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UVA stipend task force issues report to 'improve the process' after delays

A building made of brick with white columns sits in a grassy setting. A large "Z" is painted onto the steps in front of the building
Crixell Matthews
VPM News
Garrett Hall sits on the Charlottesville Grounds of the University of Virginia.

Approximately 180 graduate student workers didn't receive on-time payments at the end of 2022.

A University of Virginia task force concluded that monthly stipend payments for roughly 180 graduate student workers did not arrive on time in December 2022, according to a recently released report. Some workers didn’t receive payment until after banks reopened in January, leading to a long-term campaign by the UVA chapter of the United Campus Workers of Virginia to prevent future payment delays.

The task force was made up of school administrators, leaders at involved departments and a graduate student. They found that most of the delays were caused by university staff miscommunications regarding deadlines to enter data for spring semester financial aid packages — and the consequences of missing select deadlines.

Some delayed payments were caused by higher-level administrative staff not approving aid packages due to data errors or inconsistencies that went uncorrected.

The group also expressed concerns with how UVA manages graduate worker reimbursements for food, research costs and more.

The 4,000-word report laid out a series of recommendations to "improve the process” of doling out aid.

It wrote that UVA can immediately establish adequate deadlines to file summer aid packages in order for stipends to reach student workers by June. That’s something Brie Gertler, vice provost for academic affairs, said the school has already implemented.

“We have confirmed that we are ready for the immediate summer cycle of stipend disbursement, and that we are well-positioned for the busier fall cycle that will be upon us quickly,” Gertler wrote in a statement to VPM News.

Over the next three months, according to the task force, UVA’s individual colleges and departments should develop a process to track the “aging of expenditure reimbursements,” to ensure students aren’t left hanging on long-delayed payments. Departments should clearly publish aid deadlines along with comprehensive information on the process.

The task force also recommends UVA consider a meal per diem in place of itemized expenditures.

In the next six months, the report says schools should have stakeholder meetings to proactively respond to issues, consider automating processes and update training for aid systems.

Beyond that, the task force recommends assessing UVA’s current staffing, recruitment and retention — plus consider the feasibility of transitioning payments to one system. Although the late payments in January were all stipends, the task force determined that the overall complexity of graduate aid — wages, tuition, fees and insurance — creates opportunities for errors and should be reevaluated.

Gertler said Provost Ian Baucom has directed Associate Vice Provost Phil Trella to convene an implementation group that will work toward those recommendations.

Members of the UVA chapter of UCWVA had previously called staffing levels at the Student Financial Services office into question. The task force found that staffing there was not a factor in the delays.

However, the report acknowledged key vacancies at the time in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which “normally play a proactive role in recognizing and resolving errors in departmental aid entries before the deadlines pass.”

Those positions have since been filled. UVA has about 2,000 graduate students. Most of the affected student workers were enrolled in GSAS.

UCWVA members have repeatedly called for action publicly and in closed-door meetings with university officials since January.

Crystal Luo, a history department graduate student worker, said “This is a recurring issue that has happened repeatedly over the years and really came to a head this past December.”

She said the delayed payments were a clear grievance the union could take collective action on. Luo and UCWVA members argue that any delay in payment — particularly at a time of year when many people plan to travel — can be disastrous to student workers who are already making little income from their work.

In March, the union released an open letter with signatures from 134 graduate students detailing some of their demands. They’re calling for a 30-day payment policy for reimbursements, including late fees; establishing late penalties for grant funding more than a day late; hiring more financial services staff; and ensuring GSAS positions are staffed and offer competitive pay.

Luo said the demands are intended to ensure late payments become a problem of the past.

“That really means investing in the staff who make these processes work, without whom none of us would be getting paid," she said. Luo also said the union appreciates that the task force found issues to be systemic, rather than individual failures by university staff.

“It is very gratifying to finally see some of these very common-sense solutions being proposed around... simplifying these systems after literally years of grad workers alerting our faculty, supervisors and our department chairs and our deans that this was an issue,” Luo said.

Summer stipends are due to student workers by June 1.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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