Hundreds of employees petition against changes to tuition benefits

More than 800 employees have signed a petition asking the University not to cut employee tuition benefits next year, marking the most widely supported appeal in recent GW history.

The petition, signed by staff, faculty and students, requests that the University continue to pay 96 percent of the costs for employees enrolled in 21 credit hours per year until they complete their programs, rather than scale back the number of credits that are covered and by how much.

The University announced in September that it would decrease the benefit to cover 90 percent of the cost for 18 courses a year for employees earning degrees from GW.

The letter, written by staff members across University departments, gathered 861 signatures in about a week, and was sent to Provost Steven Lerman on Sunday. Signatures came from more than 400 staff members and 200 faculty members, including department chairs and program directors, the organizing committee said in a statement.

Aaron Lee, a senior research administrator in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences who is also earning his MBA part time, said the changes to the plans would force him to make major adjustments to his budget for the next two years.

Lee said the policy change will add $5,900 to how much he’ll owe the University in 2015 to continue earning his MBA, and about $2,000 in 2016.

“We understand the cost-saving implications, but at the same time, you can’t screw over people you’ve promised these things to,” he said.

The letter claims that employees will be burdened with unexpected costs, while the University will save a total of about $750,000. Employees also said officials did not discuss the proposed changes with staff members in the two years they were considering them.

“We recommend that the University hereafter render such discussions transparent, in part by inviting affected staff to sit on the committees considering such changes,” the letter read.

The committee said they also sent the letter to Vice President for Human Resources Sabrina Ellis, Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz and Faculty Senate Executive Committee members Charles Garris, Robert Harrington and Sylvia Marotta-Walters.

Organizers attached to the letter more than 190 anecdotes about how the changes will affect employees, including some who claim they will no longer be able to afford to continue their degree programs.

Staff members also complained that they were never formally told about the changes, which were first announced at a September meeting of the Faculty Senate. About 660 staff and faculty signed up for tuition benefits last year, with about 50 taking more than 18 credits in 2013.

When she announced the changes this fall, Ellis said the cuts would keep GW competitive with its peers that offer tuition benefits.

The provost’s office is reviewing the petition and “will respond to the petition’s author in a timely manner,” University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said.

The Faculty Association backed the petition, with several members signing it, although most faculty are not enrolled in degree programs, said Benjamin Hopkins, the group’s secretary.

Tuition benefits are a key way GW attracts staff members from other institutions that pay more competitive salaries, said Hopkins, who signed the petition. He added that cutting back the tuition benefits are an example of how “the University underinvests in its people.”

“The way GW is able to attract and retain staff are these kinds of benefits,” Hopkins said. “If they undermine these kinds of benefits, then the ability of the University to retain staff is going to be affected.”

Petitions among faculty have recently become more common. Months before creating the Faculty Association, professors gathered more than 160 signatures for a petition protesting rising health care costs.

Andrew Zimmerman, the Faculty Association’s president, said the petitions were similar because both deal with faculty discontent over fringe benefits.

“These things essentially amount to cuts in compensation,” he said. “A university in good financial health should not cut our benefits and our compensation, and if it does, it’s a matter of dignity to resist.”

GW has made budget cuts across campus this year, after finding itself $20 million in the red at the end of last year.

But rolling back benefits could encourage staff to look elsewhere for work, Zimmerman said.

“Washington, D.C. is a very competitive market for skilled office workers and all the variety of jobs staff do at GW they can also do at other places in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “In our efforts to attract and retain really excellent staff members, I think this is going to harm it just from basic market pressures.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.