UPDATE: Graduate unions are winning contracts, right now, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic! Read about the successes at Georgetown, Brown, and Harvard, where graduate unions have just won pay raises, enhanced health benefits, and improved workplace protections.
UPDATE: COVID-19 and Graduate Unionization Teach-in: On May 29, we hosted a teach-in that covered COVID budget cuts, STEM campus reopening, the graduate school mental health crisis, international student concerns, and why we must unionize. Here are some important notes and links from that discussion, which was attended by dozens of graduate student workers from diverse disciplines:
- Looming Budget Cuts: We talked about a May 15 email from the A&S deans that forecasted budget cuts. We observed that some of this budget-cutting does not stem from COVID-19 but started before the pandemic.
- STEM Reopening: We recapped what we learned from recent Graduate School listening sessions about reopening, focusing on safety, equity, and funding. Some attendees brought up how productivity pressures and PI pressures are big concerns right now. Equity policies are of particular urgency for those who cannot return to work even at 33% capacity. We shared Yale STEM students’ recent commitment to delay reopening.
- Mental Health Crisis: Our presenter spoke on Vanderbilt’s “individualized” approach to mental health support – its possibilities and its limitations. We discussed the high rates of mental health problems in U.S. graduate schools and how these are not just individualized problems but a systematic product of our work and organizational context.
- International Student Concerns: International student attendees talked about financial/visa concerns, such as expiring visas and jeopardized F-1/J-1 status owing to institutional funding sources running out. Irrecoverable research time and current constraints on free, flexible travel compound financial and visa-related concerns. High healthcare expenses in the U.S. remain a challenge for many, and the stress of having to remain in the US, away from loved ones who may be in different countries and continents, generates the need for robust mental-health support.
- Why Graduate Unionization: Many feel that Vanderbilt’s response so far to COVID’s impact on graduate students does not meet the moment. Unionization is the best way to ensure that we have more workplace influence, receive transparency from administration, and improve our working conditions in the new pandemic economy. In April, Georgetown U grad students, for example, won a contract with increased pay, enhanced health insurance, and more workplace protections. Notably, Georgetown grads were able to achieve this amid the COVID-19 crisis – and we could, too.
Peabody Graduate Worker: “Due to financial hardship that the university is facing because of COVID-19, in May, Peabody College announced that they were placing restrictions on the amount of funding that advisors were able to supply to their graduate students for the summer. Rather than the usual 2.5 months of financial support that they could provide from their College funds, this was restricted to 2 months. The extra ½ month of funding was taken out of my May paycheck, and lead to me being unable to pay my bills last month.
“Then a friend told me about the COVID-19 hardship fund that’s been set up for both undergraduate and graduate students. Any student can apply for up to $500 if they can demonstrate that they were negatively impacted financially by COVID-19. Since this was exactly my situation, I applied for the full $500 through the hardship fund (the restricted ½ month of funding amounted to about $917). My request was denied, with the following justification provided by someone from the Office of Financial Aid:
“Unfortunately, we can only cover expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic for the spring term. The funds cannot be provided during the summer term as you are not enrolled. If you have expenses for the spring 2020 term that were caused by the pandemic, please feel free to submit another application with documentation of those expenses.”
“This seems like a very inappropriate justification for denying my request, as most graduate students are not technically “enrolled” for the summer, but still work for the university and contribute to the research productivity of the university all summer long.”
Vanderbilt Graduate Worker: “One thing that Vanderbilt did not take into account when opening the campus was the fact that although graduate students don’t live in dorms, some of the graduate students like me live with roommates. In my case, my roommate is a nurse seeing patients with Coronavirus infection. So, I had to either accept living with my roommate and suck up the fear of getting infected every minutes or rent another place and of course pay double amount of rents. So, I chose the second option and I am currently living at a temporary furnished apartment paying insane amount of rent + paying rent at my old place. I was hoping that Vanderbilt would help us out financially or just hold off with the opening of campus like what other universities have done!”
Arts & Sciences Graduate Worker: “Two years ago I was awarded a Mellon Fellowship which would guarantee me a sixth year of funding at Vanderbilt, that I need because of the extra requirements of the Joint PhD I am pursuing. In January, I was informed that this funding was given to my home department two years ago. Last week I was notified that I may not be awarded this funding due to problems caused by Covid-19. My case will be examined by the Graduate School which should decide within Friday the 15th of May whether I will receive my funding or not for the academic year 2020-2021. As I am an international student and a divorced mother with no financial support from anyone, if I do not receive this funding, I may lose my student visa because I will not be able to prove to the US embassy that I can support myself and my daughter for the academic year 2020-2021. Also, I am not sure whether the University can justify having an international student without a student visa, so I may have to leave Vanderbilt without graduating after I have pursued 81 credits for both the PhD programs I am pursuing. As an international student, I have no work permit and do not have the right to get any job. I would need to graduate and be offered sponsorship in order to be hired at a position relevant to my field of study.”
