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Grad Students Seek Revised Work Agreements in COVID-19 Support Petition

University of Virginia religious studies grad students announced last week that they are taking the extraordinary step of demanding revised work agreements from the university to compensate for time and resource availability lost to the virus suspensions. This call for support from the university joins a wave of labor actions taken by graduate students at universities across the country.

A petition, authored by members of the Religious Studies Graduate Student Association (RSGSA), a student-run organization that collectively advocates for the needs of students in the religious studies department, was submitted to the University last week. It contains “six asks,” including extended time to complete their studies, additional funding, affordable health care and an enhanced role in decision-making about their future.

 “It’s impossible to dispute the value UVa’s Religious Studies grad students bring to the department, the students who rely on them and to the faculty who work with them” says Kevin Rose, co-chair of the RSGSA, “We call on the University to do the right thing by this highly vulnerable constituent body. They are critical to the here and now of learning at UVa, but also to the future of Religious Studies – their own and the university’s.”

When the university announced the move to an online education model, graduate teaching assistants at the University of Virginia played a vital role, creating and implementing new models of teaching and learning. The graduate TAs also served as the primary point of interface between faculty and undergraduate students in UVa’s many large, 100+ student lecture courses. At the same time, grad students were expected to continue with their own coursework and research responsibilities. Failure to meet strict milestone deadlines, newly implemented in the last two years, can mean academic suspension from the university, thereby forfeiting stipends and healthcare.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, across the country, the Covid-19 crisis has created immense uncertainty for graduate students who now face unforeseen obstacles to the completion of their work: Library closures and travel restrictions have curtailed research opportunities and withdrawn funding prospects, while unanticipated increases in family and childcare responsibilities have halted gainful research for many.

This is not unlike the situation faced by tenure track faculty at UVa, who likewise have ambitious milestone deadlines. But while the university was quick to take action to ensure the security of junior faculty – unilaterally granting them an extra probationary year – no such measures have been taken on behalf of graduate students.

“With this move, the university has acknowledged that it’s unreasonable to expect an assistant professor in the humanities, with shifting teaching and personal responsibilities, to get their first book published on the same timeline,” said Rose, “so we ask the University to consider whether it can expect its graduate students to complete their dissertations on the same timeline.”

To that end, on April 22nd, the RSGSA released the online petition calling for “UVa to draw on its many resources—including the $10 million dollars it is slated to receive from the CARES Act recently passed by Congress—to ensure the well-being of UVa’s essential workers: the graduate student teaching and research community.”

Specifically, the “six asks” in the petition for emergency COVID-19 support are as follows:

  1. Extend time to completion and milestone requirements by one year for all PhD students, (The term ‘all PhD students’ hereby includes advanced standing students and “affiliate” students on Ph.D. completion status).
  2. Extend and expand funding opportunities for all PhD students, including and especially late-stage PhD students and those on the job market.
  3. Allow MA Students the option of taking an additional semester to complete their thesis, enrolled under “Off-Grounds” status.
  4. Ensure that graduate students on F-1 and J-1 visas are able to maintain their visa status.
  5. Provide affordable health care coverage for all PhD students, including those no longer covered by departmental funding.
  6. Provide formal channels for Student Instructors, TAs and RAs to join the decision-making process about expectations for remote teaching and research if social distancing continues into the Fall Semester.

Since its release onto social media platforms, the online petition has received endorsement from multiple student groups, over 1,500 views, and 150 signatures from graduate students, faculty and alumni in multiple departments across the university.

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