A day after the Senate Budget Committee voted to advance a tax reform bill, several University of Maryland graduate students and faculty members gathered on McKeldin Mall Wednesday to protest.
This university is one of about 50 academic institutions — including Northwestern University, Penn State and Ohio State — whose students participated in the nationwide grad tax walk out, a grassroots campaign created by graduate students to educate peers about the detriment the bill could pose if passed, said Katie Brown, Graduate Student Government public relations vice president and an event organizer.
While the Senate bill does not include the taxable tuition remission provisions, which exist in a bill that passed in the House of Representatives on Nov. 16, these provisions could be worked into the bill in committee.
Graduate students organized an earlier protest on Nov. 16, drawing about 200 to McKeldin Mall to voice opposition to the House Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which would make student waivers eligible to be taxed. Some 4,700 graduate students at this university receive tuition waivers, Assistant Graduate School Dean Jeff Franke wrote in a statement earlier this month.
“The first rally was useful for getting us together and saying, ‘Look we have a community, we have a voice,'” said Brian Sarginger, a fourth-year doctoral history student. “This one is saying, ‘Alright we have a community, we have a voice, and now we have something to teach people about.'”
About 100 attendees gathered for Wednesday’s protest, singing and chanting in unison, “Which side are you on?” before breaking into two concentrated group educational sessions.
One group discussed the bill’s logistics and how it applies to graduate students, while the other discussed the root issues behind graduate students’ struggles on the campus, such as low pay and a lack of collective bargaining rights.
Graduate student workers are not legally recognized as employees in the state of Maryland and thus do not have the right to negotiate contracts, hours or wages. Limited affordable housing options in the area has also been a common concern for some graduate students.
“Any financial hit is not sustainable for us, because the way we’re being paid is not sustainable as it is right now,” Brown said.
Science education professor Andrew Elby said he worries the Senate might incorporate the House bill’s provisions into its final tax package.
“If graduate remission starts being taxed, then basically we would have to shut down our graduate program,” Elby said. “We’d have to downsize drastically or just throw in the towel.”
Both university President Wallace Loh and Graduate School Dean Steve Fetter have expressed their disapproval of taxable student remission. But some students hope the administration will take steps toward addressing the longstanding issues that have contributed to the ambiguous position of many graduate student employees, Brown said.
“When you basically reduce the incentives for charitable deductions, or you go even a step further and you start taxing the incomes from endowments of private institutions, this is a clear attack on higher education,” Loh said earlier this month.
Victor Hernandez-Sang, an international second-year ethnomusicology doctoral student, is from the Dominican Republic and has an F1 visa that prohibits him from working a second off-campus job in addition to his university assistantship.
“My stipend, the money that I make, is barely enough to make a living,” Hernandez-Sang said. “If the tax bill comes out and our tuition remission is taxed, then I’m not going to be able to afford grad school.”
The Senate bill could be up for a vote in the next few days, and Brown said students should continue to call and email their senators to voice their concerns on the proposal.
Event organizer Caden Fabbi, a second year master’s student in the public policy school, said the second rally could be the beginning of a long fight for graduate students.
“I would love for the Senate to just turn down the bill and for this all to be over with,” Fabbi said. “But if the Senate passes this bill, that’s really when it’s going to be go-time.”