Op-ed: 'U' — do more to protect graduate students

Thursday, May 7, 2020 - 11:46pm

On April 20, 2020, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel established the core principles that would guide the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a commitment to “value, protect and support our people.” On May 8, the Graduate Employees’ Organization delivered a letter to the University administration asking the University to honor these principles by providing necessary support and resources to all of its community members and described key measures necessary for graduate students in particular. 

This letter from GEO has extraordinary support from the University community. Signed by 1,730 community members, including over 1,260 graduate students and 140 faculty so far, we outlined some of the measures that the University should consider to help its graduate students weather this crisis. Graduate students face financial insecurity, the impossibility of performing many types of research, a virtually nonexistent job market and many other difficulties. 

We recognize that the current crisis presents difficult challenges for the University. We appreciate the expanded emergency funding opportunities for graduate students, the satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading policy and the postponed deadlines for some program milestones. Although valuable, these initiatives are not enough. 

The measures detailed in our letter include an additional year of funding for doctoral students, a $2,500 emergency stipend for all graduate students, assistance in the transition to remote work, guaranteed healthcare coverage, the protection of international students, expanded use of childcare subsidies and leasing flexibility for those living in University Housing. 

Furthermore, as essential members for both teaching and research, graduate students must have seats at the table in the University’s committees on reopening campus. Graduate student organizations — including GEO, Graduate Rackham International, Rackham Student Government and Students of Color of Rackham — should be consulted to determine graduate student representation. Graduate workers also need to have the option to teach and work remotely if concerned for their health. These measures are necessary to honor the University’s commitment to protecting the health and safety of Graduate Student Instructors and research assistants. 

Many of the graduate student signatories shared testimonials with us, describing an array of difficult personal circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are two examples from graduate students who preferred to remain anonymous: 

“After being forced to stop fieldwork months before I had planned, I had to move back to the US without any sort of monetary compensation or support. Because I was on a year-long external grant covering only research expenses, I have had no income since leaving the field in March. I am now forced to go into debt for the most basic, essential items, such as groceries and phone bills. This crisis disproportionately affects people without savings, many of whom are first-generation and/or students of color. If the university continues to expect us to teach, continue our own research, and be the productive members of the community we have proven to be, then the university absolutely should recognize it is impossible for us to do so without material support.” 

“I am both an international student and a father to an infant, beginning the fifth year of my program; the COVID-19 pandemic has created an immense uncertainty around my ability to conduct fieldwork abroad, finish my program on time, find a job in the nearby future and support my family financially in the present.” 

We believe that the University needs a unified response to graduate students’ difficulties during this crisis. Currently, individual departments and units are mostly left to their own devices to help their students. Such uncoordinated efforts are insufficient to control the damage caused by this pandemic — as the national response to COVID-19 shows. Many University departments have implemented laudable policies, such as expanded summer funding, but these fragmented actions perpetuate inequalities among graduate students across units with different financial capabilities. Emergency funding opportunities, such as the one provided by Rackham, are necessary but insufficient. When emergencies are common but take so many forms, we believe that University-wide responses such as the ones called for in our letter are the most appropriate and effective. 

The University administration should directly include the workers and community members who are so essential to its survival and productivity in the decision-making processes. We urge the administration to be financially transparent with its stakeholders and to ask for input from graduate students, lecturers, staff, nurses, custodial workers and others. We agree with the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation’s statement that those who are in more comfortable positions should be called on to make bigger sacrifices first. 

Any financial plan must protect the employees who are most vulnerable, for whom the loss of jobs and income in this pandemic will bring catastrophic consequences. We stand in solidarity with all of those whose livelihoods are compromised and hope that the University’s administration will value, protect and support its community. We have asked the administration to answer our letter by May 15 and we eagerly await a response that addresses the urgent needs of graduate students in this crisis. 

The GEO COVID Caucus co-chairs can be reached at covidchair@geo3550.org