An Open Letter to the President and Provost

Naomi Podber

Dear President Robinson and Provost Lennihan,

I briefly met with President Robinson during his open office hours this past fall, and he suggested that I write to both of you with my concerns about the sudden change in disbursement of the Dean K. Harrison Awards that students were surprised with last spring. As a white student who has been lucky enough to find a yearly funding package for each year that I have been a student at the Graduate Center, I have no personal stake in the disbursement of this particular award. I simply observed the hardships being faced by many colleagues who were affected by the changes and wanted to speak up, because I believe that the changes made were in direct conflict with the Graduate Center’s goal of “retain[ing] the best and most diverse students,” as stated in Section 4.2.A of the draft of the Periodic Review Report for MSCHE, which was sent out to the Graduate Center community last week. Again, I do not want to be disrespectful and am incredibly grateful for the support I have received at the Graduate Center, but I believe that this particular change sent a problematic message to students that needs to be brought to the attention of the administration.

Though student funding at the Graduate Center is becoming stronger every year, as the administration works on giving incoming students stronger and longer-term funding plans, professors on the admissions committees here have always had the difficult job of recruiting strong students into their programs with very limited funding. As a result, students in earlier cohorts generally have very differential funding, based on whatever funding the professors of the program have been able to cobble together for them. I believe that when many incoming students of color were let into the program, the program faculty assumed they could rely on these students being able to access yearly Harrison Awards, and since faculty assumed this would be a consistent funding source, it gave them the latitude to disburse other funding opportunities to other incoming students.

When the funding structure was changed with very little advance warning, students who had come to rely on this substantial sum each semester as their main source of Graduate Center funding (often the only source of funding they got from the Graduate Center) were left to scramble and apply for money that they had already factored into their finances for the coming school year, especially after many had already declined other jobs and scholarships in expectation of getting a Harrison Award. Many students in my cohort and adjacent cohorts proceeded to halt their important end-of-semester research and coursework to take the time to apply for the Harrison Award, only to be told after they were rejected that the award had been given to only Level III students and that they were never really in the running for it in the first place. Level I students were not even able to reapply for the award and were also completely cut off from a source of funding that they had been relying on.

I believe that this last-second move (at least, the students that it affected were informed at the last second) was highly problematic. One, it pulled the Graduate Center’s main stream of support for minority students out from under them, thus abandoning, causing severe stress to, and jeopardizing the academic trajectories of the very students who the Graduate Center should be supporting (and claims to be supporting) in its efforts to become more diverse. Again, many students had already declined other jobs and scholarships by this time of year, specifically because they had expected to receive the Harrison Award, and the situation has had long-term effects on students who were already struggling to find consistent sources of income and funding. In addition (I am embarrassed to mention it but the analogy is glaring), the idea of suddenly pulling the resources specifically from minority students and making them compete for an inadequate number of funding packages cannot help but remind a member of our current popular culture of the theme of the Hunger Games.

I would like the administration to think carefully about the message that this change sent to the many Level I, II, and possibly III students who found out in an email that they were no longer going to be able to rely on Harrison money for the coming school year. As a supplement, I am including anonymized testimony I received months ago in an informal email from a colleague who was affected by this change, followed by a follow-up email sent last week in which the student explains that the fact that no information about Harrison has yet been sent out this year may well mean that the student must take a leave of absence next semester. I can personally attest that this is only one of many, many similar stories from Graduate Center students.


Naomi Podber

Anonymized email:

I don’t even know where to start…

The first thing was how last minute everything was.  We were told about the change when the deadline was less than two weeks away.  Then the deadline was extended but this wasn’t communicated until there were less than two weeks left AGAIN.  So, I had to scramble to get my application materials together.  Then, I made myself crazy getting the application in, only to be told that we didn’t qualify anyway.  Basically, it felt as if we were being told, “your time doesn’t matter to us, kid.”  I’m not sure I’m conveying how stressful that was.  When you’re working multiple jobs, time is tight.

Getting the Harrison fellowship in the past meant that I had tuition covered.  I haven’t had a Grad anything or a teaching fellowship to depend on.  I had to find my own teaching jobs (and still do) to cover tuition.  If, for some reason, the available courses don’t fit with my schedule, then I can’t teach.  So, having the Harrison money at least let me have the peace of mind that my tuition would be covered, and then I knew I could always work at side jobs to support myself (as opposed to working side jobs to support myself and also pay $3000 in tuition, which is just not possible).

From the email we got from the administration, it seems like they decided to give more money to fewer students to avoid the bottleneck that happens when students are ABD.  The thing is, I’m not close to being ABD yet, because I’ve gotten little to no funding over the years, and it has slowed my progress.  It’s an endless hustle.

Another thing is that I had received an email from [the head of my department] letting me know about the upcoming deadline.  So, people like [the head of the department] may have assumed that I had possibilities for funding coming my way (meaning that I would not need departmental funding) when in fact that was not going to happen.

Follow-up email sent May 7, 2015:

It is now May 7th and we still have not heard anything about the application process for next year.  I specifically emailed them asking about it a few months ago and received no reply.  [Another student] went to the office and was told they didn’t know anything. I suspect a last-minute deadline will be given to us again.

To bring all of this home, I am 98% sure that I will take a leave of absence in the fall because I have no funding. Otherwise, I would have to wait to see what last-minute courses need to be taught, rearrange my entire schedule so I can teach one or two of those in addition to working multiple jobs, and then receive tuition remission. But the thought of that is just so unappealing. I have already had to do this in multiple semesters, and it is very stressful.  Students with teaching fellowships know their teaching schedules way in advance, and I would have to work so many hours to make the amount of money/tuition remission that a yearly package (or adjuncting along with a Harrison Fellowship) would afford that it would practically impossible to do any school work.

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