Cornell Works Because We Do

When lockdown began a year ago, Cornell was quick to voice its commitment to staff retention, undergraduate financial aid, and junior faculty. Cornell made no such blanket commitments to grad workers. Since then, we have lost time in labs and archives; been forced to cancel field work; and faced housing, funding, and healthcare instability. Cornell has granted tenure-clock extensions to junior faculty but denied similar support to graduate workers. The process of securing any clear and concrete support from Cornell has been slow, inconsistent, and opaque, and the concessions Cornell has made to date have been wholly inadequate. Soft promises to be lenient about deadlines, spotty information about case-by-case funding extensions, and March 2020’s modest cost-of-living stipend increases are not enough.

Over the last several months, hundreds of graduate teachers and scholars have come together under the auspices of Cornell Graduate Students United to demand ethical and equitable treatment as integral members of Cornell’s academic workforce. We stand together, now, to ask that Cornell meet our demands for funding extensions, adequate paid sick leave, and more. We call upon the Cornell University administration to take immediate action to meet these demands by March 31, 2021


Immediate Spring 2021 Demands

Cornell must ensure the right of graduate instructors to choose their teaching modality.

Graduate workers recognize and appreciate Cornell’s recent policy allowing graduate students to determine their teaching modality. Unfortunately, this policy does not free graduate instructors from pressure and coercion at the department level. Cornell must enforce the opt-in policy and guarantee graduate instructors' freedom to choose.

Cornell must guarantee one full year of additional funding and extend time-to-degree by one year for all graduate students.

By granting junior faculty an extension on their tenure clock, Cornell has acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has a severe impact on research progress. Cornell must extend this policy to graduate students by guaranteeing one additional full year of funding (spring, summer, and fall) and by extending time-to-degree limits by one year for all currently funded graduate students through a combination of assistantships and fellowships.

Graduate students in every department have been affected: we have been forced to halt all fieldwork and cannot access labs, secure data, and archives. Many graduate students and faculty now must take care of dependents and may even become sick. This cuts into limited one-on-one advising time and further impedes research progress. In addition, the cancellation of hundreds of conferences and colloquia has extensively curtailed opportunities for graduate students to present research, get feedback, and establish ourselves as scholars in our respective fields.

All workers traveling to campus need affordable and safe transport.

Most grad workers cannot afford to park on campus even for their teaching and research shifts, and even with decreased density on the TCAT buses, this more affordable transport entails a higher risk of COVID-19 infection.

Graduate students need a robust paid sick leave policy.

Governor Cuomo’s April 2020 legislation is a step in the right direction, but it is not adequate. Graduate students deserve a medical leave plan that does more than accrue one week of leave in a single year. This year, Cornell created a new option for grads who need more than a single week to take a “health leave of absence”, which allows the student to retain SHP coverage for that year, but lose access to Cornell Health services, except pharmacy, as well as Cornell facilities more broadly. HLOA also does not provide the paid sick time many workers are afforded by their employers, and requires the student to justify themselves to Cornell administrators in a lengthy bureaucratic process. We demand that Cornell provide graduate instructors with a robust and accessible paid sick leave policy.

Cornell must improve its prescription drug coverage plan and offer sufficient notice to graduate workers before making any changes to health or prescription drug coverage.

In the summer of 2020, the Graduate School made substantial changes to the Student Health Plan without giving students adequate notice. This has entailed significant, unexpected, and prohibitive hikes in medication prices. Cornell must return to a prescription drug plan that offers adequate coverage, and it must provide graduate workers with sufficient advance notice before making any changes to their coverage.

Grad workers abroad for the Spring 2021 term must not lose their assistantship appointments.

At present, Cornell has developed a framework allowing graduate workers temporarily stranded outside the U.S. due to government-imposed travel restrictions or significant hardship to continue their assistantship appointments. This framework expired in December. We ask that this policy be extended to include the spring term and expanded to support any graduate worker abroad, as long as they can perform their employment activities remotely.

Long-Term Demands

Graduate student workers must be recognized and compensated for their labor in diversity and inclusion.

