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Claudia Cohen Hall houses several School of Arts and Sciences departments.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Following the School of Arts & Sciences’ decision to pause 2021-2022 Ph.D. admissions, graduate students are calling on administration for more transparency on how available funds will be allocated to current Ph.D. students.

SAS Dean Steven Fluharty and Associate Dean for Graduate Students Beth Wenger announced in an email to SAS standing faculty and graduate students on Sept. 15 that the decision was made as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the school’s finances. Pausing admissions for the next academic year will allow SAS to allocate existing funds towards current graduate students who need more time to complete their degrees, according to the email. 

Graduate students and professors demand that SAS administrators outline exactly how they plan to allocate the available funds. For the past four months, Graduate Employees Together — University of Pennsylvania, the union of graduate and professional students at Penn, has been demanding more support from the University in the form of a one-year extension of funding for all doctoral students.

“The decision to not admit any school-funded PhD students in the SAS has caught us all by surprise," Second year English Ph.D. student and GET-UP member Sam Samore wrote on behalf of GET-UP. "We believe that if the administration is justifying their universal pause on admissions by claiming that it will allow them to support current students, then this support must take the form of a universal one year extension of funding."

Rather than a 12-month extension, SAS has allowed Ph.D. students in their final year of funding in the 2019-2020 academic year to request an additional semester of funding. Other institutions, such as Yale University and Stanford University, have offered all Ph.D. students the ability to gain 12-month extensions in funding. 

In addition to the lack of concrete information about funding allocations, seventh-year English Ph.D. student and GET-UP member Aaron Bartels-Swindells criticized administrators for making the decision without considering SAS graduate students' input. 

"What I’d love to see from Penn broadly, not just on this issue but many issues, is more shared governance between graduate students, faculty, and administrators, because ultimately we are the future of this profession, this institution, and other higher education institutions across the country," Bartels-Swindells said.

Political Science professor Anne Norton agreed, adding that she believes pausing Ph.D. programs before taking other steps to address current graduate student needs is "wrong-headed."

"I’m one of many professors and students who think that would be a great time for the University to sit down as a community, reaffirm learning as our primary commitment, and rethink our relation to our neighborhood, to Philadelphia, and to the cosmopolitan community of the University," she wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. "That would require a more transparent budget to start with."

Both Bartels-Swindells and Norton said that the pandemic has left graduate students in limbo, rushing to finish their dissertations and find jobs in an unstable market, without sufficient support from the University.

“The pandemic has imposed so many burdens on current PhD students!" Norton wrote. "They’ve lost access to libraries, archives, data sets, field work."

Samore said SAS made the wrong decision to pause admissions and believes that SAS should accept new Ph.D. students while also supporting current Ph.D. students who need to finish their research on time and graduate. When SAS rolls out its plans on funding allocation, Samore added the funding should not require any application and should be available to any and all Ph.D. students who need it.

Not all Ph.D. programs will have to pause admissions for the next academic year, however. Wenger confirmed with the DP that a few graduate programs, particularly in the natural sciences, will be able to continue to accept a "limited number" of Ph.D. students into its programs thanks to external funds. For the Chemistry department, these external funds come from government agencies such as the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, and pharmaceutical and chemical companies, according to Roy and Diana Vagelos Professor in Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department Chair David Christianson.

Samore said relying on research grants to fund an incoming Ph.D. cohort is dangerous and not a viable way for Ph.D. programs to continue to be funded in the long term. They added that while some science departments like Chemistry and Biology receive external funding, most social science departments do not and will therefore be more affected by the budget cut.

The comparatively smaller South Asian Studies department will not be able to take on new Ph.D. students next year like the Chemistry department. Fourth-year South Asian Studies Ph.D. student Shaashi Ahlawat said the department's budget cut due to the pandemic is too much for the small department to endure while taking on a new Ph.D. cohort.

Similar to Bartels-Swindells's sentiments, Ahlawat also called on SAS administrators to outline how they will allocate the available funds to graduate students.

“I wish our school could give more transparency on the allocation of funds, especially towards how that will be helping current students if [the University] is saving money on not having future students," she said.

In their Sept.15 announcement, Fluharty and Wenger wrote that they will meet with the graduate and department chairs to create a program providing funding to students who require extra time to complete their degrees.

Bartels-Swindells added he thinks it is unfair that departments are suffering from budget cuts while administrators are continuing to be paid their normal salary. In April, the University announced efforts to reduce costs for fiscal year 2021 in order to preserve jobs and maintain salary continuity. Employees with salaries above $70,000, which include officers, deans, and vice presidents, will not be reduced but will also not be eligible for an annual wage or stipend increase for the 2021 fiscal year.

"Department budgets have already been slashed for fiscal reasons and may be subject to further cuts, so the question is why are we seeing those cuts in those budget when we haven't seen any highly paid administrators take any pay cuts," he said. "Why are the president, provosts, and deans prioritizing their salaries over the educative mission of the University?"