MU grad students continue fight for rights after short-term insurance fix

Two weeks ago, a physician advised Pattie Quackenbush to travel to St. Louis to visit a specialist about recurring ovarian tumors.

That same day, Quackenbush, a doctoral student studying soil science at the University of Missouri, received an email from the university. The note notified her, along with thousands of other graduate students, that the school would no longer subsidize health insurance for graduate student employees.

“That’s been really difficult … with everything going on this week, in terms of maintaining my sanity, if you will,” Quackenbush said.

Quackenbush told her story to the crowd at a rally Wednesday afternoon on MU’s campus. The event followed nearly two weeks of outspoken student criticism of the university after the announcement Aug. 14 that MU would discontinue subsidies to graduate student employees. The university reversed that decision on Aug. 21, saying it would continue to subsidize health insurance for eligible graduate students this year.

Still, students staged a walkout Wednesday to call attention to the health insurance issue and a variety of other matters affecting graduate and professional students, who number 7,461 this semester on the Columbia campus.

Organizers estimated 1,500 people, including university faculty and staff and local members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, joined the rally. The Forum on Graduate Rights, an organization founded after MU’s initial announcement about the insurance subsidies, gathered people and pushed the conversation with the university administration.

During the rally, members of the organization circulated petitions addressing other student concerns, including better working conditions, affordable housing and better child care for kids of graduate employees.

Quackenbush said graduate employees deserve more secure health insurance coverage.

“What I’m hoping will happen with the insurance issue is that we can come up with a better plan that either will cover insurance for grad students much better — maybe a greater deductible or a greater percentage cost absorbed by the insurance company,” Quackenbush said. “Because we don’t make enough money. Most of us go into debt, even if we get a simple surgery, like removal of a wisdom tooth.”

Eric Scott, who is pursuing a doctorate in English and is on the Forum for Graduate Rights’ steering committee, said he worries that graduate employees will encounter insurance problems again next year, since the university’s current solution is a one-year plan.

“That has been resolved temporarily, although next year we could be back into the same position that we’re in right now,” Scott said. “We’re still continuing to advocate for that.”

MU chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and other university administrators have met, and will continue to meet with, graduate students to address their requests, according to Christian Basi of the MU News Bureau.

“The chancellor, along with the rest of the university’s administration, fully supports and values our graduate students – in fact our mission of education and research depends on them,” Basi said.

Students and faculty members emphasized that graduate employees make valuable contributions to the university community and should have benefits.

Jesse Hoff, who is pursuing a doctorate in animal genomics and serves on the Forum on Graduate Rights’ legal committee, said he took issue with MU making its initial decision on insurance subsidies without consulting students. “The university’s inability to negotiate with us directly and, rather, just sort of make decisions that can be reversed very quickly prevents us from getting the benefit that we need,” Hoff said.

The organization addressed a letter on Aug. 18 to Leona Rubin, the university’s associate vice chancellor for graduate studies. Hoff said more than 60 departments formally stated support for the grievances addressed.

Vitaly Gruzdev, a faculty member in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department, said he was concerned that several of his international students would run into visa problems if they could not afford health insurance. 

“Definitely I support graduate students,” Gruzdev said. “Graduate students are the major work power in the labs.”

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