In Tuesday’s “tweetstorm” organized by Northwestern University Graduate Workers TGS students tweeted #universal1yr. It trended in Illinois. (Daily file photo by Andi Zang)
In Tuesday’s “tweetstorm” organized by Northwestern University Graduate Workers TGS students tweeted #universal1yr. It trended in Illinois.

Daily file photo by Andi Zang

Amid pandemic, graduate students launch Twitter campaign in latest efforts to secure additional year of funding

April 19, 2020

Many students enrolled in The Graduate School attained their undergraduate degrees during the economic recession of the late 2000s. A decade later, some say they’re facing similar circumstances that leave them similarly academically insecure as they demand an additional year of funding from the University.

Northwestern University Graduate Workers organized a “tweetstorm” Thursday, in support of a petition demanding an additional year of funding as an immediate relief to those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. TGS students tweeted #universal1yr throughout the day, with the hashtag trending in Illinois.

Kitty Yang, co-chair of NUGW, said the University’s inaction exacerbates problems that already exist, such as the lack of support for students of underserved communities.

“It just entrenches the inequalities that already are there,” Yang said. “I feel very strongly that the union is the only way for us to fight back against the University in any real way.”

The petition also calls on the University to meet the demands of CoalitionNU, a separate group representing marginalized students in TGS, to provide equitable programming, staffing and funding.

Campus closure due to the novel coronavirus has essentially dismantled almost all aspects of TGS students’ academic lives, including potential employment, research travels and access to course materials. The University has “fallen short of its duty” to adequately protect some members of the community, the letter also states, while favoring other members.

While the University granted tenure-track faculty with an additional year of funding due to the disruption caused by COVID-19, graduate students have yet to see similar relief measures, said Andrew Hull, NUGW co-chair.

“We think it’s only fair that they should recognize the effect (coronavirus has) had on us,” Hull said. “Of course it’s going to affect us just as much, in fact, more so than tenure track faculty since we’re going to be exposed to the job market much more quickly. We’re also much earlier in our careers. We have fewer publications. We are much more vulnerable in a lot of ways.”

Delayed response leads to greater insecurity

“The University is considering many ways to support its faculty, staff and students during this unprecedented time,” TGS Dean Teresa Woodruff wrote in an email to The Daily. “Doctoral students are a valued part of our organization, and we are considering ways to enable success now and into the future.”

However, NUGW’s organizers said the University has not responded to any NUGW’s coronavirus response efforts, avoiding the union “at all costs.”

Even more indicative of this, Hull claimed, is that TGS Dean Teresa Woodruff’s Twitter account helloappears to have been deactivated the same day the Twitter campaign began, according to many Tweets. The University did not comment on this specific matter.

In the meantime, graduate students said they felt the impact of financial insecurity disrupting their lives and futures.

Erique Zhang, a communication studies Ph.D. student, got their undergraduate degree in 2010 and experienced job insecurity while working a part-time job the following summer. They said the 2008 recession contributed to their difficulty finding permanent employment, and the uncertainty of the current pandemic resonates with many graduate workers who had similar experiences.

The TGS coronavirus website states that the school is engaging in discussions about additional funding and will inform the students as “more information becomes available.”

However, Zhang said, the detriment the TGS community has experienced so far should show enough to necessitate guaranteed additional funding.

“(The University is) very aware that this is something that people are anxious about,” they said. “If you pay attention to what people have been saying, it is very clear that it will and it has impacted students’ abilities to conduct their research.”

Ana Rosado, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate, said she has already seen disruption will significantly impact graduate students’ research timelines and employment prospects.

Rosado said the pandemic impeded her ability to work on her dissertation. Her advisor was understanding, but she said that has not been the case for all students.

“We are already being directly impacted by this crisis and we don’t have to wait and see what’s gonna happen,” Rosado said. “We’re already seeing the devastating repercussions of the pandemic.”

Some departments show support

Northwestern departments have shown support for graduate students. The faculty of the Department of African American Studies published a unanimous letter on April 3, urging the University to take “swift and comprehensive” action in ensuring the well being of The Graduate School students and programs.

The letter stated that TGS students are “without a strong sense of support from the university administration” while facing a precarious job market due to the pandemic.

“We write to express our serious concern about how the pandemic pairs with the students’ concerns about their financial, emotional and physical well being — all of which affect their time to completion,” the letter read.

On April 16, the School of Communication issued a statement in support of the graduate students. Graduate faculty wrote the University should provide a year of full funding, in addition to other resources such as materials and fewer restrictions on assistantship.

The letter additionally stated that more than 90 percent of those surveyed in the school’s Ph.D. programs reported they feel “somewhat” or “severely” affected by the pandemic. Students have dealt with fatigue, panic attacks and other physical and mental responses, the letter added.

Both letters emphasized that the pandemic particularly impacts students of marginalized identities, who may be faced with compounded stressors.

“Graduate students comprise a full half of Northwestern’s student body,” the faculty wrote. “They are the University’s very life, soul and future.”

The “ripple effect”

COVID-19 is having a significant impact on funding, University President Morton Schapiro wrote in an April 16 address to the University community, adding that the University will safeguard financial aid commitments to all students, preserve jobs and “protect (the) endowment.”

NUGW organizers have published a fiscal analysis of the University endowment in response caused additional financial strains to recently reported deficits and decrease in the endowment. It claims the University has the financial means to afford to fund the additional year.
“Even the single-year drop in these unrestricted endowment funds would be enough to guarantee an extra year of stipend funding for all Ph.D. students currently in their 1st through 6th years of their programs,” the document reads.

NUGW organizers said even donations with restrictions can be applied to extending graduate funding, such as using the money set aside for doctorates in certain areas, to fulfill relief measures for the ultimate purpose of degree attainment.

If the University decides not to provide an additional year of funding to graduate students, Hull said it may cause a “ripple effect” of bright students not being able to finish their studies, ultimately losing out on a long-term investment in the overall Northwestern community.

“This is a once in a lifetime thing that everyone recognizes how extraordinary this is,” Hull said. “This isn’t simply, ‘oh, our investment returns were lower than we thought and we might have a deficit.’ This is a global pandemic.”

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