Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 18, 2021

"We're workers too": Graduate students continue to seek University support from COVID-19

By MICHELLE LIMPE | February 4, 2021

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COURTESY OF TEACHERS AND RESEARCHERS UNITED

Taken at TRU’s rally last Dec. 11, where graduate students called on the University to provide more resources in compensation. 

“Every University administrator knows that graduate students do the vast majority of the work that gives the University its status and accolades in research. To President Daniels, I would say that the fact that admin isn’t willing to do the bare minimum to support its graduate students and make sure they can be healthy and safe during a global pandemic is appalling. It is unfair and cruel to the point where I would not recommend that prospective graduate students come to Johns Hopkins.”

These are the words of Celia Litovsky, a sixth-year PhD student in the Department of Cognitive Science. She has been struggling to make ends meet because delays in her research depleted her fellowship money.

In interviews with The News-Letter, three graduate students shared their personal stories of distress and ongoing frustration with the lack of University support amid the pandemic. One graduate student will remain anonymous, as The News-Letter grants anonymity to individuals at risk of losing their job for revealing information; her pseudonym will be Emily. 

Financial Struggles

Litovsky told The News-Letter that she has not received any University support since last August. She explained that PhD students in her department are guaranteed only five years of funding. However, she received the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which covered her academic costs for her third, fourth and fifth years. It is standard protocol that external fellowships are accepted in lieu of University funding, unless a department has a surplus of funds to continue providing the student.

Since Litovsky did not receive departmental funding for three years, she petitioned the University for extra help. 

“They said, ‘It doesn’t matter. We only cover funding for the first five years of your PhD. If you don’t use it because you got it from another source, it’s your problem,’” she said. 

Many students, like Litovsky, have had to extend their PhD program to complete their research. But because the University only funds the first five years, she said that the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS) administrators told these students that they would have to pay for expenses usually covered by the University — including non-residential tuition and health insurance — on their own.

“We were told that there was a memo that went around from the dean saying that getting additional funding is something that will be decided by your department,” she said. “But if you have a department like mine, which is pretty young and already in debt, you’re basically screwed.” 

According to Litovsky, the University then told graduate students that they could send a petition for additional financial assistance directly to the Dean’s office. Even though Litovsky and other PhD students sent individual requests to KSAS, she said that they never heard back from the administration.

However, in an email to The News-Letter, Nancy Kass, vice provost for graduate and professional education, stated that the office of the KSAS dean requested that students channel their petitions through the department heads, rather than directly to the Dean’s office. 

“We have checked with the KSAS dean’s office and they are not aware of a request coming from students within the Cognitive Science department to the dean’s office but have said that they are glad to see any such requests,“ she wrote. 

Litovsky underscored that Hopkins should be doing more to help students financially.

“It’s really concerning that Johns Hopkins is playing a central role in tracking the virus, but we can’t be a leader in other ways like helping vulnerable people, including their own graduate students, survive,” she said. 

Teachers and Researchers United (TRU), an unofficial graduate student organization, has been investigating the University’s finances and has reported that $969 million are available to be used for emergency purposes. Alex Parry and Kristin Brig-Ortiz, both fourth-year PhD students in the Department of the History of Medicine, detailed TRU’s findings in an email to The News-Letter. 

“For at most $43 million, which is half of the $75 million surplus for 2020 and 4.4% of the $969 million of emergency funds available from the endowment, Hopkins can guarantee that graduate students with and without dependents will not suffer undue hardship because of the pandemic by providing a one-year funding extension,” they wrote.

However, Kass asserted that the University’s endowment money cannot be used for this purpose because it has been designated for specific University functions — such as faculty support or financial aid — and would have to be repaid if used.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Parry responded to Kass’ claim by referencing an external audit of the University’s budget created by the American Association of University Professors, a union with a chapter at Hopkins, and the Homewood Faculty Assembly (HFA). The audit was a faculty initiative launched in June 2020. Dr. Howard Bunsis, an institutional finance expert from Eastern Michigan University, analyzed Hopkins’ publicly available University budget reports from 2014 to 2020.   

Following its completion, a summary of the audit was presented publicly at an HFA meeting. As per Bunsis’s presentation, there is a portion of the endowment amounting to $970 million that is marked as “restricted,” which are the funds that Kass referred to in her email. However, he noted that there is an additional $969 million labeled as “undesignated” reserves, which remain under the University’s Board of Trustees discretion to use. 

According to Parry, Hopkins keeps “undesignated” reserves to deal with crises, such as temporary revenue shortfalls or increased operating costs. However, he stated that the University has been relying on austerity measures instead of using its reserves to save money following the effects of COVID-19. 

