The life of a graduate student looks much closer to that of an average worker than many universities care to admit. After completing core courses, most students at this level devote the equivalent of full time working hours or more towards research. Levels of compensation and protections vary across the country, but many graduate students are simply handed paltry stipends that hardly cover their needs, and ultimately amount to pathetic hourly wages. At Johns Hopkins University, many graduate students are producing much-needed research on the COVID-19 pandemic. These students produce vast profits for the university, but don’t even receive a living wage for their innovative and lucrative research. TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez interviews Johns Hopkins graduate students Andrew and Caleb about conditions at their university, and the general struggle of graduate students across the country to win protections and recognition as workers.
Maximilian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to this Battleground Baltimore edition of The Real News Network podcast. My name is Maximillian Alvarez, I’m the editor in chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. The Real News is an independent, viewer-supported, nonprofit media network. That means instead of relying on corporate cash and billionaires, we need each one of you to invest in the work of our journalists so they can strengthen and expand our coverage of the voices and issues you care about most. So, please, take a moment and click the link in the show notes or head to therealnews.com/support and become a monthly sustainer of our work. And shout out to all of our members who already contribute.
It’s been a long-running joke that graduate students are broke and work all the time while living off cheap ramen. Speaking as a former graduate student worker, I can say that that stereotype definitely captures my experience, But the impact of COVID-19 and the ongoing inflation and cost-of-living crisis has taken an already-bad situation for grad student workers in this country and made it completely untenable. And that’s as true here in Baltimore as it is in college towns and cities across the country. And that is one of the many reasons why graduate student workers at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University are fighting to organize a union under the banner of Teachers and Researchers United, which is affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE).
As the Teachers and researchers United website states, “We are a movement of graduate student workers at Johns Hopkins University organizing a union in order to win improvements in our working conditions and demand dignity, respect, and a contract. From labs to classrooms, graduate workers at JHU keep the university running.” One page on the TRU website is dedicated specifically to the issue of living wages, which reads “ Johns Hopkins currently has the sixteenth largest endowment among U.S. universities, valued at $9.32 billion. This includes $1.3 billion of unrestricted reserves, which are available to offset inflation and the rising cost of living. Further, over the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years, JHU’s endowment grew by $3 billion and the University accumulated a $288 million budget surplus. Despite this, graduate stipends remain well below a living wage and the stipends of our colleagues at peer institutions.
The bottom line: Hopkins can afford to pay us more.
Financial security makes us better students, teachers and researchers. Thus, inadequately compensating Ph.D. students is not just wrong, but it’s unsustainable. We should be able to afford a healthy work-life balance, emergency expenses, and to save for our futures. For slightly less than $26 million a year– less than 10% of the budget surplus accrued since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic– Hopkins could guarantee $40k stipends and six-years of funding for ALL Ph.D. students, regardless of school or department.
With a union contract, we can finally ensure that all graduate workers receive the pay we deserve. It’s about time that Hopkins invests in us.”
To dig into all of this and more, I had the honor of speaking with two graduate student workers and organizers at Johns Hopkins, Andrew, a fourth-year graduate student in the school of medicine, and Caleb Andrews, a fifth-year PhD student in the department of materials science and engineering. Here’s my conversation with Andrew and Caleb, where we talk about the cost of living crisis they and their coworkers are going through, working in higher education through the COVID-19 pandemic, and about their efforts to organize graduate student workers at Johns Hopkins.
Andrew: Hey there, I’m Andrew. I’m a fourth year graduate student in the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins, and I’ve been working towards fixing a lot of the issues that a lot of my colleagues and I face for a couple years now. I’ve been around. I’ve heard a lot of things, had a lot of conversations about how deep a lot of the problems run, and I’ve been trying to work with my colleagues to improve that for some time now.
Caleb Andrews: Hi, my name’s Caleb Andrews. I’m going on my fifth year in graduate school. I’m in the Department of Material Science, chasing after my PhD. I’ve been working with Andrew for the past couple years on various things. How can we organize to make conditions at Hopkins better so that the next crop of graduate students has a better go of it than I have, and we have.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, Andrew, Caleb, thank you both so much for sitting down and chatting with us here on The Real News Network podcast, the Battleground Baltimore edition. We do a lot of coverage here at The Real News on worker struggles and the lives and jobs that folks around the city of Baltimore and beyond are doing on a day-to day-basis and how important that work is.
I think that it’s always been very important to me, even before I was at The Real News, to make space for us in the labor movement, for folks who are talking about, learning about labor, to understand that there are many forms that work can take, many types of folks who do vital labor and who should be understood as part of the movement.
