Grad union organizers criticize lack of no-questions-asked funding extension amid pandemic

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Joy Cao | Senior Staff Photographer

The Graduate Student Organizing Committee released a petition — addressed to Provost Ann Cudd, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and the Board of Trustees — that asked Pitt’s administration to grant every funded graduate student the option of a one-year funding extension. It also calls for extra support for students who are parents or those struggling with housing, assistance for international students in navigating visa issues and more mental health services.

By Nathan Fitchett, Senior Staff Writer

For Kess Ballentine, an organizer with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, Pitt has fallen short on its promises to protect graduate students during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said this is shown by Pitt’s lack of a direct response to a petition released last June with more than 800 signatures.

“They have talked a lot about listening to graduate student needs, and that’s the reason we don’t need a union,” Ballentine, a doctoral candidate in the School of Social Work, said. “Then 800 of us said that we had a need, and we did not hear a response.”

The petition — addressed to Provost Ann Cudd, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and the Board of Trustees — asked Pitt’s administration to grant every funded graduate student the option of a one-year funding extension. It also called for extra support for students who are parents or those struggling with housing, assistance for international students in navigating visa issues and more mental health services.

The GSOC released the petition in response to a late March letter from Cudd that announced a one-year tenure clock extension for all tenure-track faculty due to the difficulties posed by the pandemic. The GSOC commended this move, and said Pitt should extend a similar policy to graduate students. Pitt’s administration has yet to directly respond to GSOC’s demand of a no-questions-asked funding extension over seven months later.

Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick said departments and schools are the source of funding support for graduate students, including “reappointments or extensions” for guaranteed funding. He said the University doesn’t have a central office to handle these requests and students should reach out to their departments or schools with questions.

Zwick didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment about how many students have received funding extensions, how many students applied for one or specifics about the application process.

For statutes of limitations extensions — increasing the amount of time a graduate student has to complete their program — Zwick also said Pitt is granting them on a case-by-case basis. He added that the University hasn’t denied a graduate student who has applied for a statutes of limitations extension.

 “In line with existing policies, all graduate students have the right to apply for extensions of their statutes of limitations if needed,” Zwick said. “Any delays in progress caused by the pandemic and related financial hardship are taken into consideration. To date, we have received no reports of students not being given additional support or extensions for which they have applied.”

Zwick said students should contact their departments or schools to apply for these extensions. He didn’t directly respond to questions about the number of students that have been granted these extensions, or the criteria which must be met for a student to be granted one.

GSOC organizers said they are not satisfied with this method of granting funding extensions. Pat Healy, a GSOC organizer, said granting extensions on a case-by-case basis could cause some students who need aid to be left out.

“The difference here is that a case-by-case basis will always leave more people out,” Healy, a graduate student in the information science program, said. “By doing it this way, they are much quieter about it. I know they say that they aren’t rejecting anyone, but that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t reject someone.”

Healy said there are several reasons why grad students might not seek extensions through the current system, even if they need one.

“There are a whole lot of people who just wouldn’t apply because either they one, never hear about it because it’s not really a ‘loud and proud’ policy for the entire graduate body or two, they think that they would never be approved, even if they think they might need something like that,” Healy said. “They just assume they wouldn’t be approved so they don’t apply.”

The petition is one of many disputes between the grad students pushing for unionization and the University. Graduate students voted against unionization by a margin of 37 votes in April 2019, though appeals of the vote are still pending. Union organizers have also criticized the more than $2 million that Pitt has paid to “union avoidance” law firm Ballard Spahr in recent years.

With no direct response to the petition, GSOC published an open letter to Provost Cudd, Chancellor Gallagher and the Board of Trustees last September. The letter elaborated further on why funding extensions not requiring an application was needed, and outlined some of the challenges grads at Pitt have been facing during the pandemic.

GSOC cited several concerns for grads during the pandemic as reasons for extensions to not require an application. Ballentine said COVID-19 has caused issues for fields of research that require in-person data collection, which could lead to delays or reworks of dissertations. 

Ballentine also said many grad students are parents, and the closure of schools and daycares has made the task of balancing parenting and graduate studies more difficult.

Ballentine also raised concerns with the extra workload that transitioning to online teaching has added for grad student instructors. She believes the University downplayed the difficulty of this transition.

“We believe that the University really minimized the amount of work that was required of all faculty [to switch to hybrid],” Ballentine said.

Zwick said the University provided help to graduate student instructors during the transition to online classes, including workshops, tech support and one-on-one support through the University Center for Teaching and Learning. But Zwick added that some departments have not seen any delays in their studies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The University recognizes that the circumstances of the past year have created unique challenges for many graduate students,” Zwick said. “Pitt has empowered leadership in departments and schools to ensure that we are taking action where needed to support graduate students continuing their studies. Some departments have reported that none of their PhD students have been delayed in their studies/dissertation due to COVID-19 or have had difficulty finding post-graduation employment.”

Healy said funding extensions not requiring an application would be a sign of solidarity from the University during a tough year for grad students.

“In the face of the extreme adversity that a global pandemic creates, a universal extension is a message of support from the University,” Healy said. “It would say ‘Hey grads, things are really rough right now, we will support you,’ and that’s just not what a case-by-case method does. They aren’t telling us they’re supporting us, in fact in the face of this petition, they are telling us they ignore what we want.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to better distinguish between extensions of statutes of limitations and funding.

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