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Princeton Graduate Students United: Princeton should be ashamed

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Let us review, for a moment, the lauded financial privileges of this university. It has an endowment carefully built over centuries, valued at $26.1 billion as of last year. That works out to $3.1 million per student — by far the highest rate in the country. Compare that to Yale’s endowment-to-student ratio of “only” $2.3 million, or even to wealthier institutions like Harvard and Stanford, which trail at a distant $1.6 million per student each.

Princeton’s endowment is also among the best-managed of any non-profit institution in the country. The returns on our endowment averaged 11.6 percent per year in the past decade, which is well over the average performance of the S&P 500. In good years, like FY2018, returns surpass $2 billion. In bad years, like last year, they still reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

And these investment returns are only one part of the University’s income. By June 2019, Princeton still reported an increase in net assets — that is, the surplus revenue after all expenses are factored away — of $677 million, thanks to other income sources, such as tuition payments, fresh donations, and grants.

Is our university made out of money? No, of course not. But it comes damn close.

Given Princeton’s exceptionally privileged financial position, then, is it not reasonable to expect an exceptional response in protecting the university community during this pandemic? After all, we are told that the entire purpose of the endowment is to keep Princeton at “the leading edge of teaching and learning.”

But as colleagues from the Woodrow Wilson School noted in a recent editorial, despite having access to a $580 million credit line established to “help manage unanticipated liquidity needs,” Princeton is already asking departments to cut extra costs, restrict hiring, and diminish hourly and casual staffing. At a time when Princeton staff and students need more support, not less, these efforts at belt-tightening are concerning.

Nowhere is this more clear than in policies affecting graduate students. Even in the best of times, graduate students face intense pressures to excel in coursework, teach, and produce the constant stream of rigorous scholarly work demanded by a cutthroat academic job market. As the pandemic unfolded, labs were shut down, archives were closed, and fieldwork had suddenly ground to a halt.

Meanwhile, many grad students — especially those with young children — took on more family obligations, while also putting more time into teaching than ever as classes moved online. International students found their visa statuses under threat. The academic job market all but collapsed. Graduate students at the University were pushed into a precarious uncertainty, unsure of how to meet our deadlines.

Sadly, Princeton’s response to these challenges has been to lag behind its peers. Yale, for instance, automatically provided an extra semester of funding to all graduate students completing their dissertation on a University Dissertation Fellowship. It has also allowed graduate students in the first six years of their Ph.D. programs to apply for another year of funding through their departments, while creating a new fellowship for sixth-year students.

Cornell, too, allowed graduate students in the final year of their Ph.D. programs to apply for a seventh year of funding, while also providing emergency summer funding and stipend increases for those who have had to take on additional teaching loads as classes shifted to virtual. Brown made an additional semester of funding available to all graduate students, again funded by the university administration rather than individual departments.

And while Harvard’s administration has not yet agreed to the bridge-year of funding that many students have demanded, the Harvard graduate student union successfully negotiated more relaxed work expectations and academic timelines. After all, with children, parents, or other loved ones to care for, many of us can no longer put in the long hours typical of graduate school. 

These measures are imperfect. Some are far more generous than others, and many fall short of what students, faculty, and workers on respective campuses have requested. Still, they are all leagues ahead of the accommodations made so far by our own esteemed institution.

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Despite multiple petitions (see here and here) highlighting the need for an additional year of grad student funding — which have been signed by hundreds of faculty members, students and alumni — Princeton’s response has been along the lines of “keep calm and buckle down.”

Instead of finding creative ways to deploy the university’s considerable resources for those who need it, the administration has talked of austerity and the need for “difficult reductions.” Meanwhile, in its communications with grad students, the university adopts the language of “care,” without offering the necessary support to stave off a looming economic depression.

The University’s adjustments to student health plans have likewise been both slow and insufficient. Though COVID-19 treatment is covered, students still must pay out of pocket for ongoing medical care they would otherwise have received at McCosh Health Center, all without knowing whether any of these changes to coverage will last past June.

Condescending listicles about “de-stressing in a pandemic” cannot alleviate the feeling of watching years of one’s hard work and dedication collapse amid increasing financial, medical and professional precarity.

Time and real financial support, however, might.

The University administration would likely point out that they have striven to provide enrollment and funding extensions to affected graduate students. However, these measures do not hold up well to scrutiny, especially when compared to the actions of peer institutions.

For example, grad students in their final semester of Dissertation Completion Enrollment status are invited to apply for another semester of eligibility. All this means, however, is simply that students who were finishing their dissertation this spring may — if permitted — pay out-of-pocket to remain nominally enrolled as students, even though this is exactly the group that has been hit hard with rescinded job offers and a non-existent academic labor market.

The University has also encouraged graduate students currently receiving University fellowships to turn to their advisers and the Dean of Graduate Students to request funding extensions if they need it. On the surface, this seems rather generous. However, the University has not offered departments more money to fund their graduate students.

This puts department chairs in the unenviable position of determining which of their students are most deserving of the limited resources they can scrounge together, inevitably sowing a divisive politics of access and worth within departments. As others have pointed out, graduate students who are in greatest need of support — those on medical leave, those with children at home, or sick relatives, for instance — are often less equipped to write long, competitive proposals justifying their own needs.

Moreover, the current policy exacerbates inequalities between departments that have their own endowments, and can better provide for graduate students, and those which do not. Ironically, according to internal communications within departments, the Graduate School has also instructed department heads not to create their own emergency funds to support students for the sake of promoting “equity” across departments.

What a profound contradiction: the Graduate School tells graduate students to petition their departments for assistance, and yet does not permit departments to provide that assistance in the way they see fit.

The University’s lackluster response is not limited to graduate students alone. Almost as soon as the COVID-19 crisis began, universities across the country paused tenure clocks for their assistant professors, acknowledging that they could no longer produce scholarly work at the same rate. The University did so too, but only within this past week, months after hundreds of other schools.

Why doesn’t a university that prides itself on being a “leading university” live up to that name and provide automatic, universal funding extensions for all graduate students? Why don’t we use this moment to not only catch up to fellow Ivies, but surpass them entirely in our institutional imagination? Such imagination is exactly what is needed to address the dire situation that many graduate students are in, amid a pandemic that is unprecedented in scale. Plus, it would only cost a fraction of the University’s surplus from a single year — especially given that Princeton only has 2,900 graduate students, compared to around 13,000 students at Harvard and approximately 7,500 at Yale.

Imagine the kind of example that the University could set by using its vast resources to reinforce an ethic of care in higher education. Imagine the kind of leadership that would show amid this historic crisis. What a shame, then, that our leadership chooses to do little instead.

Vivekananda Nemana GS is a fourth-year graduate student in the Sociology Department. This letter was submitted on behalf of Princeton Graduate Students United. The author may be reached at