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Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

In this time, we graduate student-workers at Penn find ourselves wishing more than ever that we had a union to represent us in ongoing campus-wide conversations that affect all our futures. Last month, the group of students (including Ph.D., Ed.D., and professional students) organizing as GET-UP for a union at Penn, circulated a petition to the community outlining our positions during this global pandemic. We have received over 500 signatures in support of initial coping measures. Our peers at Yale and other universities have been calling on their administrations to support graduate student-workers in this time. At Penn, faculty have voiced their support for graduate students, and made specific requests for the administration to amend timelines and fellowships to meet our needs under these extraordinary circumstances. But as the dust has settled, we look toward a transformed academy and economy that has drastic, long-term consequences for academia. 

The University has responded to the crisis in many important ways. Penn announced $4 million in new initiatives to aid Penn staff and the surrounding community, including paying out the contracts for Bon Appétit dining hall workers. But it is unclear whether these resources (particularly the emergency funds) are available for graduate students, since Penn maintains the stance that we are not employees, despite the work we do as teaching assistants and researchers at the University. 

In terms of program and curricular changes, current graduate students were given the option to take courses Pass/Fail for this semester. Many resources have been developed and distributed to help graduate students transition their own studies and work as TAs online. While the University congratulates itself on the success of the transition to online instruction, to date, administrators have not properly recognized or compensated the vast amount of work TAs and graduate instructors of record have taken on in making this transition possible. While junior faculty have been given an additional year for developing their tenure files, many graduate students are still struggling with the challenges and burdens of transitioning to online teaching, meeting program requirements, and continuing to conduct research without access to labs, libraries, and archives — all while facing looming uncertainty for our economic and professional futures. 

On April 17, President Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, and Vice Provost for Education Beth Winkelstein sent an email laying out their proposals for how to address ongoing uncertainties for graduate and professional students. Despite calls from both faculty and students to extend fellowship funding for graduate students and to refund tuition for professional students, these important economic questions are not adequately addressed in this plan. Instead, what the email proposes is a set of “competitive,” limited, means-tested emergency and technology funds for which many students are ineligible to apply or receive (for example, students who are currently on leave are not eligible for these programs). These various funds, all of which require individual applications and do not specify the amount of funding available or the timeline for distribution, create unnecessary barriers. We have already heard from many students whose requests for technology and emergency travel funding were denied by the University.

Further, it is not clear what the hiring freeze means for graduate and professional students who work for the University in a variety of other ways. Administration officials clarified that TAs “will still work and be paid under the hiring freeze for the next academic year,” but given uncertainty about whether courses will be offered online or in person in the fall, this does not offer much needed clarity. It is also unclear whether students who engage in various other work for the University (i.e. are employed as research assistants) are also exempted from the hiring freeze. More broadly, the fact that Penn has instituted a hiring freeze raises serious concerns for those of us currently, or soon to be, on the academic job market. If Penn, an institution with a nearly $15 billion endowment is not hiring, who will be?

What the University has proposed is a set of stopgap measures which, while necessary, are insufficient for an emergency of this scale. These measures address the immediate, short-term needs of a small subset of doctoral students in the final year of fellowship funding, but fail to acknowledge the far-reaching disruption caused to doctoral students in earlier years of their programs, as well as professional students. Further, these limited, short-term programs place the burden of proof on students, requiring lengthy application processes with unclear criteria for the determination of “need.” The combination of delayed disbursements and little indication of how much funding will actually be distributed means that students are unsure what support they will actually receive. While many students rely on external grants, funding from internal centers and programs, adjunct and post-fellowship teaching opportunities, and research for faculty, we have seen these sources of funding dry up rapidly, leaving us without these critical sources of income.

We believe the University must adopt policies that address the needs of students across schools and departments. While some schools and departments have offered students additional summer funding and other forms of support, measures which acknowledge the severity of our current crisis, not all students have been promised similar assistance. The current patchwork response will result in more inequality of support for students across departments and schools. Further, there have also been major differences in faculty responses to the wake of the crisis and transition. Students have reported hostility and intimidation from faculty asked to make accommodations to these new conditions. Some faculty who manage laboratories are even requiring students to report to their labs for non-essential research purposes.

We as GET-UP find the proposals from Penn's administration to be gravely inadequate, and call on the University to take the following additional steps to ensure that graduate student-workers’ needs are met in a manner that corresponds to the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. We invite you to sign our letter and support our demands.

