pritzlaff and Bryn Taylor are members of the UF Graduate Assistants United (GAU) which is the official labor union representing more than 4,000 graduate employees at the University of Florida.

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