PhD Students Object to ‘Coercive’ New Stipend Policy
By Grace Ferguson
Boston University PhD students are now facing a choice: come back to campus, or risk losing their stipends and health insurance.
Last week, an internal memo to BU deans and department heads was leaked. The memo explains what options the PhD students have if they can’t come to campus by September.
The memo encourages students who can’t come back to take a leave of absence, which means they won’t receive a stipend. Alternatively, students might be able to take online classes, but without stipend support.
Some PhD students could get their stipends if they can do their research off campus, but that does not include students living outside the US. The university says it won’t pay them for tax reasons.
Students without teaching appointments who come back to campus part-way through the semester could have their stipends resumed. A BU website suggests the students could be paid their lost stipend amounts, but it makes no guarantee.
The university’s reasoning for the policy comes from its hybrid “Learn from Anywhere” teaching model. Classes are meant to be taught online and in person, so teaching fellows are expected to be in the classroom.
Students who fall into a COVID-19 high risk category were encouraged to request a workplace adjustment, which means they would disclose their medical condition to the university, and the university could make an accomodation for them. If granted an adjustment, the student might be allowed to teach remotely, or move their class to a different time. But the request form closed just days after the stipend news became public.
Nicole Corerri is a PhD student studying religion. She’s a teaching fellow, and this will be her third year at BU. She says students shouldn’t have to weigh the risk of coming to campus or losing their stipend. And in her opinion, it’s reckless for BU to reopen campus at this stage in the pandemic.
“It’s just ripe for disaster, and it’s better to take a cautious approach,” Corerri said.
Corerri’s stipend allows her to pay her rent and daily living costs, but she doesn’t plan on coming to campus this fall. She doesn’t know yet what that will mean for her financially, but she says it’s unethical for BU to ask her to risk her life by coming back.
“I feel that it is a coercive demand by the university that doesn’t allow myself and anybody related to the [university’s functioning] to make a health decision on their own,” Corerri said.
Jenna Rindy, another BU PhD student, agreed that the policy is coercive. She’s entering her second year studying biology.
Rindy has to take the commuter rail and the T to get to campus. She’s worried about the risk of getting the coronavirus while she’s on public transit.
“That train is packed every single morning,” Rindy said. “Like packed, like sardines, every single morning.”
Rindy says she’s lucky to have a stipend that doesn’t depend on her coming back to campus, but she still has to take classes. She isn’t sure whether BU will let her take them online because she hasn’t heard from any of her professors.
Even if Rindy can take classes from home, there are things she could miss out on. Classes that require group projects were much harder for her after BU switched to remote learning in March.
Then there are issues of equipment. Rindy borrows a computer from the school because her own laptop can’t do the data analysis she needs for her research. She knows other students might not have good enough wifi or computers either.
“Is that going to affect their grade? Is that going to affect how people treat them? Probably, and that’s unfair,” Rindy said.
Corerri tied the reopening issue to the Black Lives Matter movement. BU says it’s committed to supporting minority community members. It’s put out multiple statements and held an all-day event to talk about racism. BU is also launching its Center for Antiracist Research. But the pandemic has disproportionately affected minorities, and Corerri says reopening could contribute to that.
“All of those components pale in comparison to the fact that they are not considering how this policy will impact Black, indigenous, and people of color in our staff, in our faculty, and amongst our [teaching fellows],” Corerri said.
Corerri had a reminder for undergraduates thinking about returning to campus.
“There’s no guarantee that you coming back to campus, even with all the measures put into place, will keep you physically safe,” Corerri said. “There’s no guarantee for us as staff, faculty, and teaching fellows to be safe.”