“There is no care in the way we get this important information and it shows that our work is undervalued by the university.”
Ph.D. students at Boston University who receive stipends will be required to be on campus in the fall, leaving international students floundering and medical insurance on the line.
BU’s Learn from Anywhere program, announced June 1, gives BU undergraduate students the ability to choose whether they take classes in person or online. However, the university’s Ph.D. students are not given the same flexibility. According to a memo sent out on June 19, Ph.D. students who are receiving stipends for research, teaching, or non-service appointments must be on campus as of Sept. 1, with limited exceptions, in order to receive their stipends.
The memo further states, “We do not believe it is advisable to allow even experienced teaching fellows to solely teach remotely.” However, teaching fellows who are considered high-risk by the CDC, or who live with someone who is high-risk, or who are pregnant can apply for a workplace adjustment for the fall semester.
The memo was met with concern and frustration. “Re-opening the campus will put people at risk, so to mandate workers to return, especially if they have the capacity to continue remote learning, doesn’t seem very wise,” Jasmin Figueroa, a fourth year BU Ph.D. student in the field of practical theology, said.
A followup to the memo, sent out June 23, stated that Ph.D. students with research and teaching service appointments who are not returning to campus will be expected to take a leave of absence. These students, therefore, will lose their medical insurance provided by the university.
Alicia Matz, a fourth year Ph.D. student in classics at BU, relies on this insurance. Because she is a type 1 diabetic and can no longer be on her parents’ insurance due to being older than 26, the situation is dire for her.
“While I have applied for a ‘workplace adjustment,’ application does not guarantee any adjustment,” Matz said. “If I am denied an adjustment for any reason, I will have to put my high-risk self at higher risk by commuting by bus every day to teach a classroom full of students who may or may not be an asymptomatic carrier, all in order to make sure I still have the money and the health insurance I need in order to get the insulin I have to have to stay alive.”
On top of the health concerns this course of action creates, it also neglects international students. With US embassies around the world currently closed, many international students may not be able to get visas. For them, it may not be possible to get on campus by Sept. 1.
The BU memo came just days before President Donald Trump issued a proclamation to significantly limit the entry of foreign workers to the United States. Many international Ph.D. students use J-1 visas, and restrictions on them are said to be a part of the order. However, it is not completely clear whether or not restrictions will apply to them.
Additionally, continuing students with research service appointments who are in the US but not on campus and whose research can be done remotely will be paid their stipend. However, any student outside of the United States cannot be paid their stipend “because it creates a tax and financial burden for BU and the student,” as stated in the memo.
“Even when my health would be in risk, I have no choice but to be on campus in the fall,” Emilio Gonzalez Coya Sandoval, a BU Ph.D. Economics student from Mexico, said. “For many PhD students—and I am not the exception—the stipend that we receive represents all our income. In the middle of a pandemic, it is not an option to lose it.”
The June 23 memo also stated, “continuing students with non-service appointments for fall 2020 who are undertaking dissertation research away from Boston University need not return and will receive their stipend.”
Since the June 19 memo’s release, Ph.D. students have been organizing.
“There’s a lot of action going on. Many departments’ grad associations are writing letters to express their frustrations with the plans,” Lydia Harrington, a sixth year BU Ph.D. student in the History of Art and Architecture Department, said in an interview. “We’re trying to put international students at the forefront in terms of what’s the most important.”
The June 19 memo itself was distributed chaotically, as only some departments sent it out. Many students, like Nicole Correri, a third year BU Ph.D. student in the religion department, did not receive the memo from their departments, but instead heard about it on social media and from colleagues.
“There is no care in the way we get this important information and it shows that our work is undervalued by the university,” Correri said.
The memo came from the BU provost and chief academic officer and the associate provost for graduate affairs. They were contacted but did not respond to a request for comment.
This news follows an uproar from professors who were previously told they would have to teach in-person with limited exceptions. That information led to the creation of a petition calling for BU to allow all professors and teaching fellows to have the choice over whether or not they teach in person. In addition, it calls for allowing students the same choice, and also requests that teachers and students not need disclose their personal medical conditions in order to be permitted to teach or attend classes entirely online. The concerns are similar to those of the Ph.D. students.
“[Medical conditions] should be confidential information,” Harrington said. “Like BU said, it will be kept confidential, but we often worry if these conditions can be used against us. Like women in academia, if they’re pregnant often get overlooked for jobs or straight up not hired if they’re pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant.”
On June 18, Morrison stated in a memo to BU faculty and teaching fellows that those who have a non-medical concern about returning in the fall may say so on the workplace adjustment form. “After we gather this information, we will determine whether or not there are ameliorative steps we might take,” the memo stated.
“I and many other professors at BU (such as those that signed our petition) remain committed to the idea that graduate students who teach or assist teachers at BU should not be put in a position where they are being treated differently than us with respect to choices concerning teaching at home or teaching on campus,” Star said.
“I continue to believe that during this pandemic, all of us (not just professors) should be given the right to teach from anywhere, just as undergraduate students are being given the right to learn from anywhere.”
Update: In a June 30 memo sent to Ph.D. students, Morrison stated that “if you are unable or choose not to return to campus in the fall and you do not receive approval to do your service remotely, you may continue to receive your health insurance.” The memo also noted that BU is “working to support our international students as much as possible during this period of disruption, given the regulatory issues that are in effect.”