The University of Connecticut Board of Trustees approved fee changes proposed earlier this month, amidst demands for more bargaining time from the Graduate Employee Union and the formation of a committee dedicated to free speech on Wednesday.
The Graduate Employee Union is currently in the bargaining phase of a new employment contract, a process which has taken over 100 days and involved an outside law firm to conduct, union leader and political science graduate Steven Manicastri said.
Manicastri led a group of graduate students marching and chanting up to the Peter J. Werth Residence Tower, where the meeting was held, and stood before the board to demand for additional bargaining time in the union contract renewal process, as well as improvements to equity and gender inclusivity in the hiring and employment process.
“The university… has made bargaining necessarily combative and slow,” Manicastri said. “While we strive to create a more inclusive university with stronger protections against sexual harassment and discrimination, we have now waited for over 100 days on a counter-proposal. We simply ask for more bargaining time.”
Manicastri decried the used of the outside law firm, which was using “precious university resources” in the negotiations.
“We were once again disappointed to hear the university once again (hired) a legal counsel for bargaining with us. After working with the university’s legal services, bringing an outsider will slow down negotiations unnecessarily,” Manicastri said. “This is especially disheartening when departments are asked to reduce their budgets, and (Graduate Assistants) are being asked to do more with less.”
The board voted unanimously to pass the fee changes that would eliminate major-related and certain academic fees such as lab course fees, as well as proposed increases to UConn Stamford student housing rates and an increase on fees pertaining to certain business graduate courses.
Additionally, the Presidential Committee on Civil Discourse and Dialogue, headed by associate director for the Humanities Institute Brendan Kane, presented a committee report on the overall need for free speech and “spaces in which to explore” dialogue, debate and discourse on campus.
UConn President Susan Herbst mentioned the formation of such of a committee, made up of students, faculty and staff, in a November email sent in response to Lucian Wintrich’s arrest on campus in 2017.
“It wasn’t a reaction to any particular event or speaker,” Herbst said. “Honestly, it reflects broader questions about the state of American college campus dialogues, including our own. We asked ourselves if we’re giving the students the tools they need to… be able to be passionate about how they feel, and have meaningful, respectful discussion with the people they know.”
The goals of the committee include fostering dialogue on campus, and keeping “UConn’s national and political climate in mind,” Kane said.
“The key point, I think, is to go into the situation wide-eyed about what already we have, where we need to go, but always positive about the questions we have over free speech and political polarization,” Kane said. “We are in the business educating the citizenship, and (that means) a much closer link between the classroom and the experiences in the student climate.”
The committee is currently working on different proposals for projects and panels, Kane said.
“We will probably reject things that are very good individual ideas, that won’t work particularly well in (this) structure or platform,” Kane said. “We hope to create something that will be woven into the fabric of the university.”
Kane mentioned an earlier panel held with students, members of the faculty and the general public that demonstrated the value of discourse on campus. Held as a roundtable discussion, the meaning of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution was deliberated by the attending group, which remained civil.
“A couple of people showed up, loaded to talk about the Second Amendment,” Kane said. “And (afterward) one of the graduate students came up to me, and said, ‘This is magic… (these people were) interested to talk about the relationship between the text of the Second Amendment, (and) also (their) understanding of the Second Amendment.’’
Kane said that he hopes that more “encounters” such as this one will be organized in the future.
“This particular committee is being charged with a very expensive defense of free speech,” Kane said. “And therefore I think, from the committee’s perspective, we reject the very restrictive definitions of what is free speech, but at the same time we are attempting to be very cognizant of harmful speech, and understand that abstract speech is also problematic.”
Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at email@example.com. She tweets @marlese_lessing.