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Graduate Students Challenge Sustainable Transportation Policy

A UC Irvine graduate student is working with UCI Associated Graduate Students (AGS) to renegotiate part of UCI’s sustainable transportation incentive policy, which he argues encourages loopholes for certain students to receive free parking permits, while denying the same incentives to those in different departments.

Kevin Lerman, a graduate student at UC Irvine’s School of Law, initiated contact with UCI Associated Graduate Students (AGS) and UCI’s Transportation and Distribution Services in Aug. 2015 after being denied his renewal of UCI’s sustainable transportation incentive program, which he had qualified for in previous years.

The incentive program allows UCI graduate students who either live on campus or are employed by UCI to redeem up to five free one-day parking permits each month in exchange for walking or biking to campus during the rest of the month.bikes

The incentive program is a “support program” for UCI’s shift to sustainable transportation, which has gained traction over the past 30 years — currently, “approximately 65 percent of staff and undergraduate students commute sustainably, 75 percent of graduate students commute sustainably and 88 percent of faculty commute sustainably,”   according to Nancy Mazmanian, Senior Manager of Special Projects and Strategic Initiatives for UCI Transportation.

Lerman, who lives off-campus and has biked to campus throughout graduate school, says that UCI denied him eligibility for the incentive program this year because he is not an “employed” graduate student — even though, traditionally, law students do not seek employment through their school.

“We don’t do work like many PhD students, but we are still required to be on campus. and our choice of sustainable commuting methods is desired by the university and the state,” says Lerman.

Upon reaching out to UCI Transportation and Distribution regarding an exemption for law students, Lerman learned that some graduate departments exploit loopholes in the sustainable transportation program by registering their students as “0 percent” part-time employees, so that they may register for parking incentives as “employees” without actually working for the school.

“The graduate students who are able to participate in the program must have employee appointments (0 percent plus) on the UCI campus,” explained Sustainable Transportation Supervisor Ramon Zavala to Lerman in an email. “If a UCI graduate student is on fellowship and thus doesn’t show up as an employee, my program will sometimes petition the department to place them as a 0 percent employee in the HR system. Not all departments are willing to do this.”

The UCI School of Law, Lerman’s case demonstrates, is not as willing to make exceptions as other UCI departments are. With no outside input, it is up to each department’s discretion to decide whether they will log students as “0 percent employees” and allow their graduate students to take advantage of the sustainable transportation incentive program.

Zavala noted, however, that graduate students can qualify for the incentive program even if they are not UCI employees, as long as they live on-campus, as a result of a longstanding agreement with AGS.

“[The agreement] functions similar to the Sustainable Transportation program, is administered by the Sustainable Transportation program, but is not the Sustainable Transportation program,” said Zavala. “This agreement allows for any graduate student living in Palo Verde, Verano Place, or one of the ACC communities to receive similar parking incentives … regardless of employee appointment, and is intended specifically to facilitate graduate research on the UCI campus. This agreement is reviewed and approved on a yearly basis by AGS.”

Lerman argues that this current system is “near-useless” and should be re-negotiated with AGS.

“Why would I need this benefit if I lived on-campus? I would just walk to class,” he says.

Lerman contacted AGS after UCI Transportation urged him to turn to them for solutions.

“But when I told AGS and had AGS bring up my concerns, Parking was inflexible, suggesting students focus their energy on getting departments to grant them faux employee statuses,” said Lerman.

Lerman plans to continue working with AGS to renegotiate their policy on sustainable transportation incentives for graduate students, and to ensure that all graduate students can benefit equally from the program. He hopes that more students will take advantage of the program if it becomes fairer and more accessible.

“Why would we have a policy discouraging and not supporting this?” asked Lerman.