Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 22, 2024

Hopkins makes it clear: Graduate students will confront fallout from COVID-19 alone

By ALEX PARRY and HEBA ISLAM | June 8, 2020



Graduate students at Hopkins argue that the University has not adequately supported them amid COVID-19.

On Friday, May 22, Vice Provosts Nancy Kass and Stephen Gange abruptly ended ongoing meetings with Teachers and Researchers United (TRU), the Homewood Graduate Representative Organization, the School of Medicine Graduate Student Association and the Hopkins School of Public Health Student Assembly. These meetings had served as a forum to collectively determine how the Hopkins administration would support its graduate students during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Citing a message from TRU to the Homewood Faculty Assembly criticizing the failure of the Vice Provosts to forcefully represent graduate student interests, Kass emailed the student member of these conversations with the following message: “While we had anticipated that we would continue subsequent meetings together, we believe it would be better for you to pursue further discussions directly with the individual school graduate vice deans.” 

After two months of good-faith outreach on the part of TRU and elected representatives of the student body, the Vice Provosts have apparently chosen to abandon their advocacy altogether rather than change their approach. Equally troublingly, the administration has used calls from TRU for more decisive action to retaliate against official graduate student organizations across the University.

Since March, TRU and its collaborators have fought to extend health insurance, stipends and tuition remission for all graduate students for at least one semester and to protect students unable to satisfy typical benchmarks for “satisfactory progress.” At the request of the administration, we co-authored a Statement of Principles explaining the need for these policies based on an earlier TRU-GRO report on graduate student welfare and a TRU petition with nearly 800 signatures. The Vice Provosts have repeatedly declined to take these concerns seriously, unnecessarily delaying meetings with crucial stakeholders, refusing to communicate with faculty and the deans and setting aside their responsibility for graduate student welfare without any guarantees of our long-term financial and academic security. 

From the start of these conversations, the administration has resisted releasing emergency financial support for graduate students or offering institutional recourse for students who cannot reach suitable academic compromises with their advisors. Gange, Kass and Provost Sunil Kumar have publicly stated that the schools would make funding extensions and non-resident tuition waivers available to impacted graduate students. In a message from the Hub, they wrote, “With support of the Deans, PhD students in programs that provide financial support for a fixed number of years and who are facing extraordinary circumstances may now apply to extend their current support up to the number of months that JHU campuses remain closed with remote telework.” 

This process has been anything but straightforward. The schools have yet to clarify who qualifies for assistance or the amount of resources allocated for student aid. At the same time, the administration has compelled graduate students to seek accommodations directly from their advisors and department chairs, placing students without supportive faculty at risk. 

The University has cited the cost of blanket funding extensions and the fear of “undeserving” graduate students receiving money to argue for distributing assistance on a case-by-case basis. University President Ronald J. Daniels has estimated that Hopkins will lose $475 million due to COVID-19 and has approved austerity measures including pay cuts, layoffs and furloughs.

Despite the urgency of the situation, the administration has refused to compensate for this shortfall with emergency funds from the $6.28 billion Hopkins endowment or its $278 million operating surplus from the last two years. Meanwhile, according to our estimates from the Office of Institutional Research’s data, extending the stipends and health insurance coverage of all doctoral students with fixed funding packages for an entire year would cost less than $40 million.

As the COVID-19 crisis extends into summer, the University administration continues to deny the reality that the pandemic has affected all, not merely some, of its graduate students. We have dealt with the closure of laboratories, libraries, clinics, archives and fieldwork sites; transitioning to online courses; health risks facing ourselves and our families; increased caretaking and childcare responsibilities; and the anxiety arising from disrupted progress and international uncertainty. 

Kass and Gange have sought to reassure us that graduate students will receive the assistance they deserve. A recent email from Vice Dean Matthew Roller of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS) challenges this assessment: “Our expectation is that most students, especially those earlier in their careers, will not require financial accommodations, and that to the extent their progress is disrupted, those disruptions can effectively be addressed by adjusting deadlines, deliverables, and the like.”

Simply pushing back deadlines will not help students who cannot buy groceries, pay their rent or seek medical care without extended support. Lengthening our times-to-degree without additional funding threatens to increase the University-wide drop-out rate, reduce job placements, compromise student research and instruction and exacerbate the inequalities between wealthy and underfunded departments.

We have engaged the administration with the expectation of contributing to the University response to COVID-19 but have often found ourselves learning about decisions made behind closed doors. When we expressed reservations about case-by-case relief for graduate students, Kass and Gange said they would lobby to enable students to help design the application processes for funding extensions at the individual schools. After pressing to speak with the deans for over a month, we met KSAS Vice Dean Roller and Director for Graduate Academic Affairs Renee Eastwood on Wednesday, May 6. Vice Dean Roller and Director Eastwood explained that their office had already contacted the department chairs at KSAS with instructions to apply for extended funding without consulting a single graduate student for guidance. 

The KSAS deans have not only left the responsibility to secure resources to the departments, but also consistently discouraged them from offering “across-the-board” relief. Although the KSAS deans have called for “oversight to ensure equity in how similar situations are treated across programs,” their plan seeks to limit the number of students who receive assistance. 

According to the administration, “equity” does not entail assisting everyone facing the effects of COVID-19, but using underfunded departments to justify a University-wide race-to-the-bottom where only a fraction of students qualify for support. Even the School of Medicine, where most PhD students already receive laboratory funding, has failed to implement any mechanism for students to procure additional support outside of their departments. The School of Public Health, meanwhile, continues to deny many of its graduate students full tuition remission or stipends for their living expenses. 

The administration has systemically excluded graduate students from decisions that directly affect our welfare, and evidently cares more about the appearance of student involvement than its substance. We have watched with consternation as the Provost’s Office and the deans have progressively diluted their commitments to support graduate students through the COVID-19 crisis and restricted our access to essential information. 

We regret that the administration has largely dismissed our efforts to convey the impacts of the pandemic on graduate students and has decided to make its response to COVID-19 a zero-sum competition between administrators, faculty, undergraduates, graduate students and staff for resources. The logic of austerity harms all of us, and Hopkins must recognize that extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary responses. We will continue to work with anyone willing to help graduate students during this difficult time. We will not, however, settle for sympathy for our situation without direct institutional support to relieve it.

The Hopkins mission statement pledges “to educate its students and cultivate their capacity for lifelong learning, to foster independent and original research, and to bring the benefits of discovery to the world.” Unless Hopkins extends support for all of its current graduate students and protects them from COVID-19 related academic sanctions, it has failed this mission, as well as the teachers and researchers who make its success possible.

Alex Parry is a rising fourth-year PhD student in the History of Medicine Department who serves on the Organizing Committee for TRU.

Heba Islam is a rising fourth-year PhD student in the Department of Anthropology and an organizer for TRU.

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