Letter to the Editor: An open letter to The Graduate School Dean Teresa Woodruff

Dear Dean Woodruff,

In your recent email to The Graduate School community, you tried to clarify the school’s decisions to deny funding requests for students beyond their fifth years, emphasizing that they are ineligible for interdisciplinary assistantships. You claimed that TGS has not changed its funding policy to deny these assistantships to such students, yet you also noted that exceptions have been made in the past. That TGS is no longer willing to grant such exceptions constitutes, in my view, a policy change that significantly impacts the already precarious stability of graduate students at Northwestern.

I have questions, but I also want to make sure that I am fully informed before interpreting this decision as a lack of concern and understanding for humanities and social science graduate students and Ph.D. programs. The average time of completion for all degree programs under TGS is a little over six years, as indicated by TGS’ own statistics. Some individual programs, like history and my own department, religious studies, often go well above six years and closer to seven. Even for departments in which the average is lower, they still almost universally take more than five years for degree completion.

There are many reasons why a student may take more than five years: adviser issues, health concerns, family responsibilities and so on — let alone the grueling and abysmally depressing job market. TGS seemed to understand this in recent years, even if imperfectly. Yet, by doubling down on this policy change, you are sending a message that saving a small fraction of NU’s $2 billion-plus operating budget is more important to you than preventing graduate students like myself from entering potentially devastating financial circumstances.

How much money does this decision save? Since the mandate on interdisciplinary assistantships affects me specifically, I’ll take those as an example. There are 16 assistantships listed on the TGS website, but this list is missing at least one other opportunity I’m aware of (the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities). Let’s round that up to 20 assistantships. We can also generously say that students receive $35,000 in yearly compensation for each of those (covering a stipend and health insurance). Assuming all 20 assistantships would be held by students beyond their fifth years (which is not usually the case), this amounts to $700,000 per year — let’s just round it up to $1 million.

Our new provost, Jonathan Holloway, announced in January that the University risks running a budget deficit between $50 million and $100 million this year. He also said, according to a January article by The Daily, that this was an “annoyance” — a “challenge” but not yet “a crisis.” So, what reasons exist for shaving off at most $1 million? Surely graduate students are not responsible for the University’s budget deficit. If a deficit of $100 million is a mere “annoyance,” why are desperate, struggling graduate students being made to bear a budget decision that saves less than $1 million a year? Even funding 10 times the number of assistantships at a cost of $10 million would be a drop in the bucket of the University’s $2 billion operating budget.

Let me take this further. According to Northwestern’s 2017 Financial Report, NU has nearly $14.5 billion in assets. Three of the top seven highest-paid employees manage investments and all are paid well over $1 million a year according to the University’s 990 form data from 2016. Our fifth largest contractor, Wellington Management, is also investment-related. I wonder: Is this what was meant by another January story in The Daily, which said — reporting on an email sent by Holloway — the University will “focus on certain projects that align with NU’s ‘institutional priorities’” over others? What are those priorities, exactly?

One would assume training graduate students to enter their respective fields and contend with a daunting job market would be a high priority. Interdisciplinary assistantships were one opportunity we had to gain additional training outside of traditional academic jobs. As such, many of these assistantships are not available until one is an advanced graduate student. When I entered NU in 2012, I was under the impression that there would be internal funding available to me if I applied for it. I knew it would be competitive, and I knew it wasn’t guaranteed. But I also assumed (now wrongly) that it would be there. I worked extremely hard to put myself in a position to be offered an assistantship at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching, co-leading the Graduate Teaching Fellows and Teaching Certificate Program — a position now no longer available to me due to the funding cutoff. I imagine every student currently in their fifth and sixth year came to Northwestern under the same impression, one that continued all year until your abrupt announcement to departments and other campus offices with assistantships that exceptions would no longer be made.

Dean Woodruff, I implore you to reconsider this decision that harms graduate students and saves a seemingly cash-flush university comparatively little money.

Joel Harrison
Doctoral Candidate, Religious Studies