Pitt Must Support Its Graduate Students in This Time of Crisis

By Kess L. Ballentine
Special to the Pittsburgh Current

I am a member of Pitt’s PhD Advisory Group, headed by outgoing Vice Provost Dr. Nathan Urban. In our last meeting, some of us raised concerns about the bleak job market we’ll be facing and asked for the administration to consider granting all funded graduate students an optional funding extension – similar to what they’d offered to tenure-stream faculty. As a PhD candidate in Social Work nearing the end of my program, I was hoping for some insight from Vice Provost Urban. Instead, he told us that he was encouraging his graduate students to graduate with what they had.  As far as I could tell, he was encouraging us to enter a difficult job market with a weaker resume or unfinished research.

Despite worsening career prospects, administrators at Pitt continue to tell us that things aren’t so bad. That we’ll get through our “ramen noodle days” if we just keep our heads down and don’t ask too many questions. This makes no sense when the success of alumni contributes significantly to Pitt’s prestige. It also feels disingenuous when, despite raised alarms about budget cuts for the fall, Pitt’s administration has chosen to continue their expensive legal battle against its graduate student workers. I am one of these workers, and I am incensed by the notion that all of Pitt’s students, faculty, and employees have to accept less while its administration wastes millions to undermine our legal right to organize. They have argued that we shouldn’t be considered employees despite the revenue and prestige that our highly-skilled labor generates for the University.

Many graduate students will need support to complete our programs with excellence and to be competitive on the job market. Just as faculty face a tenure clock, we face a limited window in which we must take courses, pass degree milestones, conduct research, write a dissertation, and find employment. We can’t currently present our research at conferences, and remote work is a poor substitute for in-person collaboration. Our teaching conditions impact the learning conditions of our undergraduate students, and will become even more challenging as we adapt to new teaching platforms. Those of us who are parents and caregivers have to spend more time caring for family. Our households may be experiencing poverty from widespread unemployment. More than ever, we need to stand together and advocate for ourselves when the university won’t. 

Though Pitt’s administrators have offered some emergency aid, they are woefully out of touch with the glaring uncertainties and precarious circumstances that their graduate student workers now face. Can’t a small portion of Pitt’s $4.3 billion endowment be used to grant grads this much-needed funding extension? Pitt has stated that it would not tap into the endowment, as it’s for emergencies only – but if a global pandemic is not an emergency, what is? 

We don’t have to fight alone. As a union, we can secure protections that we don’t currently have. Graduate student unions across the country are celebrating worker protection and emergency funding wins. Here at Pitt, our Graduate Student Organizing Committee held a successful May Day action to win fair disbursal of emergency funding grants for international students. We have also begun collecting signatures on a petition that calls on Pitt to protect its graduate student workers by providing emergency funding for any funded grad who chooses to use it. When graduate students organize together, our working conditions can improve. We can have a say in the decisions that impact us – and this matters now more than ever.

Kess L. Ballentine, MA, MSW is a PhD Candidate in Pitt’s School of Social Work

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