On Friday, April 24, hundreds of graduate student workers at Columbia University went on a rent and work strike following the administration’s refusal to sufficiently protect them from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This movement comes on the heels of an unnamed student filing a class-action lawsuit against Columbia University’s Board of Trustees, seeking reimbursement for tuition, fees, and other costs associated with services, such as access to campus facilities and in-person instruction, which are no longer provided due to the university’s response to COVID-19.

After the university failed to respond to numerous petitions signed by over 1,500 students and faculty members, graduate workers delivered a list of demands to President Lee Bollinger and nine other administrators via email. The demands include protecting international students at risk of deportation, canceling rent in university housing, and raising all PhD students’ summer funding to a minimum of $6,000. 

Breakdown of demands

Prior to the pandemic, the only students eligible to secure summer funding outside of teaching opportunities were in the first five years of their PhD program through the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) summer stipend, which amounts to $3,884 before taxes.

According to the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator, which measures the income necessary to “attain a modest, yet adequate standard of living,” the budget for a single adult living in the New York metropolitan area should be $4,277 per month before tax. However, this calculation does not account for the numerous members of the graduate worker community who are financially supporting family members and other dependents.

While Columbia created a recent additional stipend of $3,000, only students in the first seven years of their PhD program are eligible to receive this payment. Striking graduate student workers propose that the stipend be raised to at least $6,000 for every PhD student, regardless of their program standing or if they have been forced to take medical or parental leave.

Aside from the pandemic’s financial disruption, all graduate students are facing significantly limited resources in completing their research timelines. Lab work, archival research, and field work have all come to an abrupt and indefinite halt, and many grants upon which graduate research heavily relies have been suspended. Additionally, many universities have announced hiring freezes, minimizing graduate students’ opportunities to secure employment post-graduation.

To account for these issues, graduate workers have asked for Columbia to extend guaranteed funding to six years and waive the seven-year rule, stating that graduate students are only eligible for GSAS fellowships, university housing, and healthcare coverage up until year seven of their program. Waiving this rule would extend eligibility and protection to all PhD and Master of Arts student workers.

While the demands are primarily for PhD students, organizers are notably asking for concessions for Master of Arts students as well in an act of solidarity.

“We aren’t fighting for ourselves but are fighting from our position,” said a graduate student who asked to remain anonymous. PhD students typically enjoy much more job security than other university workers like adjunct faculty, who are often hired on a yearly or semester basis.

Additionally, graduate student workers’ requests to Columbia Residential to cancel rent in university housing have gone unanswered, putting tenants at risk for housing insecurity and insurmountable debt once New York state’s eviction moratorium ends.

Graduate students hold that with an endowment of approximately $10.9 billion, the university’s state of financial privilege necessitates an effective, immediate response to the needs resulting from this public health crisis.

“Many of us don’t know whether we will have a place to live, how we’ll pay for food, or how we will support our families,” said Lexie Cook, a PhD student who helped organize the strike. “Meanwhile, the construction gentrifying Harlem continues, President Bollinger’s salary remains intact and the university continues to pour money into the millions of dollars legal fees it wastes fighting the graduate worker union.”

Accumulated rental debt not only has significant financial implications for graduate students, but also academic ones. Currently, the university links academic status to rent payments, meaning that if there is an outstanding balance from the previous academic year, registering enrollment for the following year is impeded until the prior balance is fully paid. This policy can be a serious impediment to international students, whose visa status is directly impacted by their relationship to their landlord.

Noticeably, one-quarter of the demands are devoted to the needs of international students. International students have called on the university to financially and legally support them in navigating an increasingly dangerous, unpredictable situation. Because of the pandemic, many international graduate students are being forced to defer enrollment or take a leave of absence. They are requesting that the university reimburse the fees associated with student visas as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) applications, renewals, and adjustments. They are also demanding that the university maintain their statuses as active within the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Any action otherwise could potentially derail their academic progress, employment, and/or scholarships.

To reiterate the importance of organizing “from their position” rather than “for themselves,” Columbia’s international students are interested in coordinating with the university to advocate at the federal level for the rights of expatriate students across the country.

End to Columbia University’s austerity

Many students believe the university’s failure to adequately respond to their demands related to COVID-19 indicates the institution’s growing “austerity,” continuously prioritizing the “hedge fundification” of the university over the livelihood of its student workers.

To close their list of demands, the graduate student workers stated: “As teaching assistants, we do the vast majority of grading in large lecture courses and are the main points of contact for undergraduates in discussion sections, office hours, and over email. We also bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars of external funding through our own research and through our contributions to larger research groups and projects. Yet this reality is not reflected in the financial fiction that schools whose budgets are being slashed are net drains on the university budget.”

Organizers expect that their frustration with the university will intensify over the summer, likely resulting in another strike this coming fall.

Juliana Clark (she/her) is a freelance journalist and audio producer. She is interested in promoting equity through her reporting and a progressive feminist perspective through her arts and entertainment criticism. Clark has bylines in The Eye and the Columbia Journal, and produced an episode for the podcast Notes From a Sister. Clark has a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing and a minor in anthropology from Barnard College of Columbia University. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California.

Juliana Clark (she/her) is a freelance journalist and audio producer. She is interested in promoting equity through her reporting and a progressive feminist perspective through her arts and entertainment...