‘A total lack of leadership’: Grad students say Stanford is providing inadequate financial support amid pandemic

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Facing financial strain and a tight academic job market, graduate students say that some academic departments are providing inadequate financial support after Provost Persis Drell’s request that these departments assist graduate students struggling to find funding amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The University people pass [the responsibility of supporting students] to the schools, and then the schools pass it to the departments, and then the departments have to figure it out,” said Irán Román, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in music and neuroscience who works with the graduate student activist group Stanford Solidarity Network (SSN). “And that’s just so unfair because different departments are gonna do different things.” 

Graduate students said that COVID-19 is causing them financial stress, especially among those who are international, have dependents or are about to graduate. They called on the University for more support and said that departments do not have adequate funding to alleviate the financial stress.

Drell sent a University-wide email on April 2 asking “all departments and programs to work with graduate students” struggling to find funding due to canceled summer plans “to explore alternate work opportunities and sources of support.”

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote in a statement to The Daily that the University is working with individual departments to “determine which students may be facing an unexpected gap in summer funding due to COVID-19 and to identify sources to fill those gaps.” Miranda declined to comment on how much the University expects individual departments to support graduate students. 

History Department Chair Matthew Sommer, whose department has come under fire from students who say it has provided inadequate financial support, wrote in a statement to The Daily that he is “cautiously optimistic” the University administration will take further measures to alleviate graduate students’ financial strain.

“Such measures are now being actively discussed,” Sommer wrote.

Sommer added that students can apply for the University-wide Emergency Grant-in-Aid Fund, which provides students with up to $5,000 per year. Miranda also pointed students toward the University’s Family Grant program, which has recently been expanded to provide up to $15,000 to graduate students with dependent children.

Students say departments lack funds

Some students have been frustrated by their departments’ inability to support them financially, given departments’ limited budgets relative to the University as a whole. 

“University tells us to go ask the department, the department tells us to ask humanities, humanities tells us, ‘We don’t have any money,’” said a history graduate student, who wished to remain anonymous due to concerns about maintaining their visa status and finding future employment opportunities. 

Román said that while departments are “working really hard” to help meet students’ financial needs, individual departments do not have as much financial capacity to assist compared to the University. 

“That’s just so sad that we have to be at the mercy of the leftovers, at the mercy of the struggling budgets of the smaller units in the University that are the departments,” Román said.

Dean Mohammed Chahim, a sixth-year anthropology Ph.D. student, said his department “has made it clear that they want to support us.” However, Cahim said funding students is beyond the budget of his department.

“This is a University-level problem,” Chahim said. “They [the anthropology department] just don’t have the funds on hand.”

Miranda declined to confirm whether departments have the ability to provide financial support to students.

Román said it is time for the University — which he said has demonstrated “a total lack of leadership” — to take action. He said that as someone with anxiety, the issues brought on by the pandemic have been “really, really, really devastating.” 

“It’s time for Stanford to step up and say, ‘We are going to help everyone, and no one should be worried,’” Román said. 

Miranda declined to comment on criticism that the University should provide funding, as opposed to the graduate departments. Miranda also declined to comment on whether Stanford is planning to directly provide funding to students beyond the grant programs already in place. 

History students take to petitioning

Tensions among graduate students reached a peak in early April when a group of history graduate students sent Sommer a petition criticizing his department’s handling of the situation and requesting additional summer funding, healthcare and greater transparency in decision-making. The petition garnered more than 60 signatures. 

“It was really demotivating to see that the department does not take care of us,” said a second history graduate student, who also wished to remain anonymous due to concerns about maintaining their visa status and finding future employment opportunities. 

Sommer responded to the petition on April 17, writing that while the history department is “committed to supporting our students financially and in other ways as much as we possibly can,” the department does not have the funds to meet student demands. According to Sommer, the department’s ability to supply additional funds would “depend mainly on policy to be determined at a higher level of the university’s administration.” 