Arts & Sciences Graduate Worker: “Last month, I was awarded one of two of my Department’s postdocs. It was only today that I was informed by my chair that the College had cut one of the post-docs and that they needed to rescind my offer. I asked about any other opportunities at the college, any other departmental funding or positions, anything that would allow me to retain my affiliation with Vanderbilt. I feel as though I’ve contributed so much to my department in terms of additional service, went on the market ABD and had several campus visits, and finished in the already-accelerated time of five years. We’ve pretty much been guaranteed in our department that there will be *some* position available as long as you finish in 5 and are actively working, applying to external opportunities, etc. I honestly could not believe that the college, deans, whoever could do something like this. My individual committee and personal mentors have been really supportive and responsive but its shocking how little power faculty hold even to advocate for its graduate students and indicates to me the structural nature of this problem. It was deeply upsetting to know that the opportunity I was awarded weeks ago has now been withdrawn and that, as a result, my academic career is effectively over. I was strongly encouraged to take a leave of absence from the program in order for me to continue to have an affiliation with Vanderbilt, so there wouldn’t be a weird blip on my CV, and at the very least, it will look like I’m continuing to work on my dissertation. To say that now I have to scramble to find another full-time job, health insurance, and delay my long-anticipated defense is devastating to me. In the midst of this pandemic, it’s utterly alarming to me that VU can leave graduate students hanging without a second thought. Sure, it’s a line of the financial budget but the human impact is completely obscured.”
Lisa Madura, Philosophy Department: “I’m a graduate teaching fellow in Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and although I’ve been teaching Introduction to Philosophy classes for years, this semester I’m teaching a course in General Logic, which I’ve never taught before. As any instructor knows, teaching a brand-new course takes a lot of effort and it takes a lot of time. At the end of January, I became sick with what I thought was the flu, and this put me out of work for nearly three weeks and ultimately landed me in the ER. I was lucky enough to have a friend and colleague who was able and willing to fill in for me when I sick, but this left me working around the clock to catch up on my class once I had recovered, and before I was able to get caught up enough to return to dissertation work, Vanderbilt transitioned all of its courses online. So now I was faced with teaching a class I had never taught before and redesigning it to fit an online platform, which I had never done before – doing all this, amidst all the other distractions and stressors that come with living through a pandemic…
“I have a large class with several international students, many of whom had to fly home after the dorms closed. Given the geographic diversity of my class, along with the diversity of other kinds of circumstances, I thought my students were best served by running an asynchronous online course, meaning I do not host live Zoom lectures every week…This has proven very time consuming. I find that I am working 60-plus hour weeks just to keep this one course afloat and haven’t been able to devote time to dissertation work because of it. Being set back an entire semester on dissertation work is hard to recover from, especially since I’ll have to go on the job market in the fall, and that’s a full-time job itself. In our department we’re given five years of funding, but we’re not given an option to extend that funding either if we’re unable to finish our dissertation in the allotted time or if we are not successful our first time around on the job market, which is more and more the case…
“It’s already very difficult to accomplish everything that’s required of a PhD student in just five years, including publishing, which is becoming more and more necessary in order to get work in academia. And you can accomplish everything in five years, as long as you work diligently and there are no hiccups. Being set back an entire semester has made it almost inevitable that a year from now I’m going to find myself with an unfinished dissertation, no employment, and saddled with paying back student loans. This inevitability terrifies me, and I feel powerless to prevent it. I do believe this is the case for many other graduate students, and that the success of our graduate student worker population depends on being granted an extension and extended funding to make up for the time that we’ve all lost due to this pandemic.”
Listen to what other graduate student workers are going through here.
UPDATE: “MAY DAY” NATIONAL ACTION – #HigherEdWorksBecauseWeDo: On May 1, we joined higher education employees across the country to engage in a social media action to raise consciousness about, and draw media attention to, our shared need for funding/timeline extensions, full healthcare coverage, and international student support.
UPDATE: LOCAL DAY OF ACTION: On April 28, we joined our colleagues in writing to Vanderbilt administrators to tell them why we need one-year funding extensions, healthcare guarantees for COVID-19 and mental healthcare, and sustained support for international student workers.
UPDATE: FOLLOW-UP ZOOM MEETING FOR LETTER SIGNERS: On April 24, we hosted a Zoom meeting for letter signers to share information, discuss policy ideas, and make a plan to continue lobbying the administration to meet the three needs expressed in our letter (see below).
