Letter to the Editor: A response to Joel Harrison and an Open Letter to Northwestern Graduate Students

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Dear Joel and colleagues:

Let me begin by thanking you for engaging with me in a conversation about funding models for graduate education. My goal is to ensure that you, and all graduate students, are able to pursue academic excellence.

Your concerns suggest a level of anxiety that I would like to alleviate to allow your good work to continue. One of my goals in taking on my new role as dean of The Graduate School is to enable your success by advocating for equal funding across graduate populations, even in times when macro pressures exist. This response is not meant to be a point-by-point refutation or debate of your letter; what I do hope to provide is context for funding at Northwestern.

The first point is that Ph.D. students at NU are fully funded through stipends, a full-tuition scholarship and a full subsidy of their health insurance premiums, for the time frame stated in their offer letters, which is at least five years. The stipend for Ph.D. students does not differ by discipline — as it does at some universities — and it continues to increase by 3 percent on average each year.

I believe one of the things that has become muddled in this conversation is the way funding is delivered to our Ph.D. students. Northwestern, like all academic institutions, provides a combination of funding from central administration (TGS) as well as from individual schools and programs. The funding that you are concerned about is The Graduate School’s portion of that pie. Students beyond their first five years have the opportunity to use banked quarters through their sixth year or obtain non-TGS-funded fellowships. Last year, interdisciplinary graduate assistantships were awarded outside of the fifth year to only 16 out of 3,105 Ph.D. students. While this seems like a small amount, it impacts our ability to treat all Ph.D. students consistently and equally when it comes to graduate student support. My fiduciary responsibility is to financially enable the maximum number of graduate students to pursue their education.

Our academic programs work with each Ph.D. student in a personalized manner to identify goals toward their degree and the mechanisms for funding beyond their first five years. I appreciate, as does every dean before me, the differences between academic programs and the individual requirements that impact the time to degree. This funding does not restrict that time; it simply provides the starting point.

I attended the Big Ten Graduate Deans Spring Meeting this week, and I can assure you that — based on my conversations and internal research conducted by TGS — Northwestern offers the highest level of support for graduate education within our network and falls within the top five of our peer universities in the U.S. I am quite proud of the support that my alma mater provides to our Ph.D. students. You are our future, and supporting your financial security is important to us. I hope to meet as many students as possible and to hear your stories and aspirations. My door is always open; please feel free to reach out to my office to find time to talk.

– Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D.
Dean, The Graduate School
Associate Provost for Graduate Education, Northwestern University