International grad students demand the fellowship money they were owed three months ago

As if the usual gross exploitation of part-time workers at CUNY weren’t enough, the administration regularly uses bureaucratic maneuvers to further extract cost-savings from its most vulnerable employees. Adjuncts are rarely paid on time, they’re forced to give up their classes to full-time professors whose sections don’t meet the enrollment minimums, and fifth-year graduate students are forced to work as Writing Across the Curriculum fellows for twice as many hours as the contract permits but for the same pay. Adding to an endless list of injustices, this semester many international students at the Graduate Center have not been paid their fellowship money. Normally paid in August, fellowships can be as much as half a student’s income for the semester, which is especially vital for international students, who are barred from working outside of CUNY. The administration has offered no recourse besides broken promises and shady “advances” that were actually loans. Meanwhile, the PSC, which usually refuses to intervene in any issue not covered by the contract, has only further mucked up the situation by suggesting that the GC issue these loans rather than mobilizing its rank-and-file to demand immediate payment.

Thankfully, the rank-and-file aren’t waiting for the union leadership for direction. International graduate students have been organizing at the grassroots level to demand the money they were owed three months ago, as well as mechanisms to prevent future late payment. We share below an open letter explaining and raising these demands. At the time of publishing, over a hundred GC students and faculty have signed. You can sign onto the letter here.


Open Letter from International Students

To: The Graduate Center, CUNY and CUNY Central

At the end of September of this year, a number of international students found out that the lump sum payment of our fellowship had been delayed to mid-October, and for first- year incoming students, it would be delayed until the end of October. It’s not necessary to emphasize the possible negative outcomes for anyone with the PhD fellowship who have apartment leases, family dependents, and monthly utility bills and living expenses.  Some solutions on the part of The Graduate Center have been offered via e-mail. The Office of Financial Aid is willing to issue loans to those in this situation. However, this process itself is limited and involves further delays, which is exactly the problem we want to address in this letter. In addition, having to request a “loan” from the institution that owes you from the start is a clear abuse of power. As it is, the fact of working for two months, from mid-August, when one starts preparing different classes to impart at CUNY, to mid-October or later, without receiving the most important part of one’s income as international PhD students, amounts to unpaid labor. Options are limited for international students: besides being restricted to teach a limited number of hours within the CUNY system, international PhD students also face legal limitations to work outside of campus.

This situation has made evident what needs to be addressed, which is, first, the disparity in the payment schedule between international and local PhDs.  The difference in the payment dates of stipends just because of the status of the student employee, foreign or local, should be addressed and corrected. There must be provided, at least, an explanation that does not assume such divisions as a “natural” part of the administrative process. This aspect must be immediately tackled, unless the message is that we should feel comfortable with these kinds of structurally discriminatory practices, especially in our own place of work and study, and especially at CUNY.

Second, this problem has made visible the lack of communication between the Graduate Center administration and international students, who were deeply concerned about the vague responses given by administrative personnel. The lack of any prompt explanatory e-mail to international students coming from the institution that hosts us, diminishes our existence as part of the student and employee body in this campus.

We are proud members of CUNY and defend the social function that the institution is leading in the midst of an increasingly privatized educational system. Most PhD fellows who teach at Lehman, Brooklyn or Hunter College, just to mention a few, and even those harmed by this current situation believe in what this intellectual space stands for and the opportunities it creates. It is precisely because of this that we believe The Graduate Center, CUNY must strive for improvement and an exemplary role.

We believe that to accept a set of rules that divides the student body and employees by nationality without even a proper explanation given to these students, negligently disempowers its own future and makes it much more difficult for international students teaching as adjuncts to enter CUNY classrooms and teach the idea of equality.

From this letter, we want to propose three solutions to The Graduate Center, CUNY and CUNY Central.

  1. Administrative action towards the elimination of the disparity in payment schedules between international and local PhDs.
  2. A standardized schedule of fellowship stipend payments, starting Spring 2019, indicating the week in which international and local PhDs will be paid.
  3. The release of the full fellowship for students who are still awaiting their delayed payment.

These immediate and short-term measures seek to eradicate the unequal treatment given to international students in this institution.

Sincerely,

International, local students and professors

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