This is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart as a former graduate student worker, as someone who did some organizing in graduate school, as someone who worked as an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education down in DC and spent my time there trying to make sure that it wasn’t just tenured academics and administrators whose voices were being published, but that we were getting writing from graduate student workers, undergraduates, staff, custodial staff, administrative staff, so on and so forth.
Universities are big places, and a lot of people there do vital work to keep those places running. That very much includes yourselves and your colleagues, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today, is what graduate student workers at Johns Hopkins are going through right now, especially as the inflation crisis puts a cost of living squeeze on all of us.
That’s been really rough for yourselves and your coworkers because, as we know, graduate students don’t exactly break the bank with the stipends that we get. Depending on what school you’re at, you may not get a stipend. Graduate student workers are already living very close to the bone, and I speak from experience in that regard. When you add on to that rising costs of living, rents getting jacked up, basic prices for groceries and whatnot going up and up and up, that hurts a lot. And so that’s what we want to talk about here today.
But before we get there, just to really, again, communicate to folks more about you and the working graduate students at Hopkins who do so much vital labor to keep the university going, I was wondering if we could talk a little, get to know a little more about you both, how you got into the programs that you’re doing, and what that work looks like on a day-to-day basis.
Andrew: Yeah, so I did about three years of research while I was doing my undergrad degree in a lab in preparation to go to grad school. I was one of the lucky ones that was able to get in right after I finished my undergrad. Not everybody does that. Some people will work for a couple years to get more experience, but I was able to be in an environment where I was built up to be somebody that was somewhat self-sufficient to the point where I could get into grad school and do research.
The kind of research I do now is, really, every day I’m going into the lab. I am doing experiments. I work in a biophysics lab, so a lot of it can be very technical. There aren’t a lot of people in general who can do the type of work that grad students in my department do. It’s a lot of very specialized work, and we generate the data that allows universities to get grants to receive money to do more research, to do upkeep of buildings, et cetera, and to have the money to advance knowledge. And because I’m in the medical school, to advance medicine is ultimately the kind of stuff we’re doing.
I’ll go into the lab at 9:00 in the morning, I’ll leave after 5:00 on a regular basis. There’s no perfect nine-to-five type of schedule when you’re in graduate school. Your experiments, especially when you’re competing for microscope time or you have cells that you’re working with, those dictate the hours you work. You sometimes have to work 60 hours in a week because that’s what your experiments are going to take. But there’s no such thing as overtime in grad school.
But, ultimately, I came here to do good work and to advance science because I enjoy doing it, but I also have a lot of barriers to doing that, as a lot of my colleagues do. We came here to do good science, and sometimes things are really difficult, and a lot of those barriers could easily be removed. We know that because of the amount of money we really bring in through our work in patents, any kind of grant money that we bring in. I have a fellowship, so I brought in three years of my funding, so over $100,000 just for me alone, and yet I still struggle to actually have the materials I need to do my work.
Caleb Andrews: Yeah, I had a similar experience to Andrew. I did undergrad research while getting my BS, worked in a biopolymers lab, and so I really started to see, working with scientific technology, we can start to solve some really big problems, plastic waste for instance.
I went into industry, however – I didn’t get into grad school the first round – And worked at an orthopedics company. And I started looking around and I realized the managers, the people higher up the chain, most importantly, the people who were not contract or temp engineers, all had a masters or a PhD next to their name.
I made a decision, jump ship, come back to grad school. There are so many memes out there about poor grad students. I think the [inaudible] had a really good bid on this, don’t [inaudible] decisions. But the reality is, as Andrew put it, we generate millions upon millions of dollars of research revenue for the university and do not make a living wage doing it.
The hours are variable. Research is not a linear path. Anyone who’s done this sort of work can tell you there are ups, there are lows. Just this weekend, I was remoting into servers to sort out data on my Sunday, so this is not always easy.
But the work we do is really important. All of that, the COVID research that was happening at Hopkins, that was grad students in the labs doing the work. And so we just want to make sure we have a living wage and the respect and treatment we deserve for doing that.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and this is such a crucial point that’s really been at the heart of the ongoing battle to determine whether or not graduate students are workers. And in fact, as with most things, the United States has a Frankenstein’s monster setup when it comes to this. Because ostensibly, if you attend a public university, you have the right to form a union and collectively bargain.
