In May 2020, word began travelling within the Ohio State community that departments had been asked to plan for budget cuts up to 20%, effectively erasing all security for student workers, staff, and contingent faculty. This prompted graduate students from multiple departments to advocate for themselves and create the Graduate Student Labor Coalition (GSLC), a student advocacy group meant to address concerns regarding the University’s response to inequitable working practices related to graduate student workers in the midst of this global pandemic. As the summer progressed, and uprisings against police brutality and racial injustice swept through the nation, it became clear that OSU’s tendency to respond to crises with empty assurances in lieu of meaningful action was not limited to the pandemic. In recent weeks, OSU faculty members of the American Association of University Professors have also brought to light evidence that OSU’s insistence on the necessity of budget cuts is not backed up by available financial records. Since its inception, the GSLC has aimed to protect all graduate student workers regardless of specific college or departmental affiliation, and demonstrate the remarkable progress that has yet to be made on the OSU flagship campus. 

The concerns of the GSLC, as a graduate student serving organization, largely align with concerns in the greater academic structure: questions of funding availability for conferences/research, timelines for completion of a degree program, available stipends and graduate associate positions for those whose progress has been impacted by the pandemic. In the GSLC’s first letter to OSU administration, sent on June 16, 2020, members of the organization laid out their primary concerns regarding graduate student labor and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic, and six demands to address these concerns as follows:

  1. Extend graduation and funding clocks for all graduate students.
  2. Maintain or increase current numbers of graduate associate positions, and ensure adequate compensation for increased labor.
  3. Waive continuous enrollment requirements for PhD Candidates.
  4. Grant graduate students the right to opt out of in-person activities and responsibilities.
  5. Prioritize the mental health needs of graduate students in pandemic transition planning.
  6. Increase transparency and graduate student input in future transition planning.

Nearly 500 graduate students and their allies have signed onto these demands since early June. However, OSU administration has offered only half-measures and limited support to their graduate students in response. The university’s proposed solutions fall woefully short of providing graduate students with the safety and security necessary to complete their degrees during this unprecedented crisis. 

Graduate associates at OSU receiving the minimum stipend make $17,280 for a nine month appointment; after taxes their monthly income is reduced to around $1700. With this level of compensation, it's hard to believe that graduate student workers are tasked with teaching upwards of 90+ undergraduates, serve as apprentices for some of the universities top researchers, or work in conjunction with OSU administrators. This labor-finances ratio is difficult to navigate even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the 2020-2021 academic year marks the first year since 2016 that the university has not raised the minimum stipend to keep pace with the cost of living in Columbus. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow and evolve, higher education institutions around the country, including the Ohio State University, have been tasked with finding ways to address this unprecedented moment that is equal parts public health and economic crisis. In the aftermath of the spring campus shut downs and ever-changing plans for the 2020-2021 academic year, OSU’s graduate students are experiencing increased uncertainty and precarity as some of the university’s most vulnerable workers. 

University administration clearly recognizes the overarching effects of the pandemic on research and teaching responsibilities, as demonstrated by their swift action to offer a one year extension to tenure clocks for all tenure track faculty who need it. However, no automatic extension has been granted to graduate students whose progress has been similarly impacted, as they are told they must still go through the same petition process required prior to COVID-19. The discrepancy between these approaches could not be clearer. Additionally, the Graduate School’s response to demands for graduate student funding extensions is to provide one semester of fee matching for just 57 graduate students. These extensions have the potential to help only 0.5% of the university’s 11,305 graduate students and limit this support to those who can demonstrate their research was directly impacted by COVID-19.

This approach runs the risk of further burdening those whose progress has been impacted in less direct ways, including parenting, additional domestic responsibilities, increased financial precarity, and the mental health costs of surviving in the midst of a global crisis. Overlooking these effects on graduate students’ productivity is also likely to increase the burden on the most marginalized graduate students, as Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities have been hit the hardest by COVID-19. Additionally, early research demonstrates that women in academia are experiencing decreased research productivity associated with their increased domestic responsibility.  As an institution that claims to care about all Buckeyes, OSU needs to address the concerns of the students who, by themselves, perform approximately 11 percent of the research, teaching, and administrative labor on campus and in the classroom. The University would not thrive or function without its graduate students, regardless of how many placating emails it determines acceptable to write out. 

In addition to the issues of funding and degree timelines, among the GSLC’s major concerns are the immense risks of mandated in-person classes and a lack of demonstrated care for all students at OSU. University administration has responded to these concerns by creating an application process for “accommodations” to opt-out of in-person teaching. The application, which requires graduate student workers to demonstrate high-riskqualifications in order to receive accommodation neglects the reality that in-person instruction puts everyone at risk at contracting the virus. Further, this risk can have long-term consequenceseven for those without pre-existing conditions. As a result, the GSLC believes that all graduate students and graduate student workers should have the right to opt-out of in-person activities, regardless of whether they have a “qualifying” reason.

The right to opt-out of in-person activity is especially important given conflicting views of the university’s “Buckeye Pledge.” Despite assurances that the pledge is not a liability waiver, students are being asked to sign a document containing language acknowledging the inherent risk of contracting COVID-19. Some of OSU’s own law professors have publicly expressed concern that this language reads like a liability waiver, despite the university’s insistence that it is not. If graduate students are not given the option to opt-out of all in-person on-campus activity - including teaching - requiring them to sign this pledge essentially amounts to a form of coercion.

Also a chief concern GSLC holds is the university’s response to the recent and on-going Black Lives Matter protests. On June 1, 2020, the presidents of the Undergraduate Student Government, the Council of Graduate Students, and the Inter-Professional Council published an open letter to OSU calling for the university to cut ties with the Columbus Police Department. The GSLC stands in solidarity with the student government organizations at OSU. On June 30, 2020, administrators at OSU sent out an email promising the creation of the Public Safety Advisory committee that would be effective at the end of July. While this may seem like a promising declaration, at the time of writing (8/14) there has been no further mention of said advisory committee by university officials. 

Because OSU has demonstrated that their solidarity with students of color is performative, the GSLC echoes the previous demands of OSU student governments. In addition, we charge the university to truly enact solidarity with their BIPOC students by committing to hiring BIPOC faculty and staff and providing sustainable and mandated anti-racist resources for teaching and learning, among others. We recognize, however, that these demands are the first steps in a long process of rectifying the racist practices and policies at this university. We firmly believe that it is the responsibility of the University to: first, address anti-racist work already being done on campus; second, determine gaps in education and protection for students; and third, find actionable and specific solutions to close those gaps.

The time for empty words and assurances has long passed. OSU must step up and act in the best interest of graduate students and all marginalized members of the university community.