TO THE ATTENTION OF INTERIM CHANCELLOR SUSAN WENTE AND VANDERBILT ADMINISTRATION:
As you know, Vanderbilt graduate student workers have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has disrupted our studies, research, campus jobs, and teaching, with major implications for our present and future academic development. Perhaps the greatest impact on our lives, however, has been financial. Periods of crisis often magnify preexisting economic vulnerabilities, disproportionately affecting those with fewer resources. Thus, we call on the administration to implement the following policy measures to ensure the financial security of all graduate student workers (a full justification of the measures can be read here):
1. Degree/funding timeline extensions for one academic year.
The pandemic has brought campus life to a halt. Although a “new normal” awaits us on the other side of this crisis, the path forward will be long and arduous. Libraries, archives, laboratories, and fieldwork sites are now closed. Planned research trips have been cancelled. On-campus graduate student workspaces are inaccessible. Experiments have been postponed. Then we face the additional pressures of full-time parenting, caring for sick loved ones, adapting to online teaching and new workspaces, and maintaining some level of sanity amid a global pandemic. The adverse impact on our academic productivity is incalculable. We are certainly doing our best to adapt to this situation, but short-term, personal coping mechanisms cannot address the full scale of this disruption.
This disruption affects all graduate students’ degree progress and professionalization. Earlier-stage PhD students face delays that will affect their ability to complete PhD candidacy requirements. PhD candidates find themselves investing precious time and energy into applications only to find that universities across the country are suspending their hiring processes. The next major round of academic job applications is Fall 2020, and hires will not be made until Spring/Summer 2021, which means that these students will likely be unemployed for an entire year.
A full degree and funding timeline extension for one academic year would provide graduate student workers with the longer-term financial stability we need to resume our academic and professional endeavors. It would give us the opportunity to continue to contribute to the university. We could continue to serve as teaching and research assistants. The financial security would allow us to renew our efforts to professionalize and pursue academic careers, thereby protecting and improving the placement records that define Vanderbilt as a world-class institution of higher education.
2. Full coverage for COVID-19 and mental healthcare-related expenses; implement urgent safety measures for essential graduate researchers.
COVID-19 treatments could cost up to $20,000. No graduate student employee has the savings to cover this cost. Although the university has created a student hardship fund, the maximum relief funding is $500. Without guaranteed healthcare coverage, graduate students who contract COVID-19 face the real possibility of bankruptcy and the disruption of their academic careers.
Graduate student workers performing research on COVID-19 related projects have experienced challenges performing their essential duties. On-campus screening facilities expose graduate student workers to clinical staff working with critical patients, posing a great risk to immunocompromised researchers in particular. Vanderbilt University must work with VUMC to establish proper safety protocols, including alternative building entrances, to protect essential non-clinical personnel from the virus. Many graduate student workers have been appointed or designated as essential personnel that are responsible for maintenance of laboratory materials and animals and should be immediately guaranteed a safe working environment.
Comprehensive mental healthcare coverage should be included in Vanderbilt’s COVID-19 healthcare policy. Before the pandemic, there was already a mental health crisis in U.S. graduate schools. The conditions created by the pandemic will accelerate that crisis. With conferences cancelled, summer programs called off, research plans postponed indefinitely, graduate student dissertation plans have gone awry and their professional fates hang in the balance. This creates tremendous psychological stress for a population that often lacks the financial means to cover mental healthcare costs. Covering the costs of mental healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic is a necessary start to addressing the mental health crisis that will still be with us after the virus is controlled.
3. Comprehensive summer hardship support for international students.
Many international graduate students have had summer travel plans disrupted due to the pandemic. They must now pay their full monthly rent over the summer, in addition to the higher taxes they already pay on their limited incomes. Moreover, all summer travel and research grants are up in the air, eliminating the funding that would have sustained them over the summer. These issues create a massive financial burden that many are not able to meet. Finally, international graduate workers face the additional challenge of meeting complex visa requirements to stay in the country, apply for jobs in the fall, and go through the interview and hiring process in the spring. We therefore call on Vanderbilt to:
- do everything in its power – including expanding access to legal services – to help all international students maintain their visa status so that they may complete their degrees.
- support students who must leave the country due to visa status changes, lobbying the federal government and the Department of Homeland Security if necessary.
- ensure that all I-20s are renewed for another year so that international students unable to return home are able to stay in the U.S. legally.
Monday, April 6th marks the first day of Graduate Student Appreciation Week. Dean Mark Wallace recently sent graduate workers a thoughtful email expressing his appreciation for our patience, understanding, flexibility, and dedication to the university. Vanderbilt has an unprecedented opportunity to fulfill these words by accepting our call for one-year funding extensions, full healthcare coverage and safety protections, and international student support. We look forward to a timely and substantive response to our letter.