Now, I say ostensibly because you have these weird outliers, like earlier this year on my podcast Working People and at The Real News Network, I spoke with striking grad student workers at the University of Indiana. They live in a state where, in fact, they’re not considered employees, and by decree of the governor they don’t have to be recognized as such. It’s very bizarre.
But on the private side, this has been an ongoing battle with the National Labor Relations Board for many decades, and, in fact, they’ve flip flopped on this ruling a number of times. One of the justifications that has been given for why graduate students are not workers is because even if graduate students perform work and produce value for the university, they’re students first. They’re there to get the education, and so that takes primacy over their status as workers for the university.
And thankfully, at least on the current round that we’re on, the NLRB said, well, that doesn’t matter. If they’re workers, they’re workers. If there’s a labor relationship, then graduate student workers are entitled to the full suite of worker protections and rights and so on and so forth that other workers get.
And so I say that for listeners to emphasize that these types of arguments that have been used at the national level to try to strip away graduate workers’ ability to organize and to exercise their rights as workers are the same arguments that universities themselves will use. My own alma mater, the University of Chicago, has horrendously gone on record many times making this very argument. It goes without saying that I wholeheartedly disagree with the university administration in that regard.
But I bring all that up to ask if you guys could say a little more about that position that you occupy as both students and workers. Because in terms… If we’re talking about the value that graduate students generate, I was in the humanities, so I wasn’t in a lab. I wasn’t getting those kinds of grants, but I was providing a shit ton of cheap teaching labor for the university for those freshman writing courses and stuff.
And yet again, the argument would go that it’s like, well, it doesn’t matter if you’re working as an instructor because you’re also there as a student and you’re getting training to be a professional academic, yada yada yada. I was wondering if you could just say a little more about that for folks listening.
Andrew: Yeah, I mean, you really hit it spot on. The types of work we do are still work. And on that line, we hear it all the time at Hopkins as well. You should be grateful you’re getting paid at all. You should be grateful you’re here. But what they’re really missing is that’s not the argument we use when we’re talking about people in specific trades doing apprenticeships to gain skills and they’re generating work. That’s more of what graduate students are really doing.
It’s not that we’re in classes all day and then we go teach one offhand. Generally, after your core classes, you’re not really taking any anymore, and the rest of the time you’re doing work. If you’re in a lab, you’re doing research. If you’re in the humanities, often you’re teaching, and sometimes you’re doing all of these at the same time where you’re teaching 20 hours a week, you’re working 40 hours a week on your research.
And so the idea that we’re somehow students first by and large just doesn’t hold any water because the work we’re doing is essentially what lets the university run. If we didn’t teach the classes, nobody else would. Faculty aren’t going to pick up that teaching load because they don’t want that to be their job.
Graduate students are the primary teachers, the primary instructors for a lot of classes. If we didn’t run the labs, our bosses don’t come into the lab. They don’t do experiments, with the exception of the brand new ones who are still building up their labs.
If a professor’s been here for a decade, they haven’t touched lab materials probably in at least a couple years, and they won’t again because the people that are really running the labs and the classrooms are the graduate students.
Caleb Andrews: Yeah, I mean, if I’m a student, I haven’t been in a class for over two years, so I feel like I’m a pretty bad student in that case. But it’s just that we are not primarily students, realistically. The reality is, even though we are taking classes, in many, many cases, I’ve never met someone in my program or across the engineering college here that the expectation isn’t also that you’re working, you’re teaching, you’re doing something else.
That work takes many forms. It is doing lab work. It’s doing data analysis. It’s writing papers. And that all generates not only future grants for then the PI to go after and say, hey, look at all this body of work that I’ve produced over the past couple years. Give me millions of dollars please. But it also builds to the prestige of the university, so making sure that… It’s very important to Hopkins that they maintain this prestige, they maintain their position. And without us being there in the lab, no one else is going to do it.
No one else is going to write those papers, no one else is going to be putting together the grades for all the undergrads and making sure that the university is accredited. Without us doing that work, it’s unlikely anyone else has time to do it because professors are busy with their own work. They might not be in the lab, but they are finding grant funding. They are chasing down other colleagues to work with and stuff like this. All the rest of that work that falls onto us to do. And so we do it, but we want to make sure that we have the respect that we deserve while we’re doing it.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and let’s talk in the shop floor vein. Let’s talk about what managers always try to dissuade workers from talking openly about. Let’s talk about pay. Let’s talk about the living conditions that graduate student workers at Hopkins in the city are going through right now. I mentioned up top – And anyone listening to this will know intimately how expensive shit is right now, whether we’re talking about gas, whether we’re talking about groceries, and sure as hell we’re talking about rent. Baltimore still is a more affordable city than others, but it’s still… There’s hardly such a thing as an affordable city for a graduate student worker, is how I would put it.
