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Graduate Workers Win Fully Subsidized Health Insurance at University of Memphis

In a major victory for graduate workers, Dr. Deborah Tollefsen – Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Memphis – has announced that the university will provide fully subsidized health insurance for full-time graduate workers beginning in the Fall Semester of 2024.

Graduate workers have been organizing for subsidized health insurance at the University of Memphis for the last decade. At the beginning of the Fall 2023 semester, and after many years of UCW members petitioning and meeting with university administration, the university announced a partnership with insurance company Wellfleet to offer an insurance plan to graduate workers employed by the University. However, the plan was optional for domestic students and mandatory for international students and with no accompanying financial support the $2,319 premium would have taken a huge chunk of most graduate workers’ pay. In response, graduate workers in United Campus Workers, along with the Graduate Student Association (GSA) and international GSAs on campus launched a petition calling on the university to address the financial burden and the disparity this placed on international students.

Initially citing cost constraints, university administrators eventually yielded to pressure from graduate workers and faculty in solidarity, promising a 75% subsidy for the Wellfleet partnership. Graduate workers were unsatisfied with this compromise and continued to advocate for full subsidization with support from UCW. 

UCW member and graduate student worker in the Philosophy department Steph Butera, who was deeply entrenched in organizing around the campaign from 2017 to 2019, said “When organizing as a graduate worker you have to imagine the place better than you found it, even though you realize that you may not be around to reap the benefits of the efforts you put into organizing. My goal when I started working on this campaign in 2017 was to win subsidized health insurance for grad students at UofM before I graduated. I’m so proud that we accomplished that."

Butera and others’ efforts were instrumental in initially tackling the complete lack of any health plan available to graduate students during the tenure of President Rudd. After heavy campaigning by UCW members, an agreement was struck with Church Health in 2015 to create the MEMPHIS Plan; it was, however, barely a band-aid on the situation. It was not true insurance, and the many gaps in the plan meant that enrollees had to pay out-of-pocket for more serious complications, medications, and mental health needs. It also limited enrollees to care within the 240 loop and made students ineligible for real health insurance plans that could provide more adequate coverage. Finally, many graduate students, particularly queer students, expressed concern about the religious background of the organization. In response, workers continued to organize within their departments and student associations, as well as by speaking out at Board of Trustees meetings.

Their persistence bore fruit when Dr. Tollefsen made a groundbreaking announcement to the Graduate Student Association general meeting in February 2024. Effective in the Fall 2024 semester, the university will now offer 100% subsidies for the Wellfleet Health Insurance plan to full-time graduate students. The only cost graduate students will face is a one-time administrative fee of $230.

Rashid Lawal, graduate worker in the Biology department who worked on the campaign, says, “This momentous decision reflects the power of student advocacy and collaboration in bringing about positive change within academic institutions.The University of Memphis’s UCW chapter takes pride in prioritizing the well-being of students, faculty, and staff and remains committed to fostering an environment where every campus worker can thrive.” 

“This achievement significantly enhances the well-being of international students within our academic community,” said Suravi Regmi of the Nepalese Student Association. “We extend sincere gratitude to The University of Memphis’s UCW chapter and everyone for their efforts in ensuring comprehensive health insurance coverage for graduate workers.”

Graduate workers and other members of United Campus Workers will continue to support employee-led campaigns for better working conditions for current and future graduate students and all campus workers.



United Campus Workers - Communications Workers of America Local 3865 is Tennessee's higher education union. UCW organizes for economic justice and democracy on campus and across Tennessee. More information at