Amid national strife, grad. students largely satisfied

by Katie Silberman | 11/18/05 6:00am

In the past two years, graduate students at some of the nation's top schools have refused to teach undergraduate classes due to disagreements with administrations, but Dartmouth College undergraduates are unlikely to see their teaching assistants picketing anytime soon.

In April, students at Yale and Columbia Universities protested the administrations' refusal to recognize graduate student unions and rectify insufficient stipend funding. They organized a coordinated five-day strike during which they did not teach classes, host undergraduate review sessions or grade papers. Last month, students at Johns Hopkins University threatened to strike if their stipends were not increased, and on Nov. 9, hundreds of NYU graduate students picketed in Washington Square until the school renegotiated their Graduate Student Organization committee contract.

These same problems do not affect students at Dartmouth Medical School, Thayer School of Engineering or the Tuck School of Business.

"Dartmouth genuinely tries to provide excellent overall training opportunities to our graduate students," said professor Charles Barlowe, dean of graduate studies.

Barlowe attributed the pleasant atmosphere to the size of Dartmouth's graduate programs and the talented and dedicated faculty members.

"The smaller size of our graduate programs, research groups and classes creates a positive learning environment where graduate students feel more enfranchised than at other institutions," Barlowe said.

Yale has more than three times the number of arts and sciences graduate students that Dartmouth has, and Harvard University has almost six times as many. Due to its small size, Dartmouth uses far fewer teaching assistants than most schools, allowing them more time for research and other projects.

"We certainly don't view the use of TAs as an employer-employee relationship," Barlowe said. "I think teaching is an important part of graduate student training and a valuable opportunity for our graduate students. But, ideally, the teaching responsibilities are balanced with opportunities for graduate students to perform their research and scholarship."

William Romero, vice president of the Graduate Student Council, agreed with Barlowe on the attitudes of Dartmouth graduate students.

"GSC talked vaguely about unions, but there were no rumblings of any sort of problems, so nothing came of it," he said.

According to Romero, being a part of a smaller program has both its ups and downs. At many schools, graduate students are the priority, but not at Dartmouth, he said.

"I saw a T-shirt recently that said, 'Dartmouth: Not just for Undergrads,' and I laughed because many graduate students feel that undergrads are more visible -- and not just because of their size," Romero said. "I think it's a conscious decision by the administration that the focus be on undergraduates. At times it is harder trying to feel part of the community when you're not the primary customer. A lot of students like the anonymity, though, and another plus is that we have a fantastic undergraduate education, and of course graduate students benefit from that."

Romero has not heard any complaints about graduate students' stipends, which the College increased 10 percent this year. Dartmouth Fellows now receive $21,000 per year, raised from $19,000 last year, in addition to the $1,300 granted toward the required Dartmouth health insurance program.

Graduate students at Columbia and Yale receive $18,000 per year, while NYU graduate students receive $19,000.

"Not many people complained moving from 19 to 21 in one year," Romero said. "Our cost of living in Hanover is high, but there are no complaints."

It seems the dedicated staff, small size and constant communication between students and teachers has created a well-oiled machine for Dartmouth graduate students, Barlowe said.

"We want our graduate students to succeed," he said.