Just feet away from the Offices of the President and Provost, about 50 graduate students sat in the lobby of College Hall on Nov. 29 to protest the GOP tax bill. The event, organized by the student group campaigning for graduate students to unionize, Graduate Employees Together – University of Pennsylvania, is part of a larger nationwide movement against the Republican tax plan anticipated for a Senate vote later this week. On the same day, two other events were organized at Penn by graduate student groups with similar intentions of campaigning against the GOP tax bill.
Passed by the House of Representatives on Nov. 16, the tax proposal is a $1.5 trillion plan that promises a comprehensive rewrite of the tax code. The House version of the tax plan contained a provision to tax graduate student tuition waivers, which might cause some students to see a 300-400 percent increase in their taxes.
The “work-in" that was held today was intended to be a rally “where graduate students can read, or grade, or do any kind of work to demonstrate how vital our work is the Penn community,” GET-UP wrote on a website publicizing the event. Graduate students and faculty gathered at 1:30 p.m. around the Benjamin Franklin statue on College Green, where individuals could speak up to the group about the tax bill. After, they headed inside together for the silent work-in.
A security guard from the Division of Public Security, Darryl Richardson, said Amy Gutmann was not in her office when the work-in was taking place.
The rally held at Penn was the only event held in Philadelphia that was a part of the SaveGradEd’s national walk-out against the tax bill that occurred at more than 60 universities. According to its Facebook page, SaveGradEd is a coalition of graduate students who will be forced to leave higher education if the GOP tax bill is passed.
Over the course of the 90 minutes, about five faculty members stopped by the rally to show their support.
English Department Graduate Chair David Eng said the GOP tax bill and the immigration stances of the Trump administration are discouraging international students from pursuing graduate studies in the United States.
At 2:23 p.m., GET-UP member and history Ph.D. student Emma Teitelman called all the graduate student protestors to attention and encouraged them to call the number of U.S. Senator Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) D.C. office at the same time.
“We’re not going to get through,” Teitelman said. “But we’re going to leave a voicemail to tell them to vote no on the tax bill.”
In the next few minutes, nearly all students dialed the number on their phones. GET-UP member and Biomedical Graduate Studies Ph.D. student Liv Harding said she reached Toomey’s voicemail and left a message telling him to vote against the tax plan.
President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli released a statement on Nov. 9 calling the tax plan “regressive” and asked students to express their opinions on social media and to elected officials in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
But GET-UP member and English Ph.D. student Nick Millman, who helped organize the event, said the administrators’ statement was not enough and that GET-UP is calling on Gutmann to release a statement with concrete steps on how to protect students from their loss in income due to the tax plan. At the event, students could sign a petition to Gutmann that puts these demands in writing.
University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an emailed statement that Penn is "actively working" to address the concerns of graduate students.
“We continue to encourage students to contact their members of Congress to express their concerns about these proposals," he added.
Harding said she attended the work-in because, if the bill passes the Senate, she would experience a $5,000 tax increase that would make it very difficult for her to save money with her $31,000 stipend.
She added that she was the oldest of 11 children and was hoping to save money to help her parents support her youngest siblings, who are still in elementary school.
“Worst case scenario, college is not an option for my sister [who is currently in first grade],” she said.
English Ph.D. student Aaron Bartles-Swindells said he sought a graduate education in the United States instead of in his home country of Britain because the graduate studies programs offer tuition waivers and stipends. He believes that the tax plan will severely impact graduate students from low-income backgrounds.
“My mother works in the supermarket and my father is dead,” Bartles-Swindells said. “For someone like me, it’s impossible to imagine staying at Penn running-up debt or asking somebody at home for extra money.”
Two other graduate student groups on campus sponsored rallies against the tax bill earlier in the day. The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly's External Affairs Committee organized a “call-in” where they provided information and scripts for graduate students to call local representatives to express their opinions against the bill.
The Graduate Student Center also held a similar call-in later in the day. But because the center is affiliated with Penn, a 501C3 nonprofit organization, the center is not allowed to express political opinions. Didem Uca, the GSC student fellow who organized the event, emphasized that the event is mainly to provide information for graduate students and to encourage them to voice any opinions about the bill to their representatives.
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