The University has yet to directly respond to a statement of demands sent nearly a month ago by a group of graduate workers regarding the impact of COVID-19 conditions on students' financial security.
Danielle Dulken, a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies who helped create and distribute the letter, said she was disappointed by the University's lack of direct response to the letter of demands, which has over 500 signatories.
The statement, entitled “Demands for the Immediate Relief of Graduate Workers at UNC-CH,” outlines 11 demands graduate workers want University leaders to meet. One of the main demands is an increased graduate student stipend.
“I think our demands feel adequate and reasonable, given the fact that there is stimulus money and support coming in to take care of the University," Dulken said. "And especially given the fact that administrators make half a million dollars, when taking what would be a modest pay cut to secure the well-being of graduate students seems like a very reasonable and compassionate response."
Ampson Hagan, a doctoral candidate in anthropology who drafted and helped distribute the letter, said the University has not addressed their concerns.
“As far as we're concerned, on our issues, they haven't done anything,” Hagan said.
Dulken said that Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz indicated in an earlier meeting with the Faculty Council that he would be consulting UNC’s Graduate and Professional Student Federation, an elected representative body, about graduate students’ needs.
Dulken said she views Guskiewicz deferring to GPSF as circumventing graduate workers' specific demands voiced in the letter.
Dulken, who also serves as a senator in GPSF, said a group of 10 senators who supported the demands emailed the GPSF’s Executive Board asking them to endorse the letter of demands.
GPSF President Ryan Collins said the six members of the Executive Board had a lengthy discussion about whether to endorse the demands, and ultimately decided that they would not.
Collins said that while GPSF supports much of what is advocated for in the letter, such as higher stipends and extensions to the time it takes to earn a degree, he thought GPSF's existing relationships with higher administration were going to be more effective than the list of demands in enacting change.
“I think we have a difference of form more than substance,” Collins said.
Collins also said the timing of the statement was concurrent with action GPSF had taken with regard to graduate students during the pandemic.
On April 3, the GPSF Senate sent a statement to University administration conveying its concerns about the lack of detailed policies addressing the needs of graduate and professional students in response to COVID-19.
“Our chief concerns relate to the potential loss of income for students from a diverse range of programs, the lack of appropriate protections for all who participate in research activities on campus and the loss of benefits every student should be entitled to while we remain in crisis,” the statement said.
Guskiewicz, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin and Dean of the Graduate School Suzanne Barbour responded to GPSF’s statement in an April 16 letter.
“Like you, we are very concerned about the impact of the pandemic on graduate students’ health, wellness, progress to degree, financial stability and career progression,” the letter said.
Guskiewicz, Blouin and Barbour also stated the University is working to develop resources for students and outlined accommodations already available, such as the Carolina Student Impact Fund and the Carolina Graduate Student COVID-19 Impact Program.
Collins said he has been pleased by the support UNC has offered to graduate and professional students thus far, but said that GSPF is still being vocal and pushing for additional action and resources, such as for students with families.
“We always want them to do as much as they can with the resources that are available, but I think the biggest thing is just continuing to, at minimum, maintain what we have and not be in a position where we're facing cuts, which is what other institutions have had to do,” Collins said.
Dulken said that she and other senators plan to propose that GPSF’s endorsement of the list of demands be opened to a vote among the entire federation. Dulken said she is not confident that the GPSF Executive Board’s perception of the situation aligns with how graduate students feel in the moment.
“It's almost as if GPSF Executive is really eager to have a seat at the table, even if it means that that seat is just used to rubber stamp graduate approval, versus having a seat to really speak out and for students,” Dulken said.
Conversations about increasing stipend
Hagan said the only change he has seen since the release of the letter of demands is an uptick in conversation about graduate students. On May 5, Terry Rhodes, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, held a meeting with dozens of directors of graduate studies from various departments.
Florence Dore, who attended the meeting, is a director of graduate studies in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. She said in an email that directors of graduate studies (DGS) independently requested the meeting with Rhodes to discuss raising the graduate student minimum stipend, which is currently $15,700 per academic year.
“We have been acutely aware for years that low graduate student stipends are a detriment to the health of our University overall, and the pandemic brought this interconnection to the fore,” Dore said in an email statement.
Mark Katz, DGS in the Department of Music, said directors of graduate studies are unified in their position that stipends are too low.
“I have yet to talk to a DGS who thinks that the stipends are just fine the way they are,” Katz said. “Everyone thinks that they are too low, both in terms of comparing the stipends to what the poverty level is in Orange County and in terms of competitiveness with other universities.”
Administration considering action
Dore said from the meeting she learned that UNC’s upper administration is also troubled by the adverse effects of low graduate stipends, and that Rhodes communicated that UNC’s administration wants to find a way to raise them.
“It’s not an ‘us against them’ situation, but a problem that everyone recognizes needs to be solved,” said Dore. “The issue is how to do it.”
Katz said that Rhodes did not present any particular solutions at the meeting, but that was not his expectation. Katz said he viewed the meeting as a good first step and felt that conversation around raising the stipend would continue.
“I hear those concerns,” Rhodes said in an email statement. “We value the important contributions that our graduate students make to our teaching and research mission. This is a multifaceted problem that will require creative solutions.”
Dore said that the day after the meeting, the College of Arts and Sciences informed department chairpersons that the provost plans to begin rethinking how graduate students are paid.
Hagan said he thought the letter of demands motivated the meeting, and that it was welcoming to hear that directors of graduate studies and Rhodes were engaging with the idea of increasing graduate student stipends.
“We want to keep the pressure on and we need the administration to know that we're not going anywhere and there's a groundswell of support for changing how the university values us,” Hagan said. “We're going to keep the pressure on and we're developing some actions right now that will do that.”
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