And when I was a graduate student in Ann Arbor, I mean it was nuts. Because Ann Arbor is this super idyllic, Thomas Kinkade style college town. It’s incredibly segregated because of all the people of color in Ypsilanti, in fact it’s one of the most segregated counties in the country. But you got this really affluent, predominantly white college town with the largest sports stadium in the country. You have this prestigious university that everything revolves around. It is a beautiful place to be, and I loved being there, for a time.
At the same time, working as a graduate student was not enough to afford to live there. I remember when I got my first apartment in Ann Arbor, I was so excited because it was the first time I was ever going to be able to afford to live on my own. I was coming from Chicago where I was working as a waiter before that.
Then one year after that, my landlord sold the building to a property company that jacked the rents up 60%, and I was forced out of my home. And this was just part and parcel every year, more and more buildings were getting bought up by the same three property companies that would jack up rent on everybody.
Your stipend doesn’t give you enough to cover that. There’s already other crazy things that you have to deal with as a graduate student, like sometimes you get paid for nine months and you have to figure out how to make that stretch across the summer months when you’re actually not getting a paycheck. The way that taxes work, if you get a fellowship over a stipend can actually really screw you if you don’t know, if you don’t plan for it. Anyway, there are a lot of pitfalls there.
I wanted to ask you both if you could say more about what it’s been like for you and your fellow workers across the university and graduate school living through the past year as these prices have gone bonanzas. Keep in mind we’re also talking about pandemic times as well.
Andrew: Yeah, I mean, we were not somehow immune, as the university likes to believe, to rising costs and cost of living in general rapidly increasing with record inflation, and a lot of that inflation being driven by essentials: gas prices, commute to work, grocery prices, just so you could feed yourself.
And so there’s been a lot of people talking, particularly more recently, about how at a certain point they thought their stipend, they could make it work, they could budget better and work it out. And at this point people are like, I am very good at budgeting, and I just don’t have enough money, just straight up. Food costs are double what they have been, depending on what you’re getting, and assuming you’re by yourself, if you don’t have anyone else to feed, which is a whole other issue. The university doesn’t account for if you have family or children that you’re caring for as well.
Really, another major issue is the disparity between departments at Hopkins is absurd. Between the highest paid department and the lowest paid, there’s a gap of around $15,000 to $17,000 a year. That floor is in the School of Public Health, their world-renowned public health school that has been at the forefront of dealing with the pandemic and COVID-19 and putting out this set of communication working with governments and the UN, just around the world having influence. A lot of these graduate students are making less than $30,000 a year at a university that has profited hundreds of millions during the pandemic and has billions of dollars in their endowment, and so a lot of these students are just really struggling.
And to add on to that – And I’m sure Caleb has some more to say about this – But we’ve seen people that don’t even get paid on time when their paychecks are supposed to come, sometimes for months at a time, and that particularly affects international students.
But even if you’re in a department that is better off… None of the departments are really at a living wage, but even if you are closer to that, you may not get paid for a month at a time. You’re expected to just figure out how to pay your rent when you’re already living paycheck to paycheck. We’re not saving money. We don’t have assets that we can draw on, by and large. And it’s really causing a lot of real harm to people as they’re trying to deal with the mental toll of a pandemic and coming out the other side and realizing, I don’t even have enough money to really support myself.
Caleb Andrews: Yeah, I mean, Andrew, you said it really well. This is none of us… I guess with the exception of one department on campus is actually making a living wage. Everyone else is paid below the MIT living wage calculator. Coming up through as prices were going up, really… I’m a very good budgeter, I come from a… You said you went to [Michigan State]. I’m from Michigan originally. First generation student, my parents are very big budgeters. I thought I was really good at it, and I could not do it as the conditions started worsening.
I was draining my savings, and I realized there was going to be a point of no return where it’s like I had to lean on my partner for help, basically. And so in that context, the idea that we do as much work as we do, and we still can’t make ends meet, and it’s a multi-billion dollar institution, something’s not adding up.
There’s a lot of smart people at this university, probably a lot of economists, too. If they’re seeing costs go up on one end and wages aren’t going up on the other, how can they claim that they’re providing a holistic and healthy and care about our mental health?
Because reality is no one is going to have good mental health if they’re working paycheck to paycheck. They are literally scraping by. I’ve known people that had to survive on food stamps because they can’t make ends meet. And it’s absolutely shameful that this is Johns Hopkins University and they’re relying on this to basically pay their workers. It’s insane, something we point at Walmart and say.
