North Texas Daily

Graduate Student Council President Tiffany Miller discusses the needs of graduate students in one-on-one interview

Graduate Student Council President Tiffany Miller discusses the needs of graduate students in one-on-one interview

Graduate Student Council President Tiffany Miller discusses the needs of graduate students in one-on-one interview
February 13
10:15 2020

Graduate Student Council President Tiffany Miller took an unconventional path to leadership when she assumed office in November, around six months later than most presidents start.

Since then, she has inherited thousands of unanswered emails and the responsibility to serve graduate students’ interests. This semester, she has attended town halls and addresses to voice her concerns about the wellbeing of UNT’s graduate students.

The North Texas Daily sat down with Miller to discuss her election, her advocacy for improved mental health and financial support for graduate students and what the university can do to better graduate students’ experiences.

Can you walk me through the changes GSC’s administration went through last semester?

Liz Smith was elected for this year during last spring’s elections and she is also a full-time staff member. They realized around July or August, you can’t be both a full-time staff member and be part of the Graduate Student executive board, because both are paid positions and Human Resources doesn’t like that.

So she resigned effective immediately. David Lacy became the interim president. He was the vice president of administration and finance so he became the interim president, and they elected a new vice president of administration and finance.

So how did you become GSC president?

In October, they had a special election for the president, the parliamentarian and the vice president of administration and finance. Dave and I both ran for president and I won by like eight votes.

We were elected mid-October and our start dates were set for Nov. 1. I started working on things a week before that, because as soon as I was elected, David was knocked out. So for two weeks, there was no president.

Students [would be] putting in event fee applications and needing help, sending emails and calling, and nobody [would be] picking up. The thought that that was going to be happening for two weeks before I took office wasn’t gonna fly, so I started a week before I officially started getting paid.

There were 26,000 emails in the inbox to go through. June 1 is the start date for the new year and they might as well not have had anybody during that time for as much change as there was going on. David did his best to keep things pretty stable, but he couldn’t really get ahead.

Do you think there are any underlying reasons why the administration has been so inconsistent?

I am paid $10 an hour for 20 hours a week with no health benefits, no parking permit, nothing. This used to be salary paid with health benefits, parking permits, [etc.]. They were treated just like a TA or GA.

Circa fall 2018, HR came back and said essentially that the GSC and SGA are the same, and that all executives from both do the same job. It doesn’t matter that graduate students have educations and have master’s degrees and Ph.D.s that they can use all that knowledge and experience from.

It doesn’t matter that we serve a completely different population with completely different needs and concerns. So [there was] a tremendous pay cut for this position.

People literally cannot afford to lead in this position or in any of these positions. 

So what is GSC doing to combat that issue?

We’ve kind of revamped our bylaws because part of that [change] was supposedly based on our bylaws. Last year, Student Service Fees Committee took that part of our bylaws, that was geared towards salary payment, and looked at it and said, ‘This means you’re only allowed to work .5 Full-Time Equivalent hours for 20 hours, and .25 FTE for 10 hours because 40 hours is full time.’

We redid our bylaws so that the maximum anyone can work next year will be 29 hours. That is the maximum number of hours any graduate student on campus can work in any position, according to Provost Evans-Cowley, because of Texas codes.

Do you think GSC positions will ever return to being salaried?

Not right now. The thing I have to consider when I look at this is what can I do immediately versus what is a long-term plan. I suspect the GSC executives in the coming years will continue to push back for that.

In the last two years, we’ve had really inconsistent leadership because of the pay. If you look back at the years these positions were salaried, multiple people ran for every office all three years.

Seth Ketron was president in 2016-17 and you can go on the website and look at the sheer number of pieces of legislation that were passed that year, open them up and look at the content — they’re beautiful. They had a very stable GSC and stable executive

because they could afford to. 

You’ve said in the past that you think graduate students need more support. What are some of the ways you think graduate students could be better supported?

I think any graduate student, the first thing they’ll tell you is financially.

Teaching assistants, graduate assistants and teaching fellows are putting in well over the number of hours they’re being compensated for. And they are afraid, in a lot of cases, to talk to their departments or talk to their deans in fear of just being replaced. There was somebody that came in yesterday saying they’re putting in close to 40 hours a week, but they only get paid for 20.

