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Grad school official's tax bill email was wrong, UND says

Last week, a leader of the UND School of Graduate Studies encouraged students to contact their congressional representatives to share concerns about the GOP tax reform bill.

On Thursday, the same day House Republicans approved the wide-reaching bill, UND spokesman Peter Johnson said that official outreach from Graduate Studies Associate Dean Chris Nelson never should have happened.

"It's not inappropriate to make people aware of issues or provide information, but it is inappropriate to use state resources to suggest any kind of a particular political action," Johnson said, adding that Nelson had "meant well" by contacting UND's roughly 2,800 graduate students through university email but stepped beyond guidelines "through some level of ignorance."

"His intent was to help students understand what was being proposed in the tax bill," Johnson said, "but it's unfortunate it went out. It shouldn't have gotten out and (Nelson) understands that now."

The tax reform bill now approved by the House has attracted wide concern from higher education leaders who say it cuts provisions that benefit students and schools. On Nov. 10, Nelson forwarded to the Graduate Studies listserv an informational item penned by the Council of Graduate Schools, a national advocacy group whose members include UND and North Dakota State University. The brief rundown highlighted provisions in the bill such as the repeal of tax credits for nontraditional students and those paying off student loans. It also underlined the provision in the bill that would count tuition waivers as taxable income, dramatically increasing graduate students' tax burdens.

"Congress needs to hear from students and graduates that we oppose this legislation and these cuts to the education programs," the council's write-up concluded. "(The House bill) will make college more expensive and will lead to increased student loan debt."

Nelson wrote beneath the council message that, "if you feel inclined to do so, we would encourage you to contact" legislators about the tax bill to discuss its "potential effects on you and your families."

He included a sample letter provided by the council, as well as contact information for the state's congressional delegation.

Nelson declined comment, referring a request to Grant McGimpsey, graduate studies dean and UND vice president for research and economic development. As a public employee, McGimpsey said it wasn't his job to advocate for the school. However, he said he does have regular conversations with North Dakota's lawmakers to "help them understand what these effects (of legislation) might be."

Full-time graduate students at UND might also work about 20 hours a week as campus teaching or research assistants, labor that earns them an annual stipend of $18,000. UND has roughly 550 of these graduate assistants who work variable hours and receive stipends to match. Some of these graduate students also get some or all tuition costs waived by the university, a practice common to higher education.

So far this year, McGimpsey says, the school has waived about $1.54 million in tuition, approximately 10 percent of total graduate tuition revenues. He described the use of assistants as a cost-effective way to meet the needs of both faculty and students, but said graduate school has always been a "poorly compensated way of life" for the latter group.

It's not clear whether the provisions addressing higher education will make it into law. But though he didn't speculate on the effects of the bill as is, McGimpsey said "anything that might make it harder for a student or potential student to make a decision to come study at the university, that's something that we need to look at."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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