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Duke’s COVID-19 response reflects a broader disregard for graduate students

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Duke University’s response to COVID-19 has left many with unanswered questions. On Tuesday evening, March 10, President Price sent an email declaring “all undergraduate, graduate, and professional students who are currently out of town for Spring Break should NOT return to the Duke campus if at all possible.” This line left many graduate students returning from travel wondering what they were supposed to do. Sure, it made sense for undergraduates living in close quarters, but what about graduate students who live independently and are paid to work on campus? A week later, there remains much confusion, and the lack of information betrays a disconnect between Duke administration and the realities of day-to-day life for Duke’s diverse graduate student body.

Many graduate students at Duke essentially work a nine to five job with only occasional classes, if any. The graduate school set up a web page specific to grad students, but students found it lacking. Paige Varner, a third year PhD candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering, says, “When I first looked at [the web page], there were no answers,” adding that “the information is more clear now but I had to go looking for it.” Some of the confusion surrounding how we should proceed stems from Duke’s inability to recognize that grad students are students as well as workers. Graduate students at Duke teach classes, TA and conduct research. Why are graduate students treated as an afterthought when their contributions are key to Duke’s everyday function?

Many grad students are worried about how this disruption will affect their finances and ongoing education. Anastasia Kārkliņa, a fifth year PhD candidate in Literature, is one of many students in departments without guaranteed summer funding. Without this funding, Kārkliņa says, “I have very real concerns about being homeless in May since I am prohibited from earning income off campus.” Following a Duke Graduate Student Union campaign, Duke recently agreed to provide 12-month stipends for all PhD students, but the new policy does not take effect until 2022. It is clear in light of this crisis that Duke must guarantee summer funding now. More broadly, there must be an explicit guarantee that student status will not be affected. This is vital for students who receive external fellowship funding (from the National Science Foundation, for example) and who would lose their funding if they were no longer officially registered as full-time students.

The present pandemic also provides new challenges for graduate students struggling to meet already stressful deadlines. What is one supposed to do when they are scheduled for their preliminary exam in two weeks and are now in 24/7 childcare mode because schools have closed? Given the circumstances, Duke must suspend or relax such deadlines until things have returned to normal. Even once university operations have returned to normal, many students will now be graduating a semester later than originally planned. Therefore, Duke should abolish continuation fees for graduate students, which would otherwise punish these students for forces outside of their control, and ultimately are exorbitant fees that have no bearing on real costs.

Duke’s COVD-19 response policies have hurt international students, both graduate and undergraduate, in substantive ways. Kārkliņa, an international student from Latvia, was in Europe when she received news of the US travel ban. Despite immediately contacting relevant offices as well as her own department, Kārkliņa received no substantial guidance or material support in the midst of this emergency situation. “To this day, not a single administrator at Duke, nor faculty leader in my department responsible for ensuring graduate student welfare, has reached back out to me to confirm my whereabouts.”

Like many other international students, Kārkliņa was forced to turn to social media for legal advice and to crowdsource emergency transportation funding, facing “callousness and indifference” from her department’s leadership. While it is in some ways inspiring to see students support each other through groups like Duke Mutual Aid, it is shameful that the university has left us to fend for ourselves. Duke must commit to supporting students by assisting them in renewing or extending visas, providing free legal support, and by reimbursing all medical and transportation costs associated with these students safely returning home. These protections must extend not only to international students, but also to US-based students currently working or studying abroad.

Unfortunately, the present disregard for graduate student workers and other precarious workers, like subcontracted service employees, is not surprising. Duke’s response to COVID-19 is a microcosm of how the university operates in general, regularly ignoring the needs of graduate students. This broader disregard for graduate students is also seen in the fact that the Duke Graduate Students Union is currently fighting for dental care and a workplace free of harassment and discrimination. Given that graduate students are one of the last considerations in Duke’s COVID-19 response, an outside observer would be shocked to discover that the majority of students at Duke are graduate and professional students (9,569 vs. 6,526 undergrads). Duke needs to understand the unique role graduate students play as both students and workers so that this major group on campus is not left to repeatedly slip through the cracks. 

Jeffrey Letourneau is a third year PhD student in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology and a member of the Duke Graduate Students Union. 

Zollie Yavarow is a third year PhD student in Pharmacology and Cancer Biology and a member of the Duke Graduate Students Union.