He highlighted that the total $43 million calculated by TRU would not have to be allocated all at once, since not every graduate student would need funding extensions immediately. 

“The admin’s claims of poverty are inexcusable and are just a way for administrators to deny us resources that we desperately need because they do not want to set the principle that if people need help, they can get help,” he said. 

Since March 2020, many graduate student organizations have demanded funding extensions and increased student involvement in decision making processes. On Dec. 31, 2020, TRU launched a letter writing campaign entitled “Tell JHU Leaders: Grads are Workers Too!”

In its campaign statement, TRU asserted that graduate students should also be granted the year-end $500 bonus given to University employees, since the administration classified them as essential workers in an email sent last March.

“After nine months of hearing and talking with graduate workers, University leaders are well aware what we really need is for our demands to be met in full. Instead, the administration has opted to knowingly exclude graduate workers from an essential worker bonus pay despite how essential we have been and continue to be for university operations,” TRU wrote in its campaign. 

In response, Kass explained that graduate students belong to a different category from faculty and staff because the students have various financial arrangements. 

“Some receive stipends and some do not. Some have scholarships focused on a faculty member’s project and some engage in their own projects with faculty oversight,“ she wrote. “This heterogeneity puts them in a very different category from JHU full time employees.”

Health and Safety in Research 

For Emily, her main concern is the extra risk that she has been incurring on her health by going to work everyday. She explained that she has been working in her lab since it opened and has encountered University employees not following public health protocols, such as unmasked security officers and contractors. 

“When we told the administration that the guidelines are confusing or aren't followed, they just said to report these people to the Speak 2 Us hotline. But this is not effective because I would not be able to report them if I do not know who they are,” she said. 

Another issue that she has encountered in her work is unsanitary conditions because her lab mates are not making the effort to keep their shared workspaces clean.

She emphasized that, though she brought up this issue with her advisor, there has been no action on his part to address it or investigate which students are leaving the mess behind. 

“I could report it to the Speak 2 Us hotline, but anonymous reporting isn’t all that anonymous when you have a small lab and you’re the only person who seems to be aware of these things,“ she said. “If I report it, they would probably figure out it’s me, and I can’t risk ruining my relationships with my lab mates and advisor because I need these connections to finish my PhD, get recommendations and find a job.” 

Since undergraduate students have returned to campus, her worries have only heightened, especially because there have already been reported instances of students not following protocol. 

“They weren’t even providing testing for people who may be asymptomatic but have been exposed, as per CDC guidelines, until a couple of months ago. I would like to see the University actually taking the advice of their own public health experts that they have been preaching to the rest of the country and using it here,” she said.

Delays in Research

Because of the pandemic, many graduate student research projects have been interrupted due to the lack of access to University resources to collect data, limits on laboratory densities, health and safety concerns with using equipment and mental health issues. 

Emily asserted that she is anxious that her fellowship may run out if she does not accomplish her research soon, since she is already six months behind. 

“Since we’ve returned, some of the necessary restrictions have meant that it’s very difficult to attain the same levels of productivity as before,” she said. “Admin thinks that just because labs are open, we should be fine, but nobody that I’ve talked to is on track, both in my lab and other labs.”

Parry explained that he would have been a semester behind in his work if not for the semester-long funding extension that his department gave him. However, he emphasized that, compared to the dire circumstances of other graduate students, his situation is an anomaly.

“An extension for a semester is not long enough, but it’s better than nothing, which is where a lot of students at KSAS and Bloomberg currently are. COVID affects different groups in different ways but the ultimate impact is the same," he said. "Folks who are doing clinical work or research haven’t been able to have access to research subjects and labs. Those in humanities cannot get into archives either." 

Kass discussed the University’s dedication to helping those who have experienced delays in research. 

“Students are in very different places in the course of their programs and the types of research they ordinarily do are very differently impacted by COVID closures or travel restrictions,” she wrote. “KSAS has underscored that it is committed to finding ways to support students.”

Emily did affirm that the deans of her program guaranteed that PhD students will not be placed on probation or forced out of their programs due to lack of progress in their research amid the pandemic. 

“However, that promise is often different from what we see happening in practice where if a professor does not have funding and you’ve reached your fifth or sixth year, they let you go even if you haven’t finished your project,” she said. 

Consequently, graduate students who receive their PhDs without completing their dissertations and projects have a more difficult time finding employment after graduating.

According to Parry, many graduate students have heard soft promises of receiving extra help from the administration but have no guarantee on whether these promises will come to fruition.

“People are caught on the fence of should we go public to provide more pressure or will there be backlash on the department or individual level when departments are doing as much as possible to prove support,” he said. “Admin has been viewing a universal problem on a case by case basis, and they need to provide a blanket extension for all graduate students.”

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