Grad Students Hold Rally, Phone Bank to Protest Tax Plan

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
A member of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Class of 2016 at Commencement.
More than two dozen graduate students gathered in the Yard Wednesday to protest a Republican tax proposal that could slash their earnings and cut into the University’s endowment.

Speakers at the rally asked students to call their congressional representatives and urge them not to support a proposed tax plan that the House of Representatives has already approved and the Senate Budget Committee signed off on this week.

The House’s version of the bill includes a tax on the “qualified tuition reduction,” which is tuition the University reduces for its workers and paid graduate students. While it remains unclear whether this provision will be interpreted to extend to the tuition waivers that Harvard grants to many of its graduate students, if these tuition reductions are taxed, it could be costly: One tax expert estimated that a graduate student who receives a $35,000 stipend could pay $12,000 of it in taxes under the proposal.

Though the “qualified tuition reduction” provision is not currently in the bill before the Senate, it could still end up there, according to some political analysts.

Organizers for Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers said graduate students should oppose the plan even though it is unclear whether qualified tuition reductions will be classified as taxable income.

“There’s some indication that it might not affect us but we still don’t know,” said Joe Cronin, a graduate student and union organizer.

Speakers also warned students that the tax would make graduate school too expensive for many potential students.

“We just can’t afford to pay thousands more in taxes,” said Erin M. Hutchinson, a graduate student. “Paying taxes on our tuition waivers would make graduate school simply a privilege for the wealthy and I think we all know that’s not the direction we want to be going in.”

After the rally, graduate students called their congressional representatives, making nearly 200 calls during the phone bank.

Jack M. Nicoludis, a graduate student and union organizer, said it was important for graduate students to advocate against the bill.

“We need to make sure our voices are heard so the Senate doesn’t pass this bill and if they do pass this bill when they go to reconcile the differences between the tax plans that they make sure the interests of graduate students are being heard,” he said.

While speakers at the rally said they were alarmed by the increased tax burdens the plan could place on graduate students, they also decried the bill because it would tax university endowments for schools like Harvard. Both the Senate and House plans propose a 1.4 percent excise tax on university endowments, which would have cost Harvard $43 million last year, according to an email to students from University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76.

“Even if the Senate version wins out, even if the University manages its accounting in a way or provides extra aid to manage the increased tax burden we still need to be concerned about this bill because the endowment tax and other things will have serious restructuring effects on the university,” Cronin said. “We do know that collectively we have to stand together to fight it.”

As the union opposes the bill, University President Drew G. Faust is also lobbying against it. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., she met with representatives and urged them not to support it. In recent weeks, she has spoken to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer '71.

According to Garber, other Harvard affiliates are also advocating against the bill.

“Members of the University’s Governing Boards and friends of the University have also expressed their concerns to policymakers, and our federal affairs team in Washington is working around the clock with peers and others to advance our case,” he wrote.

HGSU-UAW’s rally comes as the fate of student unionization at Harvard remains unclear. The University has filed a brief with the federal National Labor Relations Board, but it is unclear whether the board will take the case and, if so, when it will release a decision.

—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at caroline.engelmayer@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.

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