“I Refuse to Battle Other Grads for Funding that the University Is More than Capable of Providing”
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—As many as 200 Rutgers University graduate students whose research work was disrupted by the pandemic could lose funding as of June 30 and be forced to delay—or even abandon—completing their degrees unless the university administration commits to supporting them.
A group of students in the Rutgers Graduate School of Education (GSE)—who refused to compete against each other for a single funding extension offered by their school—will join others at a town hall meeting Monday, May 23, at 3:30 p.m. to tell their stories and call on the administration to guarantee an additional year of funding for grads who can’t complete their degrees on time because of the pandemic.
Media are invited to attend the town hall meeting in person (College Ave. Student Center, Room 411ABC, 126 College Avenue, New Brunswick) or online (click here to RSVP for the Zoom link).
Most graduate students at Rutgers get a funding package—which includes a stipend or salary, health insurance, and tuition and fee remission—for a set number of years that varies by department and school. In recognition of the impact of the pandemic on timelines for completing their degrees, Rutgers established a program in March 2021 that ultimately gave some—but not all—graduate students funding extensions through the end of this school year.
But the administration said earlier this year that it was discontinuing the funding extension program for next school year. Grad students who were left out of the program previously or who faced further pandemic-related delays were told to appeal for support from their individual departments and schools—many of which were unable or unwilling to help all grads in danger of losing their income, health insurance, and tuition remission.
Robin Roscigno, a PhD student in Education, said that seven GSE students in all were asked to write a 250-word essay in a competition over a single fellowship for the next school year.
“I’m looking at a group of people who are my friends, and each one of us has a reason why we need and deserve another year of funding—not one is more important than the next,” Roscigno said. “I have a child with a disability and have been dealing with long-hauler COVID symptoms for over a year. My friends rely on having funding for health insurance or tuition waivers. These aren’t little inconveniences—this is our health, our access to medical care, our ability to pay for food and housing.”
“We are a close cohort and came to the GSE because of its commitment to social justice,” Roscigno added. “We are living that commitment in our decision to organize collectively to secure funding for all of us. We just hope the GSE will live up to its mission as well.”
Juliane Bilotta, another PhD student in Education, said that graduate students helped keep the university running throughout the pandemic by “taking on extra teaching and research responsibilities and by providing countless hours of institutional service—most of which was unpaid. And we did this while dealing with our own issues of illness, loss, and uncertainty.”
“Accommodations for pandemic delays have been made for faculty and the administration—the same must be done for graduate students,” Bilotta said. “My colleagues and I have built a community in our time at the GSE, and I refuse to battle them for funding that the university is more than capable of providing.”
Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway responded to a letter-writing campaign organized by graduate students and their supporters by stating that the previous program for grad student funding extensions was dependent on federal COVID relief money that ran out during this school year.
But leaders of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the union that represents graduate workers, along with full-time faculty, postdoctoral associates, and counselors, say it’s unclear from the records it has divulged whether the administration spent all of the $365 million in emergency aid it received from the federal and state governments—and even if it has, the administration has hundreds of millions of dollars available that it could use for an emergency.
The union estimates that funding extensions would cost, at most, around $10 million. Meanwhile, the university’s endowment grew by half a billion dollars in the 18 months between the end of June 2020 and the end of December 2021.
Liana Katz, a PhD student in Geography and member of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT Graduate Worker Steering Committee, said the funding cutoffs extend beyond a few schools like GSE. “The lack of COVID funding extensions hurts graduate students across all departments and Rutgers campuses,” Katz said. “The university’s lack of centralized action means that many are facing the possibility of being forced to abandon years of research or take on inadequately paid jobs to try to make ends meet.”
Some of those poorly paid jobs are at Rutgers itself. Some graduate students who couldn’t arrange for a funding extension through their departments were instead offered adjunct faculty positions, teaching one or two classes on a semester-by-semester basis. But adjuncts at Rutgers—unlike grad workers—don’t receive health insurance, and the average salary of around $5,500 a class doesn’t add up to a living wage.
Sarah DeGiorgis, a PhD student in Public Affairs and also a member of the union’s Graduate Worker Steering Committee, says that some grads accepted adjunct positions to have any income at all next school year, but the fact they felt compelled to shows how badly the administration has failed to meet an urgent need.
“Everyone was affected and is still being affected by the pandemic,” DeGiorgis said. “Graduate students lost valuable research time because campus facilities such as labs were closed, in-person research such as interviewing and observation wasn’t possible, archives were closed, and traveling was impossible. Rutgers extended the probationary period for tenure-track faculty because of the pandemic, but didn’t provide a similar university-wide solution for graduate students, which would have been invaluable to us.”
It’s not too late for the administration to act, DeGiorgis said, but it needs to commit now to “a university-wide program that extends funding packages, including tuition remission and health insurance, for all grads who were enrolled during the pandemic.”
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