On Sept. 14, UNC's history department announced it would pause graduate student admissions for the 2021 cycle. The decision — made so the program can financially “prioritize those who are already in our program” amid the COVID-19 pandemic and potential state budget cuts — caught many graduate students in the department off guard. Both concerns and support for the decision center narratives of scarcity that haunt higher education today.
Some faculty are worried that course offerings will be reduced without enough graduate students in their field, or that interrupting the tradition of graduate education will disrupt department culture and values. Colleagues elsewhere share warning stories of departments becoming less racially and economically diverse after shrinking acceptance rates due to embedded bias in the graduate admission process.
Many faculty and graduate students appreciate the decision to finally reduce the number of teaching assistants forced to share ever-declining department funds and compete for non-existent tenure track jobs.
What’s clear right now is that our department, and academia as a whole, is confronting twinned financial and moral crises. But these crises have been evolving for years, and will not end with cutting graduate recruitment.
As a graduate worker in the department reflecting on my four years of agitating for higher stipends, I am mostly concerned about how our department came to this decision, and how it relates to existing wealth and power differentials within academia.
In a town hall meeting two days after the decision, faculty leadership attempted to lay out the departmental finances and graduate funding mechanisms. Teaching assistants, they explained, are meant to be paid by the instructional budget from the College of Arts and Sciences. Yet the College of Arts and Sciences — facing its own budget shortfalls — sends only enough money to pay half of us.
So, they have to make up the rest through other forms of department money. Taking money from endowed invested funds would be prohibitively expensive to use because the department would then have to pay our tuition. Likewise, tuition remission, a funding source outside of the department’s control, is too unreliable to plan for. So in the end, savings from faculty on fellowship or leave cover the TA stipends not paid for by the instructional budget.
But don’t get confused and conflate faculty and TA payment sources, because faculty salary comes from a completely different source than the instructional budget. And it’s crucial that we don’t go in the red, because then the University may take control over funds and threaten everyone’s jobs.
This isn’t the first time graduate students have brought up concerns about how the history department’s budget is allocated. It’s also not the first time the history department has arrived at the conclusion that stipends cannot feasibly be raised, though the circumstances (and budget) were different.
Graduate students were told two years ago — before this budget crisis — that our suggestions to increase our stipends by reducing incoming cohorts was untenable because it would actually reduce the department’s course offerings, which would reduce the number of TAs the department needs — and, in turn, instructional budget. Two years later, we’re told that they’ve always had to find work for us to do each semester.
So I’m struggling to follow as well.
However complicated and impenetrable departmental budgets are for everyone, there are some things we know full well. Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz makes over half a million dollars a year, and the highest-paid faculty members in our department earn six-figure salaries as well. Meanwhile, campus staff, international graduate students and undergraduate resident assistants have been furloughed in the middle of a deadly pandemic and economic crisis.
Any ethical collective response to a departmental budget crisis has to involve a level of transparency, humanity and a radical imagination that we graduate students — at least in history — have yet to witness from this University. Making decisions without input from the lowest-paid workers as tuition and administrative salaries continue to soar only perpetuates the financial priorities that got us here in the first place.
Most importantly, none of us can continue to accept that the invisible hand of budget structures — not administrative decisions — decide whose teaching and research labor is worth nearly $10,000 below the Orange County living wage and whose is worth two, three or 10 times North Carolina’s median household income.
Without addressing the graduate funding crisis in conversation with the stark wealth inequality on our own campus, graduate school will cease to be an option for the increasingly diverse college graduates, and graduate students already in programs will be divided between those who live in poverty and those with independent wealth.
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