Northwestern University Graduate Workers Statement Regarding COVID-19

Northwestern faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students: You can show support by signing this document here.

Dear President Schapiro, Dean Woodruff, Provost Holloway, Members of the Northwestern Board of Trustees, Deans, and Administrative Officials of Northwestern University,

Over the past few weeks, Northwestern University was forced to drastically reorganize its operations in response to the crisis occasioned by the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. Unfortunately, it has already fallen short of its duty to protect its students and employees from the pandemic’s fallout. The delayed closure of non-essential research activity in STEM labs in clear violation of all social distancing guidelines, the failure to guarantee employment, wages, and paid-time off for all workers regardless of status and ability to work remotely, and a general lack of concern for the most vulnerable members or our community have exposed the administration’s inadequate and frankly haphazard handling of the crisis.

In light of these events, NUGW wants to stress that any and all measures taken by Northwestern University in response to the present crisis must aim, first and foremost, to minimize the impact it will have on the most vulnerable members of our community. As the recent Coalition NU letter and recent Town Hall demonstrated, TGS has perpetuated harm against underrepresented and underserved graduate workers on campus. We know that such patterns of harm will continue and worsen during this time of crisis unless the university takes action. In this regard, NUGW stands to defend not only the interests, health, and safety of all graduate workers across the university but especially those of underserved and underrepresented graduate students. We also stand in solidarity with all precarious workers, including undergraduate student workers, hourly staff, non-teaching staff, and contingent faculty. We must not, and will not, let this crisis become yet another milestone in the University’s preservation of inequitable structures, precarization of graduate and academic labor, and devaluation of the labor of the custodians, dining hall workers, medical personnel, administrative employees and all those without whom this institution would simply cease to function. The university works because we do and Northwestern has a material, financial, and moral responsibility to take care of all of its workers in return.

Graduate workers, many of whom were already suffering from inadequate support, have been hit hard in the last few weeks as they struggle to keep up with their work, serve their students, and care for themselves and their families. In addition, the pandemic has put many of our research plans on hold, affecting timelines for completion of our dissertations, publications, and further promotion of our careers. For those of us on the job market, once promising opportunities for tenure-track jobs, VAPs, and postdocs in an already precarious academic job market have disappeared with little indication of whether those opportunities will be restored. Beyond the immediate and necessarily ad-hoc adjustments imposed on all by social distancing measures and the switch to remote learning for the Spring Quarter, NUGW is looking forward to the long-term impact this crisis will have on graduate workers for months and years to come. The following list of demands was drawn in response to the immediate and long-term needs and concerns of workers as conveyed to us by hundreds of our colleagues across the university.

Demands for Immediate Relief for Graduate Workers

1. Immediately meet the new prioritized demands of Coalition NU, a coalition of underrepresented and underserved graduate workers who demanded that TGS rectify harm done to historically marginalized students.

These demands include prioritizing and expanding the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, providing equitable support for graduate student associations that serve underrepresented and underserved communities, advocating for expanded mental health care and inclusive health insurance for graduate students, and supporting the Native and Indigenous graduate community at Northwestern.

2. Guarantee one year of extended funding for all current graduate students, and guarantee six years of funding for all graduate students entering Northwestern in Fall 2020 and after.

Northwestern and more than 60 other universities have extended tenure clocks by one year, acknowledging that many research projects have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, negatively impacting publication timeliness and the progression of academic careers.

Northwestern must now extend this policy to all graduate students, whose coursework, research, and time-to-degree continue to be dramatically impacted by the pandemic. Many if not all of us will be subject to a lack of access to relevant research materials, both on and off campus. This includes the necessary closure of campus resources such as labs and libraries (and interlibrary loan capacities), and restrictions on travel (especially international) for field and archival research, or experiments involving human subjects. As a result, all departments must pause time-to-completion measures and extend funding for all current graduate students. Just as a tenure clock extension has been granted to all junior faculty, so should this additional year of guaranteed funding be extended to all graduate students.

Those who are nearing the end of their degree will enter a severely depressed academic job market as universities institute hiring freezes. Conferences, lectures, and workshops—which provide the networking and professional development opportunities, crucial for success on the job market—have been cancelled, putting students at a severe disadvantage on the job market. In light of this situation, we demand the immediate granting of four additional quarters of full funding and subsidized health insurance for all graduate students, including international students and regardless of individual circumstances or academic standing.

The economic fallout of the pandemic is likely to affect academia, and especially the academic job market, for years to come, with limited resources for professional development activities and extreme job scarcity as the likely result. Even prior to this crisis, average time to degree across many departments was between six and seven years. Now, we can only expect this average to rise. For this reason, it is crucial that future graduate students have the time to prepare themselves well for the increased competition they are likely to face. In light of these circumstances, we demand that Northwestern University follow the lead of other institutions in guaranteeing funding for six full years for all current and future graduate students.

