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Thursday January 20th

'Appreciation doesn’t pay anyone’s rent': Graduate workers send demands to UNC

<p>(From left) Danielle Dulken, Tim Osborn, James Sadler, Katelyn Campbell, Mark Porlides, Michael Conroy, Emily Taylor, Jennifer Standish attend a graduate workers rally in February 2020 to support #COLA4ALL, or a cost of living adjustment, at UNC. In the "Demands for the Immediate Relief of Graduate Workers at UNC-CH" statement, signed by all those pictured, a cost of living adjustment is listed first. Photo courtesy of Danielle Dulken.</p>
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(From left) Danielle Dulken, Tim Osborn, James Sadler, Katelyn Campbell, Mark Porlides, Michael Conroy, Emily Taylor, Jennifer Standish attend a graduate workers rally in February 2020 to support #COLA4ALL, or a cost of living adjustment, at UNC. In the "Demands for the Immediate Relief of Graduate Workers at UNC-CH" statement, signed by all those pictured, a cost of living adjustment is listed first. Photo courtesy of Danielle Dulken.

A statement of demands written by and for graduate workers in response to COVID-19 conditions was sent to University leaders Monday morning. More than 300 people have added their name to the statement in support, including professors and alumni.

“I think the fact that it has garnered so much attention speaks volumes about the lived reality of so many of our graduate student workers’ experiences right now, and the uncertainty we are all facing,” said Danielle Dulken, a Ph.D. candidate and instructor in the Department of American Studies.

The statement, entitled “Demands for the Immediate Relief of Graduate Workers at UNC-CH,” outlines 11 demands graduate workers want University leaders to meet. The statement said the pandemic has placed an increased financial burden on graduate workers, who receive a minimum graduate worker service stipend of $15,700 per academic year. 

"Many graduate students have lost crucial grants and fellowships due to COVID-19 and all graduate students face significant research challenges as libraries, archives, and labs are closed and fieldwork is not possible," the statement said. 

Dulken said while the statement is labeled as a COVID-19 list of demands, some of the demands predate the emergence of the pandemic. 

“Because we are paid so little, as we kind of live in this situation of precarity, we haven't had a chance to save,” said Joseph Richards, a Ph.D. student and graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Communication. “We don’t have the same financial support and resources that other people have. Our stipends only really allow us to scrape by.” 

Ampson Hagan, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, wrote the original draft of the letter at the beginning of April. A group of about a dozen graduate workers then collaborated to revise and edit the statement, Dulken, who helped create the letter, said. 

Hagan said the statement of demands was intentionally sent to University leaders following Graduate and Professional Student Appreciation Week, which was held April 6 to 10. This timing was to call attention to discrepancies in the way the University claims to value graduate students while not reflecting this concern in its actions, Hagan said. 

“Appreciation doesn’t pay anyone’s rent," Hagan said "Appreciation doesn’t make anyone feel safe in this particular time or actually be cared for, appreciation comes in lieu of material items that we need for life — that’s inadequate and also like a slap in the face."

The first and most important demand listed is a cost of living adjustment to UNC’s graduate worker service stipend, Dulken said. The statement asks for a 75 percent increase to bring the stipend to $26,790 — the estimated living wage in Orange County.

The letter also demands additional time and funding for students to complete degrees due to disruptions to and an inability to continue scholarly activity during the pandemic. For example, Dulken said she cannot access the archives she needs to complete her work. Sean Hernández Adkins, a Ph.D. student in the School of Education, said taking care of his toddler full time has also limited his academic progress.

Another demand asks the University to offer a minimum of $3,000 in summer funding solutions. Contracted on nine-month stipends, Richards said many graduate workers rely on summer internships, grants, fellowships and jobs that have diminished significantly in response to COVID-19. 

Richards said the summer job they secured has since been eliminated, making their financial situation more unstable.

Katelyn Campbell, a Ph.D. student and graduate teaching assistant in the Department of American Studies, said ideally the University will meet all the demands listed in the statement. 

“They regularly say that Carolina is running because of our work and our research and if we are so essential to the University, the least they can do is meet these base level demands,” Campbell said.

James Sadler, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Education, said dismissing the demands in the letter due to financial constraints would not be an acceptable response from the University. 

Dulken said the organizers of the letter will continue to update the publicly available Google Doc of the letter every time the University responds or offers some kind of solution to what has been proposed. 

UNC Media Relations said in an email that the University will provide a response directly to the petitioners.

"The University values the work of our graduate students who help support our instruction and research," it said in the email. 

Richards said the letter points to the difficult balance graduate students must find between contributing to the University and supporting themselves. 

“I think it is very important for us to have this opportunity to have a genuine, deep, difficult and important discussion about how we are going to make things better and more sustainable so we can continue doing what we love — supporting the University, doing our research, going out there teaching — while also not teetering financially every day,” Richards said.

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