February 22, 2008

Provost’s office outlines new plan for graduate aid

The Office of the Provost yesterday announced significant changes in the allocation of financial aid to current graduate students, who benefit little from the $50 million Graduate Aid Initiative for incoming students announced last year. Current graduate students in the Humanities and Social Sciences had decried their exclusion from the package, culminating in a protest Tuesday where over 150 students gathered in the foyer of the Regenstein Library and marched to the administration building to demand increases in funding.

The provisions put forward in a report posted on the provost’s website include minimum stipends, an increase in the number of summer and dissertation fellowships, and the expansion of the Graduate Aid Initiative to cover incoming students in the Divinity School, who did not previously benefit from the plan.

The report also detailed plans by Deputy Provost for Graduate Education Cathy Cohen to convene committees charged with exploring potential headway into improving compensation for graduate student teaching and health coverage, two of the funding issues most pressing for many graduate students.

The announcement comes a year after a contingent of graduate students across the divisions began organizing in response to the lack of funding provided to students who enrolled prior to the 2007–2008 school year by the Initiative. Many students voiced disappointment that the plan had been formulated with little input from current students and pressed President Robert Zimmer, Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, and other administrators to address the disparity between incoming and current graduate students.

In May, Rosenbaum convened the Working Group, a committee of faculty, administrators, and students charged with making recommendations for improving the experience of graduate students on campus. The Office of the Provost developed the plan announced today after consideration of the group’s December report.

Under the provisions of the revamped plan, departments within the Humanities and Social Sciences divisions have the option of reducing the number of new students admitted to their programs and instead redistributing the funds offered by the Graduate Student Initiative to current students. Departments adopting this option will offer current students a minimum $15,000 stipend in the Humanities Division and $10,500 in the Social Sciences Division and the Divinity School.

Although the Office of the Provost has encouraged all departments to adopt this “slots for funds” option, several departments in both divisions have not committed to doing so.

Students in departments opting not to reduce the number of admitted students would have no stipend alternative, said Cohen, although summer and dissertation-year fellowships would still be made available to them.

In addition to the stipend option made available to departments, the provost will increase the number of $3,000 summer fellowships to 100 each year, up from 25, and also add 15 dissertation-year fellowships for students beyond their fifth year who are no longer eligible for standard graduate funding options.

Student leaders of the effort to pressure administrators to implement increased funding for current graduates have expressed only limited satisfaction with the provost’s provisions.

“Rather than taking decisive action to create equity across the board in terms of graduate students being funded...the cash for slots program sort of passes the buck off to the departments,” said graduate student and organizer Toussaint Losier.

But Cohen said that ultimately that decision is not up to administrators to make.

“These decisions are best handled at the departmental level. Often departments would say that, given the needs of the faculty and the program, that they were making a different decision,” she said.

The reaction from graduate student activists was mixed.

“It’s a step in the right direction....I’m grateful, I think all of us are, to have more support from the administration,” said graduate student Duff Morton, who has worked to organize student support for graduate funding initiatives.

But Morton and Losier felt that the Provost’s provisions did not go far enough in ensuring that current graduate students would be able to adequately provide for themselves during their academic years.

The level of compensation for graduate student teachers, who are paid significantly less than students at peer institutions, is among their chief concerns.

“We want people at this University who teach to be able to live by teaching,” Morton said. “Right now, there’s no way for people to survive by teaching on campus.”

Administrators agree that this is a concern that will take top priority in upcoming discussions about improving graduate funding.

“Everyone in the administration acknowledges and understands that we seem to be lagging behind peer institutions,” Cohen said.

According to Cohen, administrators hope to implement recommendations made by the committee convened to address graduate teaching remuneration by the start of the 2008–2009 school year.

But Morton was only cautiously optimistic about the short timeline.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

The administration will also continue to explore the issue of health coverage for current students, said Kimberly Goff-Crews, vice president and dean of students in the University.

Although the Graduate Student Initiative announced last year did provide health insurance for most current graduate students, many beyond their fifth years still are not covered, and the issue has also been one of organizers’ rallying cries. At the protest Tuesday, two baskets of apples were deposited in front of Rosenbaum’s office in a move graduate students hoped would inspire greater concessions from administrators.

Cohen’s reaction to the protest was positive. “I thought it was respectful, I thought it was smart,” she said. “All of this is about dialogue. Different students have different needs. We try to address the needs of the largest group of graduate students that we can.”


The February 22 news article “Provost’s Office Outlines New Plan for Graduate Aid” incorrectly stated the minimum stipend amounts for departments opting for the “slots for funding” program as being $10,500 for the Humanities division and $15,000 for the Social Sciences division. The correct amounts are $15,000 for Humanities and $10,500 for Social Sciences.