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Marching graduate students holding up signs

Boston University graduate student workers began striking last week, calling for better pay, improved health care coverage and guaranteed childcare subsidies.

Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Boston University is pushing back against criticisms following a dean’s suggestion that AI tools be used amid a graduate students’ strike.

The university’s response comes after an email to faculty from Stan Sclaroff, dean of arts and sciences. Last week, two days after thousands of BU graduate student workers began a strike, the email made recommendations including using artificial intelligence to better manage course discussions, labs and student feedback.

“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,” Boston University said in a statement on Friday.

“What Dean Sclaroff is advocating in his memo is that in cases where some discussion groups have been affected by the union’s job action, professors should consider a wide range of teaching tools available to them to offset the absence of a striking teaching assistant,” the statement said.

In the Sclaroff email, which was obtained by Inside Higher Ed, he advised faculty on “creative” ways to adapt course formats and technology to serve students.

Along with combining discussion sessions, assigning readings and alternative assignments, such as viewing a film and writing a response on the film, Sclaroff mentioned generative AI tools could be used to “give feedback or facilitate ‘discussion’ on readings or assignments,” according to the email sent last Wednesday.

Sclaroff’s email quickly circulated among the striking faculty, and drew criticism on the social media site X.

The Service Employees International Union Local 509 chapter said in an email to Inside Higher Ed that “We are extremely disappointed by the university’s suggestion that the use of AI could even begin to substitute the hard work that graduate workers pour into mentoring students, facilitating discussions and teaching.” 

“We sincerely hope that the university would reconsider this suggestion and instead focus on properly compensating the people who do the work that is crucial in keeping the university running,” the union chapter said.

The graduate students began striking last week in a push for better pay, broader health care coverage and other demands. The union and BU had been in negotiations for eight months before the strike.