By now, most everyone in our USC community has taken notice of “Tent City” on Jefferson Boulevard that appeared with the start of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books last Saturday.
As a USC graduate student and a member of USC Forward, I can illuminate why our organization is working to form a graduate student union — and why we helped create Tent City: We did so as part of a grassroots coalition working to raise awareness of how previous leaders at USC have lost their way on an array of issues.
This includes the rapid gentrification and neighborhood displacement caused by USC’s civic leaders and their redevelopment policies.
This includes alleged willful ignorance by USC administrators to their own students’ sexual assault claims, which persisted for decades.
And this includes consistent attempts by USC administrators to prevent their own graduate students and faculty from forming a union.
The goal of our Tent City is to compel USC’s new leaders to put the University on the right track.
I first became involved with USC Forward in 2017. At that time, Paul Ryan, who was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Republicans in Congress had added a provision to their Tax Reform Bill. It would have taxed the tuition remission which I receive through my fellowship as if it were my personal income. Had this passed, I would not be a USC graduate student because I would not be able to afford to continue my education.
USC Forward organized a small group of members to travel to Ryan’s office in D.C. and protest the bill. They made sure that the press covered it and that it made the national news.
Within a week, the provision had been withdrawn. This demonstrated to me the power of collective action and the importance of USC Forward’s mission.
Graduate students are on the front lines of higher education. We do much of the teaching at USC; we’re working on the cutting edge of research that has made USC so renowned over the years.
And yet, we are an afterthought to the administration.
When former campus gynecologist George Tyndall was allegedly allowed to assault and harass students for years, the students’ bodies that were victimized.
And yet when the scandal broke and former University President C. L. Max Nikias was forced to resign, students were denied a substantive role in the hiring of a new president.
Meanwhile, USC Forward held workshops to help train and educate students on how to deal with sexual harassment and assault, especially when the perpetrator is their faculty advisor or a person in a position of power over them.
We want the new administration to know that USC Forward has worked for years to protect the interests of graduate student workers on campus. We’re not going away.
We understand the interrelation between the high-quality work we do and the high-quality education USC provides to students. We know the value we bring to USC. We know that USC can more than afford to pay us a living wage and reasonable benefits.
USC is sitting on a $5.5 billion endowment and over $9 billion in assets, with annual tuition costs rivaling Harvard and Yale. Yet they canceled spousal health care coverage. This means my wife and I have to pay out of pocket for medical care while we try to raise our family on an income just barely above the threshold to qualify for food stamps.
Just a few days ago, our coalition brought a new round of demands directly to USC administrators.
A key demand was that USC recognize our union instead of blocking the efforts of students and faculty to organize.
USC administrators rely on us day in and day out to educate the student body.
So you would think that they would listen when we speak out for living wages and a collective voice at work.
Instead, they have consistently tried to stymie the efforts of students and faculty to organize.
But they have failed — and if they continue to fight us, they will continue to fail.
We are University instructors. We do the teaching. We know when someone deserves a failing grade.
All the scandals endured by the USC community took place on the previous USC administration’s watch.
Their tenure was judged a failure by stakeholders and students and they deserve that failing grade. But we don’t.
Certain things are keeping USC’s reputation intact during these tough times: excellent courses, high-quality instruction, cutting-edge research.
All those things are made possible because we — the graduate students and faculty at USC — do that work.
If USC continues to move forward — and it must — it will be thanks to the members of USC Forward and the work we do. It will be because we truly love this University — its mission, its students — and we want to be proud of USC’s legacy.
I urge the new administration at USC to acknowledge this reality. The sooner they do, the sooner the University can stop wasting time, money and energy on embarrassing damage control.
The sooner they do, the sooner they can start investing those same things in higher education — and the sooner they can craft a new vision for community revitalization that works for all Angelenos.
We, the members of USC Forward, look forward to it.
SCA Graduate Student
USC Forward Member