May 15, 2020

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Cornell Grad Students Demand a Fair Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

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To the Editor:

The COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally altered the lives of every Cornell student, staff member and faculty member. In addition to the stress and worry for our health and that of our loved ones, we have been forced to adjust to the realities of relocation: classes moving to a new online format, the changing of work and pay schedules, restricted travel, lost access to labs and libraries, job loss and more. We have endured all this while many of the social and support networks we count on have either undergone drastic changes or have vanished entirely.

Though we all face the same pathogen, the ways in which we are individually affected depend on a plethora of different circumstances, including our relationship with our employer. This crisis has exposed and exacerbated the many material conflicts between institutions of higher education and the labor that sustains them, not least of all the specialist work of graduate students and contingent faculty upon which academia increasingly relies. This is true not only at Cornell but also at nearly every university in the country. Graduate students have continued to work alongside faculty to provide the best quality teaching and research output possible, under conditions that the administration understands makes this work harder. For instance, consider Cornell’s decision to extend the tenure clock by one academic year for all tenure-track faculty. This extension recognizes that the lives — and, thus, the productivity of tenure-track faculty — has been altered as well.

Nevertheless, graduate students are still fighting for the same recognition. Over the past month, over 1,000 members of the campus community have signed the Cornell Graduate Students United petition asking Cornell to join many of its peer institutions in granting graduate student workers a funded year’s extension. We are delivering this petition to the Graduate School this Friday morning, May 15. In addition, the petition asks for full summer funding, protections for our international students, medical coverage for COVID-19-related illness, and assurance that no graduate student be forced to work under unsafe conditions. In departments across campus, graduate students have brought these and other similar concerns to their department chairs and directors through letters and petitions of their own, demonstrating that graduate students are not afraid to stand up for their own needs and join in solidarity to advocate for the needs of their fellow workers.

We are not alone. Graduate students at many other institutions, including Yale, Brown, Princeton, Harvard and Northwestern, have submitted similar petitions. At Columbia and NYU, graduate students have begun striking and withholding labor to protest their universities’ poor responses. In addition, over 2,500 academics have pledged to not attend speaking engagements, workshops, or conferences at Cornell and other institutions which have offered tenure extensions but have failed to extend the same support to graduate students and contingent faculty.

The mounting pressure on Cornell is beginning to have an effect. After our petition reached 800 signatures on April 13, the Graduate School announced its plan for emergency summer support for graduate students who are still within their guaranteed funding period. In a more recent communiqué, the Graduate School directed students to another online petition form for degree requirement extensions, responding in part to another of our demands. Our petition has made it clear that guaranteed summer support and universal degree requirement extensions are common-sense measures that have widespread support among graduate students and others across the Cornell community.

We appreciate that Cornell has recently taken some steps to support graduate workers, but we reaffirm that our demands outline what is necessary to adequately support graduate workers at this time. Rather than supporting only a limited number of students over the summer through application-based emergency grants, Cornell must commit to meeting the needs of all graduate students by guaranteeing summer funding, even for graduate students who are beyond their guaranteed period of funding. The summer is a crucial time for us to prepare for exams, develop research projects and find advisors — no grad student should have to sacrifice these things in order to support themselves over the summer.

Furthermore, Cornell must allow all international graduate students to maintain assistantships after leaving the country rather than only those who left the country before May 1st, in order to give all graduate students the opportunity to return to their families and their homes in the midst of this emergency. In lieu of merely reminding graduate students of the option to use a pre-existing system for extending the deadline of their degree requirements, Cornell must commit to financially supporting all graduate students for the duration of this unprecedented crisis. Like its peers, the University must guarantee an additional year of funding and extend time-to-degree requirements by one year.

Not only are we certain that these concessions are necessary, but we also believe they are well within the financial capacity of a university with an endowment of over $7 billion and hundreds of millions in yearly surplus revenue. Instead of choosing austerity, Cornell can and must use its resources to protect its community of graduate employees whose excellent teaching and research work have helped this endowment grow, even though graduate stipends make up less than 10 percent of Cornell employee salaries overall, and less than 5 percent of overall expenditures. If a global pandemic is not a serious enough reason to draw from this reservoir of money or to change the policies that prevent these funds from being accessed, it raises the question — why accumulate it in the first place?

The uncertainty surrounding the future of our working conditions is significant. We call on Cornell to be a leader within the national academic community and to meet these pressing needs.

Vikram Kumar, grad, CGSU Member

Ethan Ritz, grad, CGSU Member

Nathan Sitaraman, grad,CGSU Member

Jacy Tackett, grad, CGSU Member

David Wasser, grad, CGSU Member

Nicholas Balatsos, grad, CGSU Member

Kyle Wellmerling, grad, CGSU Member