Starting in 2022, Duke will guarantee every Ph.D. student in their five-year guaranteed funding period an annual stipend of $31,160 spread out over 12 months. Depending on each department, Duke’s current policy until 2022 is to award Ph.D. stipends on either a nine or 12-month schedule, with the nine-month stipend amounting to $23,370. This means that starting from 2022, a sizeable number of Ph.D. students will have their yearly income increased by $10,000. In an age of increasing precarity within the world of academia, Duke’s decision to institute a university-wide policy guaranteeing yearly $31,000 stipends to Ph.D. students should be applauded. Moreover, the stipend increase signifies an important victory for activism at the University, as graduate students continue to press the administration for better working and living conditions.
Perhaps most significantly, an increase to $31,000 a year in stipend funds will have a considerable effect in easing the cost of living for many Ph.D. students with otherwise limited sources of income. As Hannah Rogers, current English Ph.D. student and member of the Duke Graduate Students Union (DGSU) pointed out in an guest column last year, Duke’s previous policy of awarding stipends left a considerable gap between the “official” cost of living in Durham verses the University’s guaranteed stipend amount. As the region’s economy and population continues to grow, rent prices and the cost of living the Triangle have been on the rise over the past decade, with average rent increases surpassing the national average. For many Ph.D. students, struggling to make ends meet on a sum of money deemed “low income” by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, this increase will undoubtedly be greeted with relief and consolation. Especially at a time when universities all across the country are moving toward increasing the number of adjunct faculty at the expense of tenured academic positions, providing our graduate students with stable finances as they finish their studies and enter an unstable workforce should be important to administrators.
More fundamentally, the stipend increase represents an acknowledgement by the University of the significant labor graduate students contribute to research and teaching. Often having to juggle a strenuous schedule of dissertation research, lab, teaching, assisting professors with teaching and research, classwork, and exams, many graduate students feel overwhelmed by their many conflicting responsibilities. So much so that a study by Harvard found that graduate students at elite universities like Duke—although the University was not included in the study—are more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the national average. Under the official definition by the University, however, graduate students are not treated as employees, but rather scholars receiving specific scholarships in the name of research in an academic setting, hence the term “stipend” to define compensation to Ph.D. candidates. Notwithstanding Duke’s official treatment of Ph.D. students as non-salaried employees, it is gratifying to see the University recognize the financial predicament of many of its “scholars” and to rectify it through increasing the amount of guaranteed stipend funding.
Of course, the University’s decision would not have been possible had it not been for Duke Graduate Students Union. The group formed a few years ago and pushed for official unionization, but withdrew its petition in 2017 after an inconclusive vote on unionization. Over the last few years, the union has represented divisive issue on campus, with graduate students and administrators voicing divergent opinions on the appropriateness of a union within a university setting. In the past, both President Brodhead and Duke’s current President Price have publicly stated their disapproval for a graduate student union, criticizing it as an ineffective vehicle for advocacy. Even among graduate students, the issue has remained controversial, with some individuals arguing that unionization could potentially jeopardize academic freedom and relationships with professors as entire academic departments come under bureaucratic, third-party regulations.
Regardless of the controversy behind graduate student unionization and the antagonistic relationship between DGSU and the administration, the stipend increase represents a victory for collective activism at Duke. Since its foundation, the Graduate Student Union has advocated for raising the guaranteed Ph.D. stipend to $30,000: holding rallies near the Allen Building, writing op-eds in The Chronicle and circulating mass petitions. Although numerous factors went into the administration’s decision to raise the stipend, including the work of GPSC, which Dean Paula McClain cited in the news release announcing the decision, the voices of the union and many graduate students certainly played a factor.
Even for those who disagree on whether labor unions are the right approach for a scholarly setting such as Duke, the stipend increase signifies the importance of raising specific concerns, such as financial precarity, facing various sectors of the campus community to the ear of stubborn administrators. Like with so many other facets of Duke—the University’s African and African American Studies Department and Asian American Studies, for instance—change often arrives only through collective organizing, even if such organizing proves to be initially antagonistic and controversial.
This was written by The Chronicle’s Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. This editorial is dedicated to Sydney Roberts, outgoing co-chair and valuable member of The Chronicle for four years as an activist-writer.