Letter to the Editor: UConn Graduate Students’ Demands to Address the COVID-19 Crisis

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Dear President Katsouleas, Dean Holsinger, and Provost Elliott,

As acknowledged in Provost Elliott’s letter to UConn’s Board of Trustees calling for tenure clock extensions, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruption to our community. Research projects, travel, publications, promotions, and progression in one’s academic career have been slowed significantly. By granting junior faculty an extension on their tenure clock, UConn has acknowledged the full severity of the effects that the current public health crisis has had and will continue to have on all forms of academic research.

We call on the University to take immediate steps to support graduate students and workers during the unprecedented crisis caused by COVID-19. As the COVID-19 global pandemic has forced the closure of UConn’s campus facilities, including offices, labs, and libraries, graduate students face immense strains that threaten our ability to support ourselves and serve the UConn community, even as we continue to conduct research, make progress on dissertations, and teach classes remotely.

Since the university announced its move to an online education model, graduate students have played a vital role. Graduate students have supported faculty, lecturers, and administrative staff in digitizing course material, creating online classrooms via Zoom and HuskyCT, and communicating with undergraduate students to clarify important changes to course syllabi and to help them make sense of the move to remote education. Meanwhile, graduate students contend with significantly altered expectations for our roles as teaching fellows, research assistants, and instructors of record. We face uncertain financial futures that will affect our ability to complete the research and writing necessary to earn our degrees. Additionally, many graduate students have suspended our research and are unable to access our work materials. Many who have been traveling abroad for research purposes have had to return to the United States; others are unable to access our research materials in laboratories, archives, libraries, and museums; and many are working additionally as caretakers. Regardless of the form of impact, typical milestones of the graduate student experience have been disrupted for all graduate students. 

Graduate students in every department and program have been affected by the current public health crisis. Many of us must take care of dependents, and many of us are likely to become sick ourselves. Faculty who are taking on additional childcare tasks are less able to offer us advising during this time. In addition, the cancellation of hundreds of conferences and colloquia has extensively curtailed opportunities for PhD students to present research, get feedback, and establish ourselves as scholars in our respective fields. Lastly, many universities, including UConn, have announced ‘hiring freezes’ for the upcoming year. As the global economy heads towards a recession, students near the job market must confront a profoundly challenging hiring landscape.

These challenges will be compounded as the academic year ends and summer term begins. Graduate students who do not receive 12-month funding face unemployment as the summer employment options normally available to us—teaching positions, internships, museum or archival work, external fellowships, restaurant and retail positions– are increasingly unviable. International graduate students are particularly vulnerable, as we are also subject to visa restrictions that prohibit us from working outside the university. Without summer funding, reliable employment options, or the ability to file for unemployment, many graduate students will face four months of extreme insecurity as we struggle to pay our rent, utilities, medical bills, and other living expenses.

On April 9th, the Department of Education revealed a breakdown of how the CARES Act is allocating $21,500,845 to UConn, $10,750,423 of which is earmarked as the “minimum allocation to be awarded for emergency financial aid grants to students” (see DoE Press Release, April 9, 2020). We demand shared governance and oversight for how these resources shall be used. Regardless of the extent of ongoing state and federal bailouts, the University must undertake a humanitarian response towards the pandemic through urgent redistributive measures in order to support every member of the UConn community.

On April 10th, President Katsouleas shared with the UConn community his fiscal priorities during this crisis which include (1) “Ensuring the University’s long-term viability,” (2) “Protecting this generation of students from the fiscal impact of the current crisis,” (3) “Continuing to invest in new revenue-generating opportunities,” and (4) “Protecting the UConn family to the extent possible.” The demands listed below reflect these priorities and express the real and immediate needs of UConn graduate students as well as other members of the UConn community.

UConn has the opportunity to lead other universities in demonstrating its support for its graduate students and denying austerity measures. In this time of crisis, UConn must mobilize its significant resources to ensure our dignified, healthy, and secure survival. Therefore, we look forward to the University’s immediate agreement to the following:

1. Grant all graduate students a full additional year (including summer, fall, and spring) of guaranteed funding that is equal to the baseline funding that graduate students received this year (2019-2020), with an opt out option that graduate students can volunteer for.

