The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday July 23rd

Letter: Graduate student stipends are too low

To the editor:

The administration at UNC-Chapel Hill is working tirelessly to manage the current pandemic. I can scarcely imagine all that is going into their day-to-day work, but I have no doubt that the job is massive. Thanks are due to Chancellor Guskiewicz: every single communication that has come from his office has been informative, level-headed, compassionate and on point. He is proving himself to be the sort of leader we need in a crisis.

I therefore do not relish being put in the position of registering complaint. But as Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, I feel that I must. I am joined by colleagues and graduate students, who add their signatures below as a show of support.

On March 12, the following message was sent to graduate students from the Dean of the UNC Graduate School, Suzanne Barbour: “Although no academic instruction will be offered during the extended spring break, you should be on campus if you are a graduate assistant or hold a service appointment (e.g. an RA or TA). You are an important part of the team that will develop strategies to ensure that our teaching, research, and service missions continue uninterrupted.” 

Since this missive, graduate students have received subsequent messages clarifying that they should stay off campus. But the email was sent well after local officials and infectious disease specialists across the globe had been recommending social distancing. 

It might not be immediately clear how this email sounds to graduate students and their mentors, and so I will try to explain.

Graduate students in our program are funded by teaching fellowships, which we offer in exchange for teaching undergraduates. Up until last year, the yearly income for graduate students was $15,700, of which roughly $2,000 was subtracted for student fees. After fees, graduate students were thus living on about $13,700 per year. 

According to the Living Wage Calculator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, residents of Orange County, North Carolina, need roughly $26,790 per year (calculated at $12.88 per hour, working full-time, or 2,080 hours per year), or twice what we have been paying our graduate students, to cover expenses. The poverty wage in Orange County is $12,480, calculated at $6 per hour. The current federal poverty level is $12,760 for a household of one. Until last year, then, we were paying our graduate students about $1,000 per year above the poverty level.

Things are a little better now. The Graduate School managed to remove student fees in 2019, and from within our department, the chair exhausted all possible funding sources to raise the minimum stipend per course by another $300. So now graduate students are living on $16,000 per year. 

If that sounds like enough, this real-life scenario should help clarify why it’s not. I emailed a few graduate students to ask them what their paychecks look like in relation to their expenses. I heard back that they receive $1,653 each month. But Sean DiLeonardi, a graduate student whose dissertation I am directing, noted that teaching fellows are not paid in the summer, so the $1,653 only comes from August to May. 

“The summer is especially difficult,” he said, “since the dry spell lasts from June 1 to the last day of August, at which point we receive a check for $825 (and in the days of student fees, that was before taking out the fees!)” 

Sean has a family. Calculating with allowances for his two children, Olive and Rocco, Sean’s living wage is thus right at poverty level. His wife Lizzie brings in some money, which is a good thing, because their rent is $1,200 per month. Of housing costs, he notes, “The only place we've lived cheaper than this was … almost uninhabitable.” Graduate students living on their own or with roommates are paying around $700 per month on average, or more than half of what we pay them from August to May. 

To put this in perspective another way, to qualify for a visa, international students must show that they will make $21,000 per year. This amounts to an acknowledgment from the University that $16,000 does not cover the cost of living in Chapel Hill. We already know this, because our students regularly take second and third jobs on top of teaching our undergraduates. 

Dean Barbour’s message acknowledges the importance of graduate students to the University’s mission to serve undergraduates in our state when she notes that graduate students are an “important part of the team.” It should follow from this that paying graduate students stipends that force them to take on other jobs affects undergraduate education.

In addition to the effects on Carolina undergraduates, taking on extra hours at second and third jobs also slows graduate students down as they pursue their Ph.Ds, thus raising the cost to the University of funding them. Paying low stipends, that is, is bad business, since it costs UNC money over the long run. 

And with each passing year, the Graduate School’s minimum stipend makes recruitment impossible — not to mention embarrassing. With the promise of near-poverty living conditions, moreover, we do not have a remote chance of recruiting graduate students of color. With all of the hires currently being funded by the University in critical race studies, African American literature and history, slavery studies and other fields focused on race and intended to diversify our faculty, we are creating a strangely lopsided campus, with new faculty working in areas related to race in which there will soon be no students of color to teach.  

