Campus, Coronavirus, News

Ph.D. students must return to campus or risk losing stipends

A Boston University sign in South Campus. BU Ph.D. students must return to campus in the Fall or they will risk losing their University-given stipends, according to a private memo. PHIE PARK/ DFP FILE

Boston University Ph.D. students are facing tough choices regarding Fall semester, as not returning to campus could mean forfeiting the University-given stipend meant to compensate for their restricted ability to take on paid employment during graduate school.

The news comes from a private memo sent out Friday by Provost Jean Morrison and Associate Provost for Graduate Affairs Daniel Kleinman, which outlined controversial next steps for incoming and continuing Ph.D. students.

A Ph.D. student at BU who asked to remain anonymous forwarded the memo to The Daily Free Press. It was later posted on multiple social media platforms by various individuals.

In the memo, Morrison and Kleinman detailed requirements for students regarding return options, quarantine and stipend support. 

Continuing students must decide by Aug. 1 whether they will return, the memo stated. Students with a service appointment — such as teaching fellows — who cannot return by Sept. 1 are expected to take a leave of absence. 

“We do not believe it is advisable to allow even experienced teaching fellows to teach remotely, barring public health restrictions that require remote-only teaching,” the memo stated. 

Advanced non-service students do not need to return to campus. However, regular non-service students are expected to take a leave of absence if they cannot return to campus, which would mean forfeiting their stipend support. 

“PhD students are at the heart of the university enterprise,” Kleinman wrote in an email. “We cannot pay PhD students their stipends, if they cannot do the service (research and teaching) for which they receive stipends. Much of this work cannot readily be done remotely.”   

In order to receive their stipends from the University, both service and non-service continuing PhD students must be in the U.S., and incoming students must arrive to campus in Boston to receive funding. 

Providing stipends to international students outside the U.S. would be financially and operationally infeasible, Kleinman wrote, due to U.S. tax laws as well as payroll surcharges and regulations that vary across countries.

New students to the Ph.D. program may choose to defer their enrollment to January 2021.

The University published a webpage Tuesday morning with more information in response to the concerns raised by students regarding the memo.  

Kristin Lacey, a Ph.D. student in the English program wrote in an email that she was and remains upset by the information from the memo. 

“The uncertainty and lack of communication surrounding the fall semester has already made getting work on my dissertation done this summer challenging,” Lacey wrote. “This proposed discriminatory policy has made me afraid for my livelihood.”

Stipend pay is “absolutely critical” to graduate students, Lacey wrote. This funding accounts for a majority, and sometimes the entirety, of most Ph.D. students’ income annually, as many of them are not permitted to work more than [five] hours of alternative employment per week during the year. 

“Many students cannot afford a semester without pay,” Lacey wrote, “and they should never be expected to.” 

Lacey wrote she is further concerned by what a forced leave of absence could mean for the health care coverage Ph.D. students receive through the University — whether this coverage would be suspended as well.

While the memo sent by Morrison and Kleinman does not address that question, an email sent to Graduate School of Arts and Sciences students by Emily Barman, associate dean of the GRS, stated that medical insurance will not be covered by the University if students choose to take a leave of absence. 

Kleinman wrote that the University is “exploring the situation” for students who choose to take a leave of absence. 

We expect to be able to provide health insurance to PhD students who take classes remotely but cannot receive their stipends,” Kleinman wrote.

These guidelines raise additional issues for international students, many of whom are currently not in the U.S. due to the pandemic. With travel restrictions and closed embassies, they may not be able to return to the country in time for Fall semester. 

Julian Serna, a Ph.D. candidate from Colombia studying Latin American art, is facing uncertainty as he deals with visa renewal issues. He wrote in an email he initially couldn’t believe the information provided in the memo. 

“[I] don’t really understand what would be the purpose of having us again go through the financial stress of living in one of the most expensive cities of the U.S.A,” Serna wrote.

His stipend from BU has allowed him to make “significant progress” in his research, Serna wrote.

