Over 1,750 sign petition demanding protections for grad students

Friday, May 8, 2020 - 3:29pm

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Design by Cara Jhang

Over 1,750 University of Michigan students, faculty and community members signed a petition aimed at protecting graduate students amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter calls for the University to provide an emergency stipend to all graduate students, support international student visa issues, extend degree requirement deadlines and health insurance eligibility, among other measures.

Graduate students have been affected by the pandemic in multiple ways — from the closing of labs that left many students concerned about graduating on time to worries about finding a job during an economic crisis.

Jeff Lockhart, Graduate Employees’ Organization member, said seeing graduate students at universities like Yale and Harvard demand similar protections inspired the caucus to draft a letter with reasonable demands. 

“We spent quite a bit of energy trying to figure out what other universities were doing,” Lockhart said. 

The initial letter was sent to a group of graduate students for feedback and was later released to the public on May 1. The Daily published an op-ed by the GEO’s COVID Caucus calling on the University to support the health and safety of graduate students.

Lockhart said he hopes they won’t face resistance on the demands, including requests such as representation of graduate students on the provost’s committees.

“We feel the graduate students need to be represented in the room as a voice as part of that decision-making process,” Lockhart said. 

The Daily reached out to Public Affairs Associate Director Kim Broekhuizen, who declined to comment and said via email they would “respond directly to those who sent the petition.”

Rackham student Nishita Trisal discussed how the University made announcements for undergraduate students, such as the Pass/No Record Covid grading and tenure-track extensions, but there had been no mention of graduate students. She said there needs to be University support for people finishing their Ph.D.s in addition to help at the departmental level.

“I think these (COVID-19-related challenges) kept emboldening us to feel like we need to make the case for broader protections that aren’t just based on the benevolence of this administrator here or there,” Trisal said.

Rackham student Theodore Nash signed the petition because of the challenges he is facing as an international student during the COVID-19 crisis. Nash felt compelled to leave a testimonial when he signed the petition to express the importance of these issues.

“I now face profound uncertainty as to when I will physically be able to return to America,” Nash wrote. “I sign in solidarity with all those who faced unexpected expenses (especially if they were unlucky enough to go through the Rackham funding process — which takes a good amount of emotional energy — and have their request denied) and others who are stuck in their home countries facing that same uncertainty.”

Rackham student Paloma Contreras addressed the financial issues she is facing in her testimonial. 

“We don’t receive funding over the summer,” Contreras wrote. “These are four months in which I will not be receiving a stipend, and as an international student, I won’t receive the stimulus check issued by the government. On top of that, many of us don't receive tax exemptions that U.S. citizens do receive. Coming from a working class family, my parents and brother do not have access to health care in my home country, and the three of them are currently unemployed. How am I supposed to survive financially?”

Associate Professor Maria Cotera, program in Latina/o studies director, advises many graduate students as a faculty member. She discussed the unique situation of graduate students, who are neither completely students nor employees and face challenges that other members of the University do not. She pointed out how the University is allowing junior faculty extended time for tenure, but has not made similar extensions to graduate student contracts.

“It’s very surprising that a university as powerful as Michigan would be in this position,” Cotera said. “We should take special care of those who are the most vulnerable.”

Daily News Reporter Varsha Vedapudi can be reached at varshakv@umich.edu.