Since 2017, graduate student bodies have requested better and more formalized support for diversity and inclusion, both at the department and university levels. Take, for example, the 2017 resolution submitted by GPSA on behalf of the Graduate and Professional Student Diversity Council requesting bias and sensitivity training for all who work as “researchers and educators” at Cornell, and restructuring of the Graduate Grievance Review Board covered until Policy 6.4. We demand a robust, effective, and generously-funded graduate diversity and inclusion program that is accountable to outcomes rather than process.

Grad students need a neutral grievance procedure that is independently adjudicated, accessible and efficient.

We draw here from the Harvard Graduate Student Union website detailing how a third-party grievance procedure can address discrimination and harassment. Please refer to the highly detailed, extremely helpful FAQ listed on this page for the difference between a third-party grievance procedure and the in-house and/or Title IX arbitrated grievance procedure model similar to the one we currently have at Cornell (FAQ #2 is especially helpful). For the reading-weary among you, check out this extremely clear and pretty infographic on the differences between these two procedural models.

Cornell must build CAPS infrastructure and capacity so graduate workers can have their mental health needs met at Cornell Health.

External reviews and graduate worker testimony have shown time and time again that Cornell’s CAPS resources for graduate students are sorely lacking. We call upon Cornell to remedy this problem by: increasing CAPS providers by 20%; designating enough graduate-student-specific providers to guarantee graduate students regular in-house care; and increasing resources geared towards BIPOC students, including counselors who specialize in racial trauma.

Guaranteed six years of funding.

Doctoral students were guaranteed 6 years of funding until the 2008 recession, when guaranteed funding packages were cut to 5 years. Even now, however, the median time to degree for doctoral students remains 6.8 years. Peer institutions, including Harvard and Yale, have re-introduced the guaranteed 6th year; institutions with far smaller endowments than Cornell’s, including Berkeley and Rutgers, have always guaranteed a 6th year. Even now, Cornell recognizes the need for the 6th year in its “soft” promises of funding past the 5th year. We ask Cornell to recognize, as its peer institutions and its own statistics show, that the 6th year is integral to graduate student success, and to demonstrate its commitment to research and teaching excellence by giving graduate workers the funding packages necessary to guarantee this excellence.

Grads must be paid within two weeks of their appointment start date.

Since 2017, CGSU members in several departments have had disbursements arrive in their bank accounts up to a month after starting their assistantships, because pay disbursement does not always align with appointment start dates, as implied by the Dean of the Graduate School.

Vision and dental insurance must be included under SHP.

Graduate workers enrolled on SHP must pay hundreds of dollars to secure vision and dental care. This structure creates unnecessary barriers to care, which can be prohibitive for many grads and reinforces existing inequalities. Vision and dental coverage should be included as part of the health benefits offered to graduate workers as part of their compensation.

Cornell must make more subsidies available for graduate student parents enrolling their dependents in SHP.

At present, graduate parents pay thousands of dollars to enroll a single child in SHP. Opportunities for financial support for graduate parents are limited and ad hoc, often without the reliability parents need. Cornell must invest in creating more substantial and reliable support for graduate students with dependent children.

Grads must receive overtime compensation when working more than the 15 hours/week limit imposed by most assistantships.

The Graduate School stipulates that Teaching Assistants work no more than 20 hours in any given week, averaging 15 hours over their appointment. We ask that Teaching Assistants that have to work above the stipulated maximum number of hours receive overtime compensation for their work. This is especially relevant in situations where Teaching Assistants may have to take over teaching responsibilities from colleagues who fall sick or are otherwise prevented from carrying out their teaching duties.

Cornell must eliminate the International Teaching Assistant Program (ITAP) and, in the meantime, fairly compensate graduate workers required to participate in it.

Graduate students from a country where English is not the first language are required to pass a language assessment before working as a teaching assistant. If they do not pass, grad workers are required to take an additional course, often at the same time that they are TAing. A GPSA survey of graduate students found that 64% of respondents believe that ITAP places an undue burden on international grad workers and 91% believe the program should be changed; moreover,the survey also demonstrates that ITAP does not accomplish its stated goals and that graduate workers regularly experience discrimination within the program.

Cornell must provide greater support for tax preparation support for graduate workers.

Cornell must provide more seasonal tax support for graduate students and especially international graduate students.

Cornell must make some kind of retirement plan available to graduate workers.

Graduate workers must be able to contribute to some kind of retirement plan during their 5+ years at Cornell.