Early this fall, the School of Arts and Sciences announced a one-year pause on Ph.D. admissions. This decision came as a shock to graduate students and faculty alike, who had been neither consulted nor forewarned before the decision was made public. According to the administration, this pause in admissions would enable SAS to allocate support to “current students who require extra time to complete their degrees as a result of the global pandemic.” While this initial step by SAS acknowledged a real and pressing need, Penn’s responses to the crisis facing its doctoral students have fallen short. SAS’s decision to only extend funding packages for students in their final year leaves behind the majority of doctoral students earlier in their programs. Penn’s recent announcement about two payments of $600 to Ph.D. students across the university and the establishment of a competitive Presidential Ph.D. Fellows program also fails to provide sufficient material support for Ph.D. students, all of whom are facing significant disruptions to their research and studies.
As graduate workers and members of GET-UP, we believe that for Penn to make good on its promise to support current students, the administration must guarantee a universal one-year funding extension for all doctoral students in every school and department. A true universal one-year extension would apply to all doctoral students; it would be neither means-tested nor predicated on teaching or other additional labor; and it would include a full twelve months of funding. There would be no application process and no eligibility restrictions. This is what is necessary for us to continue to do our work as teachers and researchers, and what can be justly expected from a university with Penn’s vast resources. This universal extension must be implemented at the university level. Desperately needed support for all doctoral students should not be conditional on the whims, resources, or goodwill of individual departments, dissertation committees, or advisors. While the university has left schools and departments to handle funding decisions, the $1,200 supplement for all Ph.D. students makes clear that university-wide action is possible. However, the university-wide steps so far fall short: a payment of $1,200 cannot compare to the needed full year of funding, and the new Presidential fellowships ask current students to compete with their peers for artificially limited resources.
We have seen firsthand how the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted our own and our colleagues’ progress, lives, and livelihoods. Many of us have not been able to begin or have had to completely rethink our research or fieldwork due to travel restrictions, closures, and the ethical and public health implications of work during a global pandemic. We appreciate the actions the university has taken to expand our access to digital resources, but much of our research cannot be done remotely and current funding timelines do not recognize this reality. Doctoral students whose research has been interrupted still do not know whether Penn will support them in the coming years, or what the nature of that support might be. This uncertainty compounds the obstacles facing already precarious doctoral students.
Funding extensions must be universal to account for the wide-ranging and unpredictable effects of the pandemic on doctoral students in all disciplines and at all stages of their training. Many external grant-giving institutions have instituted their own freezes, leading students left behind by Penn’s unequal funding extensions to wonder how or whether they will be able to finish their degrees. Penn’s diverse graduate student body includes parents whose children are now home during the day, caregivers facing new responsibilities for loved ones, and international students whose mobility may be highly restricted and who may be forced to teach and attend classes across incompatible time zones. Penn’s doctoral funding has always asked students to work under an unrealistic timeline of study and research, and the COVID crisis exacerbates this insufficient institutional support. The university has not adequately addressed the needs of students still in coursework and teaching, who are expected to continue to develop their own research projects while navigating the challenges of teaching online and supporting their undergraduate students. Application processes that ask doctoral students to quantify their needs waste time and pit doctoral students against each other without ensuring that all those in need ultimately receive support. Though the university has allocated some limited funding for technology grants, established an emergency fund for graduate and professional students, and announced $1,200 supplementary stipends, these measures are not nearly comprehensive enough. Only a universal extension can truly protect all students in need.
While this unexpected crisis has significantly complicated graduate student training and work across the country, Penn’s peer institutions have responded decisively to support doctoral students by committing to fund their advanced doctoral students more comprehensively. Though it falls short of a universal one-year extension, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has promised that all 6th- and 7th-year Ph.D. students without external or department funding will be “guaranteed a teaching appointment or other funded assignment.” This security provision accompanies other important measures, like the doubling of the university’s child-care stipend. Largely in response to Graduate Labor Organization (GLO) efforts, Brown University committed to providing a comparable two-semester appointment extension for Ph.D. students in their 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th years. Brown will also offer a substantial expansion of the existing child-care subsidy, alongside a COVID-relief cash bonus and a 2.5% stipend increase. In contrast with these broadly effective moves, Penn’s response to graduate student needs has been mostly symbolic and limited in scope. One-time payments like the $1200 stipend simply cannot be the keystone to the university’s approach to supporting doctoral students through this crisis.
We recognize that this is a developing situation and expect that the university will make continued announcements about funding and the future of our programs over the coming weeks and months. Because university administrators across schools have not invited graduate students or even faculty to participate in discussions about needed funding extensions and pandemic-related support, we as members of GET-UP now seek alternate avenues to voice our concerns. Our universal one-year campaign participates in a larger call for shared governance and more transparency in decisions that deeply affect graduate workers, faculty members, and our undergraduate students. As part of a broad effort to democratize the way Penn is run and the how it engages with the city of Philadelphia, GET-UP aligns with groups like Penn for PILOTS and Police Free Penn (PFP). We see graduate student working and funding conditions as crucial aspects of the project of creating a more just and sustainable university. We invite graduate students, faculty, staff, and members of the Penn community to join us in our call for a universal one-year funding extension by signing our petition here.
Erik Broess, Ph.D. Candidate in Music
Elizabeth Bynum, Ph.D. Candidate in Music and Anthropology
Ben Oyler, Ph.D. Candidate in Music
Paige Pendarvis, Ph.D. Candidate in History
Naomi Zucker, Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology