GSU statement on 6th year funding for Humanities (with strings attached)

For the past two years, we’ve organized for recognition as a union so we can collectively bargain with the UChicago administration. It’s always been clear we need our rights respected as employees and union members through a legally binding and democratically negotiated contract, even as we’ve won some partial victories along the way. The flurry of funding changes that have occured in the past two weeks are no exception.

GSU members in the Divinity School won 6th year funding, and members in the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) of Public Policy and the Social Sciences Division (SSD) won increased summer funding. This is welcome news in these divisions, and it’s impossible to separate these changes from the pressure we’ve consistently put on UChicago for increased compensation for the work we all do. As one member said: these aren’t gifts, they’re paychecks, and the raise is one our members deeply deserve.

At the same time, there are also many questions. Many in SSA and SSD take six years or more to complete their degrees, and are left to wonder why they weren’t offered another year of funding. Other divisions, particularly the Biological and Physical Sciences and the Harris School, may be wondering if the central administration has forgotten all about them. And then there’s the situation in the Humanities. We were glad to learn that those of us in the Humanities would finally be offered a guaranteed 6th year of funding — unfortunately, this offer comes with strings attached.  

We are alarmed to see a time-to-degree cap of 8 years included as a part of the new funding structure. Even more concerningly, the the message that announced the policy stated: “almost all students across the Division should be able to complete the dissertation in 6 years.” This makes clear that the policy was written without consulting with us–or even with faculty–in many departments.  More than 23% of currently enrolled students in the Humanities Division are in year 7+, and most departments in the Humanities have an average time-to-degree that well exceeds six years — and that time is dependent on one’s coursework, field of study, research subject, and more. Many questions, like changes to teaching expectations, remain unanswered. To be clear, guaranteed sixth year funding is good, but its conditions and the process by which it was developed point to some fundamental issues.

  1. One size fits all doesn’t work.

Universities are supposed to support the creation of new knowledge–in other  words–dissertations. A cap on time-to degree will limit the types of research students in the Humanities will be able to pursue. If UChicago is committed to research and scholarship, it needs to support those of us who do projects with extensive travel, archival work, language acquisition, or field research. A time-to-degree cap could especially hit international grads, parents, first-generation grads, people with disabilities, and people with mental health needs. People who need to take personal leave will either have to justify their leave in new ways, or risk not being able to finish their programs. International students who need to stay in the country in order to apply for jobs will be simply unable to with this new policy. As GSU works to make the university more equitable for all, we have to fight policies that punish those of us who are not the university’s image of the “ideal graduate student.” Stigmatizing people who take longer with blanket statements like “everyone should be able to finish in 6 years” is damaging to our members and devalues our scholarship. This policy’s “one-size fit all” model fails to account for the unique character of our degree programs and the diversity of the graduate students that make up our community. GSU will always fight for inclusivity and policies that reflect that diversity.

2. No decisions about us, without us.

The most fundamental principle of having a union is that we deserve a say in our workplace. These funding came from the upper administration with almost no input from grad workers, faculty, or even department chairs. This one size-fit all decision made by people who know next to nothing about our individual programs should alarm us all. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be how decisions are made at UChicago. With a union, the administration will have to negotiate with us.

3.  We need a contract.

To be clear, sixth year funding is good, but it isn’t enough. It does nothing to address the rising cost of healthcare or rent, lack of dental/vision insurance, the Student Life Fee, campus climate and diversity, equity, and inclusion, and more. Just in the past few months, our colleagues at American, Brandeis, Tufts, and The New School have all reached contracts with their universities that address this broad range of issues. It’s clear that the only way we will make true progress and win a funding policy that fully values our scholarship is through a democratically negotiated union contract.

The impacts of these funding changes are uneven across, and even within, divisions. These Humanities funding changes are beneficial to many and detrimental to some, and we know that the only way forward is to stand together as a union in solidarity with each other. GSU will continue to fight for no-strings-attached 6th year funding for al and for UChicago to once and for all #BargainNow.