Serna has already completed his service requirements in Boston and is currently conducting research abroad. He was originally scheduled to visit Chile and Argentina for his research, but is currently stuck in his hometown of Bogotá, Colombia due to the pandemic.

Serna wrote he had previously managed to attain an external fellowship to finance the sixth year of his Ph.D.

“I still have one extra semester left of the University funding, which I was planning to use [during] my 7th year to focus exclusively on finishing my dissertation by then,” Serna wrote. “Now, I’m not sure what this might mean for my future plans.”  

Under these guidelines, Serna would not be able to receive any university funding if he cannot return to Boston. 

“This puts us in an impossible situation to handle, as just the moving back to Boston would imply a cost that it’s impossible to assume with the money that the university provides,” Serna wrote. “In my case as an international student, [it’s] my only source of income as because of my visa requirements I can’t work in anything else outside the campus.”

Teaching fellows who have concerns about teaching in-person and who are at high risk for COVID-19 can submit an application to be exempt from the requirement, according to the memo from Morrison and Kleinman. 

Lacey wrote she is concerned about this process, and described it as “deeply troubling.”

“Instructors are expected to reveal private medical information in order to simply be considered for an exemption,” Lacey wrote. “More disturbingly, adjunct instructors have yet to receive contracts from the university for the Fall; the university is therefore making a disability-related inquiry prior to an offer of employment.” 

Lydia Harrington, a Ph.D. student in the History of Art and Architecture department, wrote in an email she believes the plan is “a danger” to instructors and students alike.

PhD students are horrified and feel like the university sees us as expendable since under this plan some community members will definitely get [COVID-19],” Harrington wrote. “It is possible that someone could die, even someone without pre-existing conditions.”

Harrington said revealing personal medical conditions is not fair to students and could take a negative toll on them. 

“Being forced to reveal a pregnancy early on or reveal the health conditions of someone one lives with seems barely legal (if legal at all) and will be traumatic for some,” Harrington wrote. “Especially in a work culture where women tend to hide pregnancies as long as possible since it leads to us being fired, not rehired, or not chosen for jobs we apply for.”

Jasmin Figueroa, a Ph.D. student in practical theology, wrote in an email she does not feel confident that reopening the campus in the Fall is safe and responsible. 

“I did not anticipate that there would be such strict parameters to determine whether or not a student would qualify for an exemption to come back to campus,” Figueroa wrote. “That felt like a curveball to me.” 

Figueroa wrote that not only is anyone at risk for a potentially severe case of coronavirus even if not deemed medically high-risk, what’s “even worse” is an asymptomatic potential to pass the illness to others.

“While I’m glad that they’re being flexible for the students’ safety, it concerns me that they are drawing such a hard line for faculty and staff.”

This application is the same form that faculty, including professors, must fill out if they want to request a workplace adjustment. Morrison outlined the process in a letter sent to all faculty and graduate teaching fellows.

Daniel Star, an associate professor of philosophy who previously launched a petition with colleague Russell Powell, wrote in an email that he and Powell are concerned the policy adjustment has not been communicated clearly to the faculty. 

“We are also concerned that it is possible a great many requests for accommodations will be rejected,” Star wrote. “We don’t know that they will be, of course, but the success or failure of this process will turn, not just on directions to faculty concerning use of the form, but on actual outcomes at the end of this process.”

Star wrote the two believe that graduate students who teach or assist faculty at BU “should not be put in a position where they are being treated differently than [official faculty] with respect to teaching on campus.”

“I continue to believe that during this pandemic, all of us (not just professors) should be provided with the right to teach from anywhere,” Star wrote, “just as undergraduate students are being provided with the right to learn from anywhere.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated many graduate students are “not permitted to work more than five hours of alternative employment during the year,” and that Daniel Star is an assistant professor. Graduate students are not allowed to work more than five hours per week during the year, and Star is an associate professor. The article has been updated to reflect these changes. 

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