But they’re putting in close to 40 because that’s the level of work that is being required of them. I wonder to what extent faculty and staff are knowingly taking advantage of that and to what extent they’re unknowingly taking advantage of it.

Somebody else told me they are getting called and emailed past 5 p.m. and [having] to work on the weekends, early in the morning, well outside of working hours.

What about the mental health issues you brought up at the Presidential Town Hall and State of the Student Body address?

We’re seeing there’s 33 percent of grad students at UNT saying they are depressed to a point they feel that they cannot function normally. That’s ridiculous. People are being pushed way past their limits. And I think a lot of times it is unintentional, but I don’t know if that really matters. That’s negligence.

If we were working at a company, and you pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed your employees, and they were working more than 40 hours a week and not getting paid and something were to happen to them — they had a mental breakdown, if they were to lose it and flip a table and break tech or anything — a court of law would not care whether or not you intended to push that person there. They would consider that negligence.

[It] doesn’t matter what your intention was. People can have the best intentions and still do terrible things. The ends do not justify the means by which you get there. They’re depressed, they’re anxious, they’re overworked, they’re afraid. I’ve got students coming forth saying that. 

Three years ago, HR passed a policy stating that graduate students were allowed to work off-campus. If you’re relegated to 29 hours a week and you need to make 40 hours to pay your bills because you’re an adult, you’re gonna find a way to make that other 11 hours.

Some departments on campus have not updated their contracts to take out the statement saying that they’re not allowed to work off-campus. So there are departments that are not conforming to HR policy. I have asked multiple times to the students that have come to [see me] what department [is not conforming].

The students won’t even tell me what department it is because they’re so afraid of getting fired over this. If I reach out to HR and I say, for example, it’s the chemistry department, they’re afraid that somehow [the chemistry department is] gonna find out it was them and they’re gonna lose their job.

That’s ridiculous and shouldn’t be happening. So I don’t know what the disconnect is between the students’ needs and their expressed concerns or the resolution of that. But I know that we can play a role in bridging it.

Has anyone from the administration responded to your concerns?

One of the vice provosts and one of the vice presidents have both reached out about this issue specifically following the town hall and student body address to try to see what they can do to alleviate some of this. I want to be able to take data to them and take specific statements.

If you want them to take you seriously, you better take them quantitative data. They want to know [things like] how would addressing these issues lead to a faster graduation rate? How would it lead to higher enrollment? How is it going to contribute to reaching some of those benchmarks for higher funding for different programs? 

That’s the stuff that they really care about.

How would you like them to solve or alleviate these problems?

I think they’ve done a good job over the years of reacting to some of the needs and concerns as they come up. But I don’t think that they’ve done a good job of being proactive. And that’s been one of the complaints that I’ve voiced again and again and again to anyone that will listen.

If they want higher graduation rates and a faster degree-to-time ratio and all that to lower, they need to invest in the students. Can you invest in every single student individually? Probably not. But you can invest in student populations. You can provide support systems that they can tap into. And you can market and communicate those resources, and those investments and make sure that people are aware of them. They’re wanting more out of students, but they’re not necessarily putting in the resources to facilitate that growth.

The executive GSC cannot sustain GSC at the level to match the level of demands that are made of us both from students and from the administration. The same way we can’t do all of that at our current level of support, graduate students at UNT cannot continue to take on all these responsibilities at the current level of support.

And I guess one of the questions that get asked pretty immediately after that is ‘How do you want to see it fixed?’ You know, I can’t really say that I know.

Do you want them to make more of an effort to contact students and hear them out?

Yeah, absolutely. I know there’s a big emphasis on students reaching out but at the same time, that’s such a customer outlook. Customer feedback. They’re humans and they’re students. And I guarantee you, most people on this campus … do not think of themselves as customers.

Is there anything else we did not cover that you think is also important to note?

I don’t think any of this is malicious … I do think the university is trying to approach a lot of these issues with the growth mindset. I wish they’d done that sooner. I wish they didn’t have to get to this point where students feel so overworked and unsupported.

Every single day I get an email or phone call or somebody stops in and shares something. It just keeps compounding. It makes me really nervous because I know for every one student that talks to me, there’s probably three or four more that never will.

Featured Image: Graduate Student Council President Tiffany Miller poses in her office on Feb. 10, 2020. Image by Scout Streit.

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Brooke Colombo

Brooke Colombo

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