Opinion guest column

MIT should guarantee funding for graduate students amid the pandemic

Graduate students deserve access to accessible and widely publicized funding and degree extension programs

It has been more than a year since MIT’s campus shut down to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Since then, MIT has implemented a range of transformative pandemic policies: campus testing, vaccination, research closures and ramp-ups, and many other ways of making sure MIT students can safely live and work on campus. Unfortunately, despite MIT’s willingness to offset pandemic impacts, they have steadfastly refused a crucial pandemic relief policy: funding extensions for graduate students. 

While the majority of MIT graduate students can depend on consistent funding until their degree completion, this is not the case for all programs. Programs in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (SHASS) and the School of Architecture and Planning (SAP), as well as certain programs in the School of Science such as Mathematics, have “funding cliffs.” A student may be guaranteed five years of funding, but degree completion in these departments averages six or seven years (while national averages hover between eight and nine years). This leaves students on their own through the most pivotal and stressful years of degree completion. Student and faculty advocates have pushed to close such funding gaps for more than 10 years, with little progress throughout that time. Now, the pandemic is exacerbating these long-running financial pain points. Before COVID-19, degree timelines were already crunched. Now, with pandemic delays, students face even more time before completion, with even less financial support from MIT.

MIT COVID Relief is a student organization with members from all five schools. It formed in early spring 2020 to push for equitable pandemic relief, like stop-gap emergency funding for students without summer stipends; responsible workloads for TAs and RAs; and better communication and transparency from the central administration. In spring 2020, we also made clear to central administrators that pandemic-induced work delays would be a long-term problem that needed long-term, central solutions. 

Lab research on campus has largely “ramped up,” but for students whose doctoral research relies on archives and domestic or international fieldwork, options for ramp-up are slim. Libraries, including MIT’s own, remain closed. Archives are closed and online materials limited. International travel remains impossible for most. SHASS and SAP students have been forced to make last-minute changes to their entire research programs — changes which themselves take time to implement. Early-stage students cannot carry out the preliminary research they need to make significant progress. At every stage, students continue to face delays. But the MIT administration has been unwilling to develop and implement a policy to equitably offset these serious challenges to non-laboratory research. 

Centrally funded and administered funding extensions are necessary to offset this unfortunate combination of institutional neglect and pandemic impacts. Many programs in SHASS and SAP face chronic funding shortages; they cannot support delayed doctoral students alone. In August 2020, Provost Martin Schmidt verbally guaranteed in a meeting with COVID Relief and the Graduate Student Council that “any student that needs funding extensions will get one.” But the central administration has left publicizing and distributing extensions up to individual departments or schools. 

Even after the Provost’s verbal guarantees, implementation differs between departments and schools, leading to disparate outcomes. MIT COVID Relief recently conducted a survey across SHASS, SAP, and School of Science departments, including Urban Studies and Planning; Architecture; Political Science; the Sloan School of Management; History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society; Linguistics and Philosophy; and Mathematics. Out of 72 respondents from seven departments, only four students have been able to access extensions, two students had their extension requests denied, while three extension requests are still under consideration. Crucially, only 11 respondents had been notified by faculty or administration about the availability of funding extensions. These results indicate that very few, if any, students have heard of the availability of funding extensions. Those who did secure funding either had strong advocates in central school administration or received it as the result of their department’s local initiative with no financial support from the Institute as a whole. This leaves access to extension funding up to the whims of the deans or the financial independence and well-being of individual departments. In a global crisis that impacts us all, such variable access to extension information and actual funding is inequitable and unconscionable.

MIT has approached other “emergency funding” programs with a similar unwillingness to widely ensure access. In spring 2020, the Institute started a much-needed pilot program to distribute need-blind grants to graduate students with dependent children. The Institute only advertised this program in the appendix of semesterly "Graduate Student Update" emails loaded with other information (including a suggestion for an app to "help you retrain your body to sleep soundly"). This, unsurprisingly, led to very few graduate students being informed about it. The failure to publicize relief policies suggests that MIT fears “students taking advantage” more than they fear “students going without.” This is a cynical and irresponsible approach to relief. Lack of centrally funded, well-advertised programs leaves students with no option but to request funding from faculty and department administrators who are already struggling with additional financial constraints. 

Many of our peer institutions have already implemented time-to-degree and funding extensions for graduate students. Harvard, Brown, New York University, and UC Berkeley have implemented centrally managed extension programs after pressure from graduate student unions. Not only are these programs more accessible to students, many of these institutions implemented them in spring 2020, at the very beginning of the crisis, offering graduate students a degree of certainty in incredibly uncertain times. In comparison, MIT’s failure to advertise even the possibility of any sort of extension after a full year of the crisis is shameful. Students deserve to be able to plan their lives and advance their crucial research for more than a semester at a time.

It’s been a year since the epidemic began, but the COVID emergency is far from over. Indeed, for many doctoral students, their difficulties are just beginning — a slow cascade created by uncertain funding, delayed research, and lack of administrative transparency. To offset these difficulties, MIT has spent more than $255 million on pandemic policies in the past year. According to our calculations, pandemic-related extensions for every impacted student without a funding package would cost only $3 million. In a year where MIT’s endowment has recovered 8.3%, MIT can afford to pay its graduate students. 

MIT should either publicly admit that it does not care for its graduate students’ financial security in a global crisis, or guarantee equitable funding support for any student who is experiencing delays in their research due to the unprecedented pandemic.

The authors of this article are organizers with MIT COVID Relief.
Daniel Engelberg is a third-year student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
Yadav Gowda is a fifth-year student in Linguistics and Philosophy.
Dmitry Privoznov is a sixth-year graduate student in Linguistics and Philosophy.
Gabrielle Robbins is a fourth-year student in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society.