Graduate students met with an administrator and faculty on Dec. 8 to discuss any plans Penn has to respond to the Republican tax bill and to address any concerns during an hour and a half at a town hall.
Roughly 50 graduate students attended the event led by Eve Troutt Powell, associate dean for graduate studies in the School of Arts and Sciences. Troutt Powell emailed all graduate students on Nov. 27 offering the meeting as a space where students could speak "collectively" about their concerns regarding the effects of the proposed tax bill.
A version of the $1.5 trillion tax plan was passed by the House of Representatives on Nov. 16 and another by the Senate on Dec. 1. The plan promises a comprehensive rewrite of the tax code. The House version contains a provision taxing tuition waivers for graduate students.
The bill is currently in a conference committee, and if the tuition-waiver tax provision remains in the final version, graduate students could stand to lose almost 40 percent of their income.
On Nov. 9, Penn President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli released a statement condemning the tax plan as “regressive."
At the town hall, one graduate student noted Cornell University has assured its graduate students that they would not be affected by the proposal because Cornell's scholarships for graduate tuition are classified as nontaxable. The student asked whether Penn could act similarly.
In response, Troutt Powell said she was not aware of such a classification, but would relay the message to the appropriate administrators.
SAS Graduate Student Government President and Ancient History Ph.D. student Greg Callaghan said the proposal could decrease the number and quality of graduate applications to Penn.
“Grad students are currently freaking out. How do we try to convince [prospective students] that we’re not [freaking out] and that they should come to Penn?” Callaghan said. “If I were well informed, I would have gone to Cornell Classics over Penn, just based off the fact that they have reassured their students [that their tuitions would not be taxed]."
Troutt Powell asked Associate Director of SAS Graduate Admissions Pat Rea to confirm that application numbers had not significantly decreased this year and added that applications had not yet closed.
Several graduate students suggested that members of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, Graduate Employees Together—University of Pennsylvania, and SASGov should be involved in meetings with top administrators.
Troutt Powell said that she would try to act as a liaison by initiating a meeting after winter break.
Several graduate department chairs were also in attendance, including English Graduate Chair David Eng, Philosophy Graduate Chair Samuel Freeman, and Religious Studies Graduate Chair Anthea Butler.
Butler said she attended the meeting because religious studies faculty were worried about the bill. She emphasized that the University has been trying to draft a proper response to the changing bill.
“If you’re here in this room and if you didn’t call [any government officials] and fuss about it before it’s happened, then I would ask you to take that anger and point it towards your representatives and your senators," Butler said, "before you get upset with the University about what the University has or has not done."
"We’re all in the same boat on this one," Butler added.
In response to Butler, a graduate student said that faculty and students are not "in the same boat," as only graduate students are at risk of losing their livelihoods.
Second-year Ph.D. Chemistry student Peter Amadao said he attended the town hall to see if the University was responding seriously to the bill, and if it had created a plan to protect graduate students.
“I guess it’s difficult because there is no bill, nothing is finalized, Amadeo said. “I really respect the fact that Eve Troutt Powell was very open saying that [administrators] will be there when the bill is finalized.”
Troutt Powell said in an email statement that "[she] was delighted to meet with the grad students and hear their very thoughtful ideas."
While Callaghan agreed that he appreciated the Trout Powell's recognition of the importance of having graduate students involved in ongoing discussions, he said he was not surprised by the content of the meeting.
“[The meeting] stands about the level that I expected that there is discussion that’s happening at a higher level and they can’t make much public,” he said. "But we as students want to know what those discussions are because they affect us."