I have been requesting meetings with deans every year over the 10 years I have been at Carolina, urging them to figure out a way to raise graduate student stipends for all of these reasons. And in meeting after meeting, shoulders are shrugged. I understand that raising graduate student stipends would be expensive. But year after year, we watch as the administration finds money for countless other initiatives, including, ironically, the creation of senior positions to manage the diversity low stipends make impossible.

To say it rings hollow when the Dean of the Graduate School urges graduate students to come to campus in this moment because they are “an important part of the team” understates the appalling insensitivity of the message. What Dean Barbour conveyed, with crystal clarity, is that the graduate students are only an “important part of the team” when the University needs them.

I am reminded of the 1874 children’s story, "The Little Red Hen." If the graduate students make the University’s bread with so little help, why should they share it? After so many years of shoulder shrugging, how can their administrators possibly expect to partake?

Would now be an appropriate time to show our graduate students how much they matter to us? Could this crisis be the occasion for making good on the claim that they are an “important part of the team?” Surely, if we are willing to ask them to come to campus during a global pandemic to help us out, we can commit to figuring out how to raise their minimum stipends.

Sincerely yours,

Florence Dore, Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature and Director of Graduate Studies


The signatories below wish to affirm this message:

Adrienne Hall, Ph.D. Student in Geography
Amanda Al-Raba'a, Assistant Professor of Modern Languages and Translation, KIMEP University (Ph.D. graduate of the Department of English & Comparative Literature at UNC-CH)
Andrew Adair, Teaching Assistant, Department of Mathematics
Andrew Murray (Graduate Student)
Anna Broadwell-Gulde, PhD Student, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Ashley Mariconti, DNP, RN, UNC Health
Banu Gokariksel, Professor, Department of Geography
Benjamin Bechtold, Graduate Student, Mathematics Department
Bert Clere, English Graduate Student, NCCU
Beverly Taylor, Professor of English
Bradley Hicks
Bridget Donnelly, Ph.D. Candidate and Teaching Fellow
Casey Miller, UNC MSW Candidate ‘20
Che Sokol, Ph.D. student of Comparative Literature
Chloe Hamer, Ph.D. student
Chris Johns, Ph.D., Digital Communications Specialist @ Coastal Resilience Center 
Colin Dekeersgieter, Graduate Fellow in the Department of English and Comparative Literature
Courtney Blackington
Courtney Rivard, Teaching Associate Professor
Craig Mariconti, M.A., Ph.D. Candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Cyrus Sinai, Geography Ph.D. student
Danielle Christmas, Assistant Professor
David E. Whisnant, Professor Emeritus
Deanna Corin, graduate student worker, Department of Geography 
Dmitro Golovanich, Teaching Assistant, Mathematics Department
Doug Stark, Graduate Teaching Fellow, English
Dylan Thompson, Graduate Teaching Assistant, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Elisa Faison, Teaching Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate
Eliza Richards, Professor
Elizabeth Shand, Graduate Student
Emil’ Keme, Associate Professor of Spanish 
Emily Baragwanath, Associate Professor of Classics and Director of Graduate Studies 
Emily Sferra, Graduate Student and Teaching Fellow
Eric Bontempo, Graduate Teaching Fellow
Eric Downing, Professor and Chair of German, Professor of English & Comparative Literature
Eric Meckley, Ph.D. Candidate and Teaching Fellow
Erik Gellman, Associate Professor of History
Erik Maloney, Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Student, English & Comparative Literature
Erika Lindemann, Professor Emerita, English and Comparative Literature
Geovani Ramírez, Ph.D. Candidate, English & Comparative Literature
Grant Glass, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of English & Comparative Literature
Guillermo Rodriguez-Romaguera, Teaching Assistant Professor, Department of English & Comparative Literature
Hampton Smith, alumnus
Helen Cushman, Assistant Professor
Hunter Dinkins, third year Ph.D. Student, Mathematics
Ian Sawyer, Research Assistant
Isaac Mehlhaff, Ph.D. Student
Isabel Laterzo, Ph.D. Student, UNC Political Science 
