Universities Must Protect Workers, Not Profits: Graduate Student Labor During Covid-19
Even in the best of times, graduate students occupy a precarious position in higher education. But with many universities failing to offer clear directives for what instruction will look like for the upcoming fall semester, the struggles graduate students face are more visible now than ever. Conversations about the impact of COVID-19 on higher education have too often left graduate students in the lurch, focusing on universities’ profits over their frontline workers’ health and safety. As a PhD student at the University of Iowa, my own institution’s decision to proceed with face-to-face instruction highlights the administration’s disturbing lack of concern for the security of graduate students.
With the fall semester looming, many graduate students still await decisions that will impact their immediate health, workload, and future careers. We occupy a strange liminal space in the university, situated between instructor and student. We are responsible for teaching undergraduate courses while completing our own coursework. During the early weeks of the pandemic, we moved our courses online – just like faculty – and adjusted to changes in our coursework – just like other students. Graduate students in the humanities dutifully finished their finals, seminar papers, and even comprehensive exams from home. We graded undergraduate students’ finals, papers, and projects. Were it not for the global pandemic, this would be an unremarkable report of the crunch time the typical graduate student faces at the end of every semester. Amidst the pandemic, however, these demands shed light on the deeply problematic expectations universities have for their graduate students’ labor.
Even in the best of times, graduate students occupy a precarious position in higher education. But with many universities failing to offer clear directives for what instruction will look like for the upcoming fall semester, the struggles graduate students face are more visible now than ever.
University administrators across the country have continually underscored that the fall semester will be unusual, without offering enough clarity about what that means. Faculty and graduate students are being told to prepare to teach in person, online, or in hybrid forms. On June 1, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) at the University of Iowa held a virtual town hall addressing the pandemic. During the discussion, a faculty member expressed concern about teaching assistants’ potential exposure to COVID-19 if required to teach in person, and asked what the university’s plans would be for TAs who became sick. Mystifyingly, Steve Goddard, Dean of the CLAS, claimed that graduate students’ own unionized contracts would prevent the university from doing much to accommodate them in that situation. Goddard’s comments are unfounded: unionized contracts at the University of Iowa have consistently protected the interests of graduate students. Goddard’s deflection during the town hall demonstrates the administration’s deep unpreparedness – even unwillingness – to address graduate students’ concerns.
The lack of clarity about teaching responsibilities also raises new questions about graduate student funding. Though paid to teach undergraduates and do research, graduate students’ contracts at Iowa do not allow them to be paid indefinitely; most graduate students have a limit on the amount of funding they can receive. Some universities have discussed plans for extending funding due to the unprecedented circumstances students are facing, but many other institutions have not addressed the issue. At Iowa, these uncertainties about funding are particularly troubling alongside newly amended budget priorities. The recent announcement of a three-tier budget cut system places humanities departments, their contingent faculty, and their graduate programs on the chopping block while administrators’ exorbitant salaries remain safely tucked away, only to be accessed as a last resort.
Not only are graduate student stipends across the country on the line, but the healthcare that (sometimes) accompanies these stipends is also at risk. Boston University recently announced that their PhD students with teaching appointments must return to campus in the fall. Students who cannot or will not return for those appointments are expected to take a leave of absence, in turn forfeiting their salaries and health insurance. Taking a leave of absence would quickly affect these graduate students’ health, livelihoods, and progression through their programs.
Conversations about the impact of COVID-19 on higher education have too often left graduate students in the lurch, focusing on universities’ profits over their frontline workers’ health and safety.
Beyond the labor that graduate students are expected to put into teaching and completing coursework in the fall, many of us are also dealing with other pressing professional concerns. Academia’s “publish or perish” culture calls graduate students’ future careers into question: if we can’t present at conferences and publish our work, or travel to access materials critical to our research, how can we possibly hope to succeed on the notoriously tough job market? Under normal circumstances, the sheer amount of work graduate students are expected to complete over the course of their programs in preparation for a grueling, competitive job market is challenging enough. Now, with many institutions freezing their job searches, graduate students – particularly in the humanities – are confronting a market that university administrations seem intent on rendering inaccessible or even nonexistent.
Ultimately, the challenges faced by graduate students are part of a much larger constellation of issues universities need to confront before classes begin again in the fall. Perhaps foremost, university administrators need to stop running their institutions like businesses. It is not enough for them to refrain from taking advantage of graduate students’ vulnerabilities. It is not enough for Steve Goddard to take a ten percent pay cut (of his $372,000 salary) only after sustained criticism of his comments at the town hall – which included telling an immunocompromised woman of color to seek counseling for her anxiety about returning to the classroom this fall. Universities need to support their graduate students, their undergraduate students, their contingent faculty, and their departments. Moreover, they need to start advocating for their graduate students rather than bemoaning their contracts and leveraging their healthcare against them. In short, university administrators need to start working for education rather than against it.
Kaitlyn Lindgren-Hansen is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in Religious Studies at the University of Iowa. Her research attends to the intersections between religious thought and literature in nineteenth-century America, with a particular focus on women authors. Outside of her academic career, she served as the AmeriCorps VISTA Literacy Programs Coordinator at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, where she worked to connect children to the library’s programming and resources.