Recommendation One: Extend All Doctoral Funding Packages.

Advanced graduate students heading into the academic or professional job market face an economic collapse that threatens to surpass the 2008 recession. What we know from the effect of the 2008 financial crisis on the general economy and academia specifically is that this magnitude of shock will affect job prospects for all students, not just current doctoral candidates, for many years to come. Those who are still in the process of completing their degrees face different but similarly challenging circumstances. Doctoral candidates conducting field research have been forced to put their work on hold indefinitely, facing new uncertainties and serious ethical questions about how they will conduct and fund their now prolonged research programs. Students in the sciences unable to access labs are seeing their experiments suspended and their research plans upended. Fellowships beyond existing funding packages are already limited and highly competitive, and many external funding opportunities have been suspended or are limiting the funds they will offer. And while many students seek additional teaching opportunities to supplement their funding, those already increasingly limited opportunities have been significantly reduced by COVID-19 precautions. Given both the disruption in research and this economic reality, we call on the University to extend funding packages for all doctoral students by one full year.

Recommendation Two: Universal Enrollment in the Penn Student Insurance Plan.

Penn’s announcement last month means that graduate students will be able to apply and pay for healthcare beyond their fellowship packages, which amounts to roughly $300 per month. As mentioned above, opportunities for external and post-funding have become increasingly limited, and do not always cover the cost of healthcare. Penn should offer universal enrollment in the Penn Student Insurance Plan to all graduate and professional students for the 2020-2021 academic year. As Student Health Service is unable to provide their full range of services in person, any increases in copays and deductibles resulting from the use of telemedicine should also be covered by Penn. 

Recommendation Three: Guarantee Summer Funding for Summer 2020.

Those who do not receive summer funding as part of their stipend packages often fund their work and living expenses with research grants from Penn or other institutions, or teaching positions over the summer. Given the rapid changes in world events and the number of teaching, travel, and research opportunities that have disappeared in the past month, many students’ planned summer projects are no longer possible. If students cannot travel for their research, they will likely be unable to use funds they have been awarded. The University should extend summer funding packages and expand other funding opportunities (TA, RA, etc.) to all doctoral students who are not currently guaranteed summer funding and face immediate disruptions in their finances. 

Recommendation Four: Tuition Remission and Release for Professional and Tuition-Paying Students.

Professional and other tuition-paying students across the University have suffered major disruptions. The closure of university facilities has left many unable to maintain their research or creative practice and continue regular progress toward their degrees. The University has continued to charge students for access to these facilities, even as it has become increasingly clear that campus will remain closed for months. Tuition-paying students also face additional challenges in financing their education due to the downsizing and closure of many sources of employment they have relied on. Charging professional and graduate students tuition for an additional semester or year constitutes an undue burden for these students, when many will be forced to extend their course of study due to circumstances beyond their control. Penn should provide partial or full tuition remission to tuition-paying students for the Spring 2020 semester, and should reduce or eliminate tuition charges if remote university operations continue into the fall.

Recommendation Five: Increase Flexibility in Program Milestones.

Graduate and professional students at all levels of their programs now face obstacles to completing coursework, teaching, and conducting research due to the transition to online instruction, stay-at-home orders, and travel bans across the globe. We also face uncertainty over our health and well-being, as well as that of our families and loved ones. Many are also balancing their work with childcare and other family-care that they are now responsible for, with even fewer resources from the University than before. As such, departments should introduce flexibility around completion of coursework and important candidacy milestones to accommodate uncertain and difficult realities that many students face.

Recommendation Six: Support for International Students

International students face additional challenges, as their visa status may be contingent on enrollment as full-time students or availability of employment. Ensuring the ability of international students to keep their current visa status should not be an opportunity for the University to make a profit. The University must help all current students maintain their visa status through 2021 without imposing additional financial burdens on them. Penn should allow international graduate students to enroll in tuition-free courses for Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 that allow them to remain compliant with federal regulations and secure their visa status. The University should also provide funding for students who must travel to renew their visas.

Elizabeth Bynum is a Ph.D. candidate in Music and Anthropology. 

Audrey Jaquiss is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science. 

Rebecca Naegele is an MFA candidate in Interdisciplinary Arts.

Katie Rader is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science.

Gabriel Salgado is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science.

Sam Samore is a first year Ph.D. student in the English Department. 

Helen Stuhr-Rommereim is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature. 

Naomi Zucker is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology. 

They can be reached at