Jane Danielewicz, Professor Emeritus, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Jane F. Thrailkill, Bank of America Honors Distinguished Term Associate Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Jeanne Moskal, Professor, Department of English & Comparative Literature
Jennifer Larson, Teaching Associate Professor, English & Comparative Literature
Jessica Ginocchio, grad student and teaching fellow, English & Comparative Literature
Jo Klevdal, Graduate Student English & Comparative Literature
Joseph Compton, Teaching Assistant, Department of Mathematics with a second job
Joshua Smith, Ph.D. Candidate
Karah Mitchell, Graduate Teaching Fellow, English & Comparative Literature
Karen Auerbach, Associate Professor of History
Katharine Landers, Teaching Fellow, English & Comparative Literature
Katherine Slyman, Teaching Assistant, Mathematics Department
Katya Gorecki
Kelli Holt, Teaching Fellow English & Comparative Literature
Kenneth Lota, Ph.D. Candidate & Teaching Fellow, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Kevin Pyon, Ph.D. Candidate & Teaching Fellow, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Khristian Smith, Ph.D. Candidate & Teaching Fellow, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Kristjan Hannesson, Graduate Student
Krysten Voelkner, Graduate Student & Teaching Fellow
Kylan Rice, Ph.D. Candidate & Teaching Fellow, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Kyle Chan, Ph.D. student, Department of Political Science
Lanier Walker, Ph.D. Student & Teaching Fellow, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Laurence Cantwell, Teaching Assistant, Mathematics Department
Leo Collins, Teaching Fellow and Ph.D. student, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Leslie Rowen, Graduate Teaching Fellow, DOECL
Lisa Lindsay, Professor of History
Liz Gualtieri-Reed Teaching Assistant Professor
Louise McReynolds, Professor of History
Malinda Maynor Lowery, Department of History and Center for the Study of the American South
Manny Hernandez, Ph.D. Candidate
Mary Floyd-Wilson, Professor and Chair, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Matthew A. Taylor, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Admissions, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Maxim Tsarev, Teaching Fellow and Ph.D. student Department of English and Comparative Literature
Michael Keenan Gutierrez, Teaching Associate Professor
Miranda Elston 
Morgan Souza, Graduate Teaching Assistant, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Nicole Berland, Doctoral Candidate and Teaching Fellow
Nikki Roulo, Ph.D. Candidate and Teaching Fellow, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Olivia Chandrasekhar, Teaching and Research Assistant, Mathematics Department
Patrick ONeill, Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Paul Blom, Ph.D. Student and Teaching Fellow, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Peter Delgobbo, Ph.D. student, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Philip Gura, Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Rachel Warner, Ph.D. Student and Teaching Fellow, Candidate, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Reed Hubbard Teaching Assistant, Department of Mathematics
Sam Bubnovich, Graduate Student, Mathematics
Samuel Schmitt, Teaching Assistant, Ph.D. student
Sara Smith, Associate Professor, Department of Geography
Savannah Foreman, Graduate Teaching Fellow 
Scott Kirsch, Professor of Geography
Sean DiLeonardi, Teaching Fellow and Ph.D. candidate, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Sergio Chavez, Teaching Assistant, Department of Mathematics, UNC
Sharon P. Holland, Townsend Ludington Distinguished Professor 
Shayne Legassie, Associate Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Sherick Hughes, Professor
Steven Saroka, Graduate TA
Susan O'Rourke, Teaching Fellow and Ph.D. candidate
Taras Mikhailiuk, Ph.D. Candidate and Teaching Fellow
Taylor Cowdery, Assistant Professor of English
Taylor Rhoads, Teaching Assistant, Mathematics Department
Thomas Simonson, Teaching Fellow and Ph.D. candidate, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Tom Reinert, Associate Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature 
Travis Alexander, Teaching Fellow and Ph.D candidate, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Tyler Bunzey, Teaching Fellow and Ph.D candidate, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Tyler Ditmore, Teaching Assistant/Graduate Student (Political Science)
Wil Heflin, former graduate student & spouse of current Ph.D. candidate
William Sturkey, Assistant Professor, History 

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