3. Pass/No Pass for all graduate and undergraduate students in coursework for Spring Quarter 2020.

Northwestern University must follow the lead of peer institutions in making Spring Quarter Pass/No Pass. It is imperative that this measure must be taken for graduate student workers still in coursework, as well as undergraduates. The move to online learning coupled with the ongoing disruptions of COVID-19 in our day-to-day lives makes traditional forms of assessment untenable as the circumstances within which students must perform and be evaluated have changed in unprecedented ways. A Pass/No Pass quarter would more fairly address already existing inequities in how this crisis will unevenly impact those who are already the most vulnerable.

4. Waive the Spring Quarter student activity fee for all students while maintaining their access to public transit.

Waiving the student activity fee, but maintaining access to CTA services for all graduate workers, would provide immediate financial relief to those who need it most. The fee should be waived for all graduate workers without the need for an application, which is what TGS has recently announced will be required for a waiver. Further, non-payment of the fee, however, should not lead to shutting off students’ transit access. Although students will be using their ventra cards more infrequently, students should still have access to CTA for retrieving groceries, medications, and for emergency purposes. Taking away CTA Ventra cards only displaces the burden of the activity fee onto the burden to pay for necessary transportation to grocery stores, to see doctors, and access pharmacies.

5. Provide graduate students with a book stipend for the Spring and Summer Quarters.

Due to library closures and travel restrictions, students have lost access to resources needed to complete research and prepare for exams. Departments and professors must privilege free and easily accessible online resources when compiling course materials to make up for the lack of access to library resources. In addition, departments must provide students with a stipend to purchase books and other resources now otherwise unavailable.

6. Provide full COVID-19 testing and treatment coverage.

The university must commit to covering all health costs incurred by graduate workers and their dependents that are directly related to COVID-19 including testing, vaccination, and treatment. This coverage must also extend to all graduate students who finish their degrees during the crisis, until coverage is provided by another employer.

7. Provide protections for International Students.
  1. Funding: International students must receive the additional year of funding due to the pandemic, and all incoming international students must receive 6th year funding. International students’ non-eligibility for many US fellowships already hinder their research plans and force a very accelerated time compared to USA students, so ensuring this additional funding is imperative.
  2. Visa status: The Office of International Students and Scholars Services must do everything in its power to help international students maintain their visa status so that they may complete their degree in good conditions, including expanding access to legal services for all international students.
  3. Financial help: The university must match any federal financial aid accorded to US citizens and permanent residents with an equivalent amount for international students.
8. Immediate reimbursement of all travel expenses and extension of TGS research grants.

All travel expenses that were incurred by graduate workers for trips that were cancelled due to the epidemic must be reimbursed as soon as possible with no loss of access to travel funds in the future. Additionally, all TGS research grants, which normally have to be used within one year of being awarded, should be extended due to allow students to use these funds for research once the pandemic recedes.

9. Non-retaliation policy.

No graduate worker should be pressured to work by their supervisor or departments in any way that might endanger their health and safety and that of others. The university must enact a clear non-retaliation policy that prohibits retaliation on the part of advisors, supervisors, and department administrators against graduate workers who refused to work to protect the health of the community. Northwestern must provide a transparent mechanism to address retaliation cases should they arise.

Demands for Other Workers on Campus

  1. Fair pay for all NU workers
    1. Maintain all dining hall workers at their employment status for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak and hire back any workers who were laid off. (petition)
    2. Ensure that all employees, including student workers, receive full pay for the shifts they are typically scheduled for, or average weekly pay if appropriate, even if university operations are suspended or the nature of the job prevents employees from working from home.
    3. For student workers – meet the demands of their petition:
      1. A minimum of 8 hours a week paid time off for student employees who cannot work due to campus closures.
      2. Remote/online options for campus jobs wherever available and the ability to use paid time off to compensate for any lost hours.
      3. An extra 20 hours paid sick leave for employees whose workplaces are still functioning, such as the package centers, in addition to any sick leave employees have already accrued.
      4. $15/hour hazard pay for employees whose workplaces are still functioning, such as Norris and the package centers.
      5. For students whose work-study positions are unavailable through the end of the academic year, we demand the university provide bridge funding equal to students’ work-study allotment until campus is reopened and work can resume.
  1. Healthcare
    1. Commit to facilitating COVID-19 testing on campus, fully covering the uncovered costs of COVID-19 testing, treatment, vaccination, and associated mental health care for students and employees, and further commit to facilitating or providing insurance for uncovered employees.
    2. Provide emergency loans for students and employees who have to pay out-of-pocket for healthcare.


597 signatures as of April 17th, 2020