Graduate students demand more action on COVID-19 student relief

A University of Minnesota graduate student group drafted a letter highlighting a list of demands that would better support graduate students and vulnerable workers during COVID-19.

Morrill Hall as seen on Saturday, Oct. 12.

Parker Johnson

Morrill Hall as seen on Saturday, Oct. 12.

by Katelyn Vue

A University of Minnesota graduate student group created a petition last week demanding that the University do more to support and provide relief to graduate students and vulnerable workers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The Critical Race & Ethnic Studies Graduate Student Writing Group sent a letter to President Joan Gabel, the Board of Regents and other administrators, highlighting specific equity measures to implement immediately aimed at redistributing wealth across the institution and aid to those in need. CRES’s petition has more than 300 signatures and 15 testimonies from alumni, graduate students, faculty and staff as of late last week.

“As of April 14, 2020, the University has not done enough to provide immediate or long-term relief to graduate students,” the letter reads. “We understand this as not only severe negligence towards graduate student concerns, but also as a sign of the systematic exploitation of our labor.”

On Tuesday, the Board of Regents approved a tuition freeze for undergraduate, professional  and graduate students for the 2020-21 school year, but the move does not include students in the Medical School, School of Dentistry and three master’s programs in the College of Science and Engineering.

The graduate student group also demanded the University take more tangible action rather than sending encouraging emails.

“Messages in the forms of e-mails and videos which express health tips, appreciation, and motivation are not enough,” the letter reads. “Rather than recognizing our ‘insights,’ ‘curiosity,’ and ‘passion,’ we demand that the University ensures the health and well-being of all its employees, including but not limited to graduate students, undergraduate student workers, maintenance teams, and custodial staff…” 

On Monday, Gabel responded to CRES’s demands, saying that University stakeholders are convening to ensure that students, faculty, staff and others in the University community are supported during the pandemic. 

“I am committed to student, faculty, and staff positions and healthcare benefits, as well to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of every member of our University community,” Gabel wrote in a letter to CRES.

Gabel said she is also urging One Stop Student Services to review their emergency fund request process to ensure consistency and that an additional $50,000 in emergency funds have been allocated for graduate and professional students.

As of Monday, approximately 1,000 University undergraduate, graduate and professional students have applied for emergency funds, Gabel stated in the letter. Almost 200 graduate and professional students have been awarded those funds, with 41 emergency fund intake forms still under review, she said.

CRES has not yet drafted a response to Gabel’s letter.

Because graduate students face uncertainty related to summer research funding and affording necessities such as rent or groceries, the group is seeking to have conversations with the University before the school year ends. 

“The redistribution of wealth is the greatest sort of threat to the way in which the University runs as a corporation,” said José Manuel Santillana, a Ph.D. candidate in the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies Department. “We are asking the University to really go against its foundation.” 

CRES was not the only contributor to the letter. Communities including international students, undocumented students, first-generation students and vulnerable workers also helped draft the list of demands.

Vulnerable workers, such as maintenance and custodial staff, put themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19 by working at the University every day. 

“This letter comes out of our responsibility and duty to honor our relationships with everybody,” said Michelle Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in the American Studies department. “We’re asking [that] the University of Minnesota also honors their relationship with us.” 

One specific demand highlighted in the letter asks that Gabel, her cabinet, tenure-track faculty, staff and administrators who report a gross income of $100,000 or more take a 10-20% pay cut and redistribute wealth. 

“There is no reason why anyone at the University should be making above two-hundred thousand dollars while graduate students are being overburdened and policed in their efforts to apply for a small fraction of funds that do not cover their basic necessities,” the letter reads. 

Other specific demands include streamlining access to currently available emergency funds, providing graduate students with a $500 renewable book stipend, specific and accessible funds for highly-impacted graduate students who are of color, indigenous, first-generation, working-class and undocumented, among others.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated which students were affected by the tuition freeze. The freeze applies to undergraduate, graduate and professional students, with the exception of students in the Medical School, School of Dentistry and three master’s programs in the College of Science and Engineering.