2. Extend the terminal date for degree requirements (i.e., “time to degree”) for all graduate students by one full year.

3. Guarantee Summer 2020 funding for all graduate students in an amount of at least $3,000.

4. Provide support measures for exigent circumstances such as remote dissertation and oral examination defense procedures and, given the complicated nature of these new plans, extend the spring dissertation defense deadline to August 28.

5. Increase protections and support for international graduate students. As part of their support, the University will offer international graduate students who have completed coursework and are in the writing phase the option to finish their dissertation in their home countries paying the same amount as any domestic student. At UConn, a domestic student pays $400 to keep their student record active while away (continuous registration), whereas international students must pay out-of-state tuition to do the same due to our I-20. This would alleviate the pressure put on these students having to choose between finishing their degrees or returning to their families.

6. Assure that any medical costs incurred due to the pandemic be covered in full, including behavioral and mental health treatment.

7. Extend health insurance coverage for recent graduates (Spring and Summer 2020) by at least 6 months with an opt-out option. In addition, ensure that all health services at UConn facilities will be free for students, alumni, and workers for the remainder of 2020.

8. Expand the Student First Fund or create an additional Emergency Fund that can aid all UConn graduates, undergraduates, and employees facing immediate financial hardships due to, but not limited to, unemployment, loss of health insurance, food insecurity, domestic abuse, childcare, and housing insecurity. These emergency funds will also mitigate expenses (travel, visa application, housing, moving and storage, I 20/DS2019 renewal and mailing costs) encountered by international and immigrant students as a consequence of the COVID-19 crisis.

9. Extend the pass/fail grading option for graduate students completing courses in the Summer term of 2020. Should Fall courses also be disrupted, the pass/fail option will be extended to the Fall semester.

10. Utilize any uninhabited UConn dormitories as emergency housing for homeless populations until the COVID-19 crisis is resolved. Work with local homeless shelters to provide beds, food, and other necessary resources to homeless families and individuals.

11. Graduate and undergraduate hourly workers shall continue to be paid regardless of campus closure in response to COVID-19. Graduate and undergraduate hourly workers who were laid off in response to campus closures shall be rehired and repaid any lost wages.

12. Support the extension of all international students’ I-20/DS2019 by one year. The university will further support the removal of a financial bar to qualify for an I-20/DS2019.

13. Supply any essential workers on campus with adequate Personal Protective Equipment and soap/water access and/or virus-effective hand sanitizer. Ensure that workers shall have the right to extended paid leave (at least 14 days) in case of sickness, need to quarantine, or care for family members in cases of sickness. Ensure workers’ right to refuse unsafe work conditions.

14. In addition to the Student First Fund and UConn Swipes initiative, address food insecurity by negotiating with local grocery stores to provide grocery vouchers to UConn students and workers with needs for access to food. Support local and campus-based food pantries to provide food to individuals in need.

15. Support the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) office in providing a clear set of guidelines that includes translation of all government policies and protocols as they dynamically change to respond to the COVID crisis and its economic effects. ISSS will update its FAQ weekly with hanging guidelines, procedures, government language, and resources. 

16. Set up an immigration clinic and legal services on each UConn campus that cater specifically to the needs of international and immigrant students. In the case such services cannot be offered to students, the university will cover all legal costs incurred if and when a member of UConn needs to seek independent legal counsel for travel/visa/work status and immigration issues. 

17. Ensure that graduate employment contracts, guaranteed funding via assistantships, fellowships or in any other form shall not be abrogated if Fall 2020 continues in online mode. If any contract cannot be held due to its particular nature (on site, face to face), the student shall receive all monetary and employee benefits that would have accrued to them. 

18. The University administration, in consultation with other stakeholders, such as the Women’s Center and Rainbow Center, shall work to identify and provide safe shelter for students and staff (and their children/dependents) in domestic partner violence and abuse situations, who have become more vulnerable during the lockdown. 

19. Grant at least an extra $12/hour for all UConn essential workers who earn less than $70,000/year or $35/hour as hazard pay. This should include, but is not limited to, dining services employees, custodial and janitorial staff, health services employees, and any employees who face added exposure to COVID-19. The university should do everything in its power to support hazard pay measures at the state and federal levels.

Because the situation with COVID-19 is changing every minute, we reserve the right to add more demands to this petition, and will notify all signatories of any such changes. Signatories will be updated weekly.

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