“Please be aware that the department does not have large, uncommitted reserves of money,” Sommer wrote. “We face the prospect of having less money than usual over the next couple of years.” 

Miranda declined to confirm whether the history department’s budget is strained, and he also declined to comment on students’ requests for the University to step in to help. 

‘There is no job market’

Graduate students who are international, have dependents, are about to graduate or a combination of the three have been especially hard hit by the pandemic, students said, necessitating additional aid from the University.

Strain caused by COVID-19 has been stressful for international students who face additional challenges like the fear of losing their visa status if they leave campus. Some live with partners who are unable to earn income due to their visa status, while others must balance work, academics and childcare, students said. 

Lisa Hummel, a fourth-year sociology Ph.D. student, said graduate students with dependents are “especially impacted” as they face additional challenges like having to care for their children while still needing to complete the same amount of work. 

She said other ongoing graduate student concerns, like the cost of the University’s dependent healthcare plan, are exacerbated during the pandemic. Her partner, a graduate student at another institution, was “never able to afford” insurance through Stanford and was only recently able to be covered for the first time in the two years of her program. 

“Now is really a time that you want to have health insurance,” Hummel said.

Chahim said that advanced graduate students nearing the end of their programs are especially affected.

The School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S) has allocated money for departments to provide an additional year of funding for students entering their sixth year of doctoral study in the 2020-21 school year, according to H&S Dean Debra Satz. She noted that this extension of funding will, however, result in smaller graduate cohorts over the next few years.

H&S spokesperson Joy Leighton wrote in a statement to The Daily that the school has asked individual departments to “fund graduate students who will be in their 6th year next year from their local resources, if possible.” 

In an email to graduate students on May 4, Satz encouraged those “who are already beyond the 6th year” to complete their degrees as the school establishes more post-doctoral fellowships, lectureships and teaching opportunities requiring a Ph.D. H&S is expecting to offer around 30 such positions, she later told The Daily, though the budget remains uncertain.

Satz wrote that, while the school’s budget “is finite and under considerable stress,” the school is also “working on a number of other initiatives that are in the preliminary stages.”

Chahim said he is worried about struggling to find a job if he graduates soon.

“There is no job market to speak of, academic or otherwise,” Chahim said. “It is unlikely that hiring freezes will be lifted for at least a year.”

Stanford’s funding reductions will be “challenging for our school,” she said, adding that the University will “know better in late June.” 

May 14 9:35 a.m. This article has been updated to clarify the previous update, particularly to note that Satz did not explicitly say in her May 4 letter that students should graduate “in order to be more competitive applicants” to post-doctoral opportunities. Rather, she wrote, “Students who are already beyond the 6th year now are encouraged to complete their degrees. They will be eligible to compete for a number of post-doctoral fellowships and lectureships.” Satz later told The Daily that in her May 4 letter she was encouraging students to graduate in order to be competitive for the opportunities.

May 13, 5:41 p.m. This article has been updated to reflect that the School of Humanities and Sciences has allocated money for departments to provide an additional year of funding for students entering their sixth year of doctoral study in the 2020-21 school year, according to the school’s dean Debra Satz. Satz noted that this extension of funding will, however, result in smaller graduate cohorts over the next few years.

A previous version of this article noted that in her letter to graduate students on May 4, Satz encouraged those beyond the sixth year to graduate. The article did not include context from the letter that the school would be setting up post-doctoral fellowships, lectureships and teaching opportunities requiring a Ph.D. Immediately after encouraging students to graduate, Satz mentioned that doing so would make students eligible for such opportunities. The Daily regrets this error.

May 10, 1:50 p.m. — This article has been corrected to reflect that Sommer responded to the students’ petition on April 17, not in May, as a previous version of the article incorrectly stated. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Anna Milstein at annamil ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Anna Milstein ’23 is a News Writer for The Daily from Tokyo, Japan. Contact her at annamil ‘at’ stanford.edu.