Pitt: Recognize the Critical Work of Graduate Student Employees and Grant Us Emergency Bridge Funding

To Chancellor Gallagher, Provost Cudd, and the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees:

On March 27, in a message to faculty and students about the university’s response to COVID-19, Provost Ann Cudd praised every member of the “Pitt family” for their “spirit of collaboration and community.” In keeping with that spirit, Pitt has decided to offer all tenure track faculty the right to a one year extension of their tenure clock. The Graduate Student Organizing Committee commends that decision.

We are now urging Pitt’s administration to treat its graduate students as equally-valued members of the “Pitt Family” by providing every funded graduate student the option to a one year funding extension.

This emergency funding package must:

  • Be made available to any graduate student who chooses to access it, rather than being determined on a case-by-case basis.

  • Provide additional support to any graduate student who may be struggling with housing issues or other hardships in the face of summer funding and travel cuts

  • Further assist international students with any visa issues due to summer funding and travel cuts.

  • Work to address the mental health issues that graduate students face by increasing options and availability for counseling, and eliminating any co-pays or fees to access services.

  • Address the needs of graduate students with children and those doing additional caretaking labor.

  • Use any funds that Pitt planned to spend on their costly anti-union campaigns to help offset the cost of this emergency extension.

The same reasons for offering faculty a tenure clock extension apply to offering graduate students a funding extension:

  • Our ability to progress has largely been put on pause. Just as faculty face a tenure clock, funded graduate students face a limited window in which we must take courses, pass degree milestones, conduct research, write a dissertation, and find employment. We are also going to be entering a much more challenging job market.

  • Fieldwork, lab and library access, research abroad, etc. have all been made inaccessible. We can no longer present our research at conferences, and remote work is a poor substitute for in-person collaboration.

  • Those of us who are parents and caregivers have to spend more time caring for children and family. Our households may also be experiencing a loss of income from widespread unemployment.

But in many ways, we are more precarious than tenure-stream faculty:

  • Our low earnings mean that most of us already live paycheck-to-paycheck. Many of us who counted on travel grants or summer appointments as researchers or teachers--which can be up to a third of our annual income--have seen these opportunities disappear. As a result, some of us will not be able to afford our rent.

  • International students are particularly vulnerable to the loss of funding, as our visa status is tied to our work and research.

  • Graduate students are already six times as likely to experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety [1], compared to the general population. This will only worsen due to the crisis.

Pitt has offered us some assistance, but is it enough?

  • Given the severe hardships many graduate students are facing in this crisis, the administration’s current level of assistance is inadequate and does not address the long-term uncertainties that we now face.

  • Granting funding extensions solely on a case-by-case review is a poor solution. This lends itself to bias, unevenness, and a lack of transparency. We shouldn’t have to compete against each other for these resources, or rely on personal relationships in our departments for an extension of our funding.

A full year extension is both financially feasible for the university and necessary for its continued functioning as a leading institution of higher learning.

  • Pitt has the resources available to do this. Chancellor Gallagher recently assured the University Senate Council that even in the face of the crisis, Pitt is in strong financial health. This is supported by the university’s operating surpluses, which, since 2010, have consistently run in the tens of millions, hovering around $100 million in these years. Whether Pitt provides an extension isn’t a question of feasibility, but of priority.

  • In addition to being the right thing to do, a funding extension makes sense for Pitt financially. As graduate student employees, we conduct vital research, teach, and do important work for the university. A funding extension is not a handout. Instead, it’s a way for Pitt to ensure that it is still meeting its stated goals of scholarship and teaching amidst this unprecedented global pandemic.

If the university recognizes the critical work of graduate student employees and considers us to be valued members of the Pitt family, then the University can – and should – grant this extension.

Sincerely,

The Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC-USW)

[1] Evans, Teresa M., et al. "Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education." Nature Biotechnology 36.3 (2018): 282-284.

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