700+ grad students plead: Don’t let us fall through the cracks

May 1, 2020, 12:22 a.m.

This is the first in a series of op-eds by the Stanford Solidarity Network detailing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on graduate students.

In the many emails from the Stanford administration responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, details on University emergency decisions regarding one population in particular have been noticeably absent. For the nearly 10,000 graduate students at Stanford, one of the few messages that specifically addressed them appeared as a bullet point in Provost Drell’s April 2 COVID-19 update, titled, “Continuation of support for graduate students.” 

Acknowledging that many summer programs, which grad students rely on as a source of income, would not proceed as planned as a result of the pandemic, the provost continued, “We are asking all departments and programs to work with graduate students in this situation to explore alternate work opportunities and sources of support.”

Already, the economic crisis caused by necessary policies of social distancing and closing of “non-essential” businesses has led to the largest spike of unemployment in U.S. history. While the impact may not be immediate for many graduate students, those nearing the completion of their degrees already face a frozen academic job market. And research that relies on labs, sensitive data or international field sites is stalled, not to mention the difficulty of focusing on one’s research amid a deadly pandemic. 

Perhaps the most pressing challenge for many students is financial survival during summer quarter. Many of us, following University guidance, have sought assistance directly from our departments. Though sympathetic to our circumstances, many departments are financially ill-equipped to provide assistance, and are left scrambling to scrape together band-aids of insufficient support at best. More commonly, they are redirecting students to University-level stop-gaps that are likewise insufficient and underfunded.

The University has taken steps to mitigate the impact of coronavirus on the Stanford community. Even so, longer-term policies concerning graduate students for the summer and the coming academic year have not manifested. Leaving the burden on individual departments, programs or student requests from ambiguous funds have created a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety.

Further, this fragmented response threatens to deepen existing inequalities on campus — for international students, students from historically marginalized and oppressed groups, students who are low-income and first-generation and those with families, to name a few. It also puts students in a position where fear of retaliation or further diminishing their job prospects prevents them from speaking out on the issues they and their colleagues face.

For this reason, the Stanford Solidarity Network is writing a series of op-eds in The Daily on the issues facing the graduate student community. These op-eds will detail several issues the graduate student community raised in a petition to the University last month. That petition, which now has over 700 signatures from graduate students, undergrads and faculty, outlines steps we believe the University must take to address the impact of this crisis on graduate students’ work, health, family life and employment prospects. 

We’re starting this series on May Day, International Workers Day, as part of a nationwide online action by graduate student-workers, #HigherEdWorksBecauseWeDo, with the series to continue every Friday throughout the month of May.

Emergency support for graduate students

This first op-ed provides an overview of the difficult situation many graduate students face, highlighting “emergency asks” we think the University must address immediately. Most pressing is the need to ensure that all graduate students have funding and a place to live through the upcoming summer. Some students are funded for the summer through departments and external sources. For the rest, we call on the University to guarantee funding consistent with academic-year rates of pay, so that all Stanford graduate students can have financial security at least through the summer as this crisis develops. 

Once things begin to “return to normal,” however, University-level solutions meant to mitigate the impacts of the crisis on faculty members (faculty hiring freezes and the extension of tenure clocks in particular) will create a bleak academic job market in coming years. We ask the University administration for guidance on how to navigate the logistical challenges of delays in research and for accommodations — in the form of an extension of timelines for degree completion and guaranteed funding packages, so that we can continue to do our work.

While we recognize that the University faces significant financial difficulties, it has also taken steps suggestive of its ability to wield its multi-billion dollar endowment with an eye toward equity in higher education, such as returning CARES aid while continuing to guarantee existing financial aid packages and covering job-contingent aid with scholarships. The University should continue in this direction by supporting the graduate students whose research and teaching are essential to the University’s continued operation and world-class reputation.

The lack of acknowledgment by the University of how the pandemic has and will continue to affect our studies, research and transition into a shattered job market is a source of great anxiety for all of us. The pandemic has forced evacuations from field work sites and restrictions on international travel; limitations on public gatherings make it difficult to conduct interviews and focus groups; and grants and reviews have been delayed alongside fellowships and research opportunities. 

Students with families are now caring for children on top of teaching and research responsibilities. Students have had to move off campus with little or no assistance because of the cost of living, or are trapped in other cities and countries following rapidly implemented shelter-in-place orders. Meanwhile, opportunities for networking that are essential to securing academic positions are all but nonexistent for the foreseeable future. 

Many of us are preoccupied with our concerns for friends and family and trying to support our communities. Far from  “being distracted” or “procrastinating,” coming to terms with the significant impact of the crisis on mental health and the well-being of our community itself has taken time and effort.

The existing graduate funding situation

It might help to provide some background on differences in graduate funding across the University. Most Ph.D. students at Stanford and peer institutions are guaranteed funding for a period of time, typically five years here at Stanford. The University commits to covering the costs of tuition and living, as well as providing additional income for that time period. For most programs, however, summer funding is not guaranteed for all five years.

How support gets funded varies by individual departments, and even by lab and advisor. It could comprise various combinations of a living stipend, allowing the student to focus on completing research and their degree, an RAship funded by a lab, potentially requiring work in support of that lab or a TAship. Some departments have a teaching requirement of four quarters for doctoral students to earn their degree, with the rest of the time reserved for completing their research supported by a living stipend. Others may only offer teaching relief via lab and or advisor-specific RAships or external fellowships. Without University-level guidelines on graduate student funding, existing disparities between schools and programs can give way to dangerous levels of inequality.

Looking ahead

In addition to collecting signatures with our petition last month, we asked graduate students to share their stories of the issues they are facing due to the pandemic. The nearly 150 testimonials we gathered highlighted consistent themes: lost summer income, increased caregiving requirements at home and in our frequent roles as first point-of-contact for Stanford’s undergraduate community, stymied or stalled dissertation projects, visa issues, dependents losing jobs and healthcare. These testimonials will be highlighted in our op-ed next Friday.

Stanford has already invested millions of dollars in its graduate students, and the return on that investment is a workforce of teaching and research assistants without whom the work that happens at Stanford would not be possible. We ask that Stanford continue to invest in us through this difficult time — honor your commitment to our professional development, to our good work as scholars and to our well-being as financially vulnerable members of this community. 

Contact Andy Fitzgerald at afitzger ‘at’ stanford.edu and Jason Beckman at jason.beckman ‘at’ stanford.edu. Contact the Stanford Solidarity Network at stanfordsolidaritynetwork ‘at’ gmail.com.

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to [email protected] and op-ed submissions to [email protected].

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