Faculty Demand Support For Graduate Students

Faculty members in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and the Department of English have sent letters to the administration asking for extensions of graduate student funding.

NYU’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis + English have demands for NYU’s Graduate School for Arts and Science. They call for increased graduate funding in face of the hardships affecting graduate students during this pandemic. (Photo by Anna Letson)

The Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and the Department of English both sent letters to university administration calling for extended funding for graduate students facing rescinded job offers, grant delays and income gaps.

The letters were addressed to Graduate School of Arts and Science Dean Phillip Brian Harper and Provost Katherine Fleming. They were sent on Tuesday, April 21 and Wednesday, April 22 respectively. The Department of Social and Cultural Analysis department’s letter called for the university to waive tuition and fees for master’s students who will need to take more time to complete their degree work.

They also demanded an extension of MacCracken Fellowships — which support Doctoral candidates in the first five years of their dissertation work — and summer funding for all students. SCA argued in its letter that the department was especially well positioned to make these demands.

“We enroll and train (and place) a disproportionate number of first generation working and lower class students of color (many of whom are also LGBTQ),” the letter from the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis read. “We are proud that our department has had such a significant and tangible impact on broadening the scope of knowledge in ways that resonate far beyond NYU. We cannot afford to lose this generation of scholars.”

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The Department of English letter made similar demands to SCA, calling for three-month emergency summer funding, extending time-to-degree deadlines and funding for students, and waiving healthcare fees for masters students. Other universities including Yale, Northwestern and Penn State University have also called for extensions to graduate funding, according to the letter. One of the signatories of the letter, Sonya Posmentier, an associate professor, commented on the necessity of these measures.

“It goes without saying that training the current generation of  scholars and teachers is at the core of a research university’s mission,” Posmentier told WSN in an email. “In an immediate practical sense, the university depends on graduate research and teaching. So, it’s hard for me to imagine how we keep doing what we’re doing (teaching and research) without a financial commitment to graduate programs.” 

The demands of the departments echoed those raised by the Graduate Student Organizing Committee in an open letter addressed to Provost Fleming which outlined both the academic and personal challenges raised by the pandemic. The letter currently has over 700 graduate student signatures.  

GSAS has already committed to upholding current Teachers’ Assistant and Residents’ Assistant contracts. Harper said that graduate students can expect to hear a response regarding funding extensions from administration in the coming days.

“GSAS has been working to address this issue since the University went to remote instruction last month, and I will be informing our doctoral students of the plan we have devised within the next two days,” Harper told WSN in a statement. 

While English department faculty praised GSAS for these support measures, the letter went on to explain why more steps needed to be taken. Posmentier said she believed GSAS would do everything possible to extend time and funding for graduate students, but that not every demand would be met. 

“The Provost has been very frank in her reply that the broader, more systemic requests — requests that would indicate a commitment from the top — are too expensive,” she said. “We all know that NYU, like all businesses, will be changed by these circumstances. I think students and faculty alike are asking for more of a voice in HOW NYU changes, and what priorities we can hold onto or even imagine as we face this crisis.” 

Second-year doctoral student with the English department and a Graduate English Organization PhD representative Alliya Dagman was one of several students who compiled surveys and information which helped inform the faculty’s letter to administration.

“We have the sense that people are just generally really freaked out,” Dagman said. “Some of them have very immediate problems: Where am I going to live this summer? How am I going to pay for rent and food? Most are extremely worried about employment prospects in both the short and the long term, especially in academia.”

A common demand in both letters was eliminating healthcare fees for masters’ students. Doctoral students are provided with free health insurance, while masters students must still pay. The department has made some healthcare changes, including covering COVID-19 testing. 

Students remain unclear on how leaving New York — or returning to homes abroad — may affect their coverage. First-year English department doctoral student Nicholas Silcox elaborated on this concern.

“People who aren’t in the city it’s not clear how the insurance would transfer, there might be additional copays and such, so there’s that additional expense,” Silcox said. “So that was highlighted because we’re asking the school to eliminate those costs on top of additional expected costs and loss of income with all the stuff going on.”

In addition to healthcare uncertainty, graduate students also face a hostile job market as nation-wide hiring freezes and expected declining enrollments for fall undergraduate students and furloughs threaten to diminish already scarce posts. 

Summer employment or academic funding during the pandemic is also difficult to find and many graduate students face rescinded job offers and pushed awardments of research grants, according to the letter. 

These disturbances make summer funding crucial for doctoral students who have run up the clock on their MacCracken Fellowship and are left with no source of income for the coming months.

One of these students is fifth-year SCA doctoral student Emily Rogers, whose MacCracken funding ends in about two weeks. Rogers was planning on continuing her dissertation work at the start of May, before the grant she had lined up was suspended until next year. In addition to this, her teaching position at another university looked like it might not happen.

“I had an adjunct gig lined up that’s looking like it’s not going to get renewed, I’m still waiting on that now but there’s a lot up in the air right now,” Rogers said.

The next day, Rogers received confirmation that the adjunct position was cancelled.

She isn’t alone; many graduate students across departments have suddenly found themselves without income for the coming months, regardless of year. Silcox said his plan to fill a summer funding gap in the MacCracken fellowship was to find a job, which no longer appears feasible.

“We were going to go three months without funding anyway, which is why there’s the expectation to find work but the seventeen of us are looking at three months without funding in the most expensive city in the country,” Silcox said.

Rogers explained that because grants and fellowships — graduate students’ main sources of income — are not taxed, students are also not eligible for unemployment benefits. 

“In my mind, NYU is a tax-exempt institution and we cannot get unemployment,” Rogers said. “Americans are kept afloat right now because of unemployment. They’re surviving despite the fact that they’re not working, so in my opinion NYU has to do the same to have a stopgap measure so that we can survive right now despite the fact we don’t have these research grant opportunities to do the research we set out to do.” 

The needs of students are what spurred the faculty in the Department of English and Social and Cultural Analysis to write the letters to administration. Dagman said that student testimonials collected by the Graduate English Organization made her realize the depth of the problem.

“For me it was quite overwhelming because we were collecting all this data; just going through students’ testimonials made me miserable for a couple of days,” Dagman said. “I had a tough time coming back from that because of the staggering range and scale of problems; many are struggling with mental health, caretaking responsibilities, financial insecurity.”

Research progress is also impeded by the mental and financial strains of the pandemic, in addition to cut off access to libraries and other academic resources, causing the need for extensions on time-to-degree requirements. However, some students are concerned that this extension will lead to more students applying for jobs once they all complete their degrees, making the employment hunt even more difficult.

To combat this possibility, GSAS has eliminated waitlists for doctoral programs, Harper said.

“The reason for our doing so was to realize some degree of savings in our fellowship budget that we might subsequently put to use in providing funding extensions for current PhD students,” Harper told WSN in a statement.

Dagman explained why this measure was not included in the English Department students’ letter to faculty. 

“The idea I think right now is to conserve available funding to help out current students because the situation is extremely difficult for those who are already enrolled, and to take on more students would to some measure compromise the department’s ability to help them out,” Dagman said. “Students’ opinions were very divided on this issue, so we avoided it altogether in our letter to the faculty.”

Dagman shared that the faculty’s support in the letter was encouraging and that graduate students are sticking together through the pandemic.

“This is our community; we work together and take pride in it. The faculty’s support is deeply reassuring, it keeps that sense of togetherness intact,” Dagman said. “I think we should be helping each other out in whatever ways we can; students feel that the university can and should be doing everything that is possible in this situation.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 27 e-print edition. Email Emily Mason at [email protected]

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