IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Mention of AI Help Irks Boston University's Striking Grad Students

The university’s dean of arts and sciences sparked controversy last week by listing artificial intelligence among strategies faculty could use to handle course discussions and labs impacted by striking grad students.

Boston University doorway
Boston University campus on Monday, March 18, 2024.
Juliet Schulman-Hall/TNS
(TNS) — The Boston University Graduate Workers Union strike, which was in its fifth day Friday, took a dramatic turn this week when the union took to social media to accuse the school of suggesting faculty and staff use artificial intelligence to replace the work being done by its members.

On March 28, the union posted to X, formerly Twitter, that the university was “suggesting that professors use AI to scab for graduate workers,” citing an email sent to faculty.

“Our students deserve better! Give us a fair contract so we can get back in the classroom!” the union wrote at the time.

But a copy of the entire email, sent by the university’s Dean of Arts & Sciences Stan Sclaroff, which was provided to MassLive by a BU spokesperson, paints a more nuanced picture.

Sclaroff’s email, sent to arts and sciences faculty and staff, sought to address questions about how best to approach course discussion sections and labs impacted by the strike, which began on Monday. In the email, Sclaroff lists a number of different strategies that might be employed or have been employed to aid faculty and staff as the strike continues, including generative AI.

Specifically, Sclaroff suggests the use of generative AI tools to “give feedback or facilitate ‘discussion’ on readings or assignments” in the note. But, it is “one of about a dozen possibilities that have been used in classroom settings,” the university said in a statement. The school also forcefully denied the notion that the use of AI was intended to supplant the work of graduate student workers.

“Neither Dean Sclaroff nor Boston University believe that AI can replace its graduate student teaching assistants, and the assertion that we plan to do so is patently false,” Colin Riley, a university spokesman, said, adding, “We look forward to continuing to negotiate with the union and to the return of those teaching assistants who walked off the job when the strike began.”

The union’s primary demand is a living wage in the form of a $62,000 annual base salary, a pay rate of nearly $42 an hour. That figure represents the amount members need to “not be rent burdened” by BU housing, according to the union.

The university is proposing a 7 percent raise for the minimum PHD stipend and a “measly” $18 an hour for other grads, according to the union. The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $15 an hour.

The university has set up a Frequently Asked Questions page on its website concerning the strike, where officials say the university’s negotiating team has met with the union for 18 bargaining sessions since July 2023, including a session on Wednesday while the strike was ongoing.

On that page, the university says it has been bargaining in good faith with the union and “believes that all are best served by reaching an agreement,” which has been the school’s goal from the beginning of negotiations.

On many issues, including compensation, the university is awaiting a response from the union, according to a bargaining tracking sheet shared publicly by the union. Other proposals from BU on benefits, discipline, and union security are also unanswered.

On the picket lines this week, the union has drawn support from prominent politicians in the state, including U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley.

It remains unclear how long the strike will last, and the union appears to be preparing its members to be out of work for some time.

“Every day that we are on strike is a promise that we will not return to work until we democratically secure a return to work that works for all — we turn the tables and make management ask, ‘how much longer?’” the union wrote.

©2024 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.