Late pay is also a big issue. So in addition to not being paid enough, oftentimes departments do not pay on time. This has been a multiyear issue, and people have been working with admin, talking to provosts and deans and whatever to get this sorted and it’s just a continual semester after semester issue, and it does. It hits the most precarious people first: international students, students from poverty, students of color, because who else are you going to turn to?
We’ve seen that sometimes, if your professor’s really nice, they’ll say, oh, well, I’ll spot you for a little bit, but that’s a weird labor relationship when these are people that have a lot of power over you. Now you owe them money? That’s not a good solution, and nor is it something I think the Hopkins administration would like to hear, either.
I think it’s within the ability of Hopkins, certainly, to pay its workers on time, which is a basic ask of any organization, but to pay them a living wage as well, because they can certainly pay a living wage for all the professors and the admin that work here. Why can’t they pay a living wage to us?
Maximillian Alvarez: I imagine that, if you haven’t been told this by an admin, there are folks that you’ve spoken to who have. But I remember being floored myself when my folks were in dire straits when I was in graduate school. In fact, my family lost the house that I grew up in. This was a slow build after the financial crash in 2008. But we ultimately did lose the house in, I think, 2014, so I was in graduate school. Yeah, I had no one to lean on in that regard. I took out even more student loans to try to stay afloat and help my family however I could.
But what I was told directly by an administrator was to get credit cards. Put it all on your credit cards. And it just really revealed to me, I was like, you guys don’t have a plan. You don’t care about me. I’m not a human being to you, I’m just a cost.
As you said, what really made that tough to swallow was being in that position and walking past a new, massive building that was being constructed, a state-of-the-art dormitory with some wealthy benefactor’s name slapped on the front, or a new sports complex.
You see those contradictions on every college campus, and you all pointed to one. I wanted to underscore that because I know that you and other graduate student workers there at Hopkins have actually done what you do best. You look at the data. You look at the numbers, and you have, in fact, spoken to a lot of your fellow workers about what they’re going through.
I was wondering if you could talk about what that data has revealed. Because this connects to the other labor coverage that we do here at The Real News. You mentioned memes that are going around. There are few memes that are more popular right now than the tagline “record profits are stolen wages”.
This is something I hear about all the time when I interview workers who are being told by their employers, oh, we can’t raise your wages to keep up with inflation, at the same time that they are on earnings calls with shareholders bragging about record profits. Those two things cannot coexist, and you cannot tout your massive university endowment at the same time that your graduate students are on food stamps.
There’s a very big disconnect here, and I was wondering if you could just say a little more about that research that y’all have done and what it’s revealed to you.
Andrew: Yeah, as grad students, we are very driven by data. There was a point it last fall, so 2021, probably around September, where a group of us got together and decided we’re going to compile a bunch of data on how much we’re getting paid, how much the cost of living is, how much has changed over time for the last couple years, and then also comparisons to other universities around the country, and then also looking at Hopkins’s budget. A catch-all of we got as much data as possible so we can get the full story and it’s easier to talk to our colleagues about the reality that they can afford this.
I mean, as far as Hopkins finances, they release a financial report every year. For years, they tell faculty when they ask for things, oh, well, we just don’t have enough money for it. It’s just a bold-faced lie. Too many of our advisors just want to believe that the university has their best interest at heart and is trying their best, but when we look at the actual finances, we saw crazy amounts of austerity measures when they were worried about the downturn of the pandemic.
And so they were stopping a bunch of programs, they were stopping matching contributions into 401Ks for faculty. They were not really purchasing equipment to keep us safe like masks and hand sanitizer for the graduate workers who had to go into the lab.
What ended up happening after all of this is they made over $200 million during 2020 and 2021. We actually don’t have the financial reports for this past fiscal year yet, but we don’t expect that they made less money. They did not lose money, that is for sure.
On top of that, the endowment grew massively, and they have now something like $1 billion in unrestricted reserves, so this is money that is meant for emergencies and is earmarked for… They can apply it to anything under emergency circumstances. I don’t know what emergency they’re thinking is going to happen that they would better need this money for, but they did not spend a penny of that reserve during the pandemic. They did not touch it whatsoever. Maybe they’re predicting some apocalypse that will render that money useful, but they did not touch it under what is really the biggest emergency in any of our lifetimes.
And so when we look at that, we see that they have all of this money that they could be using to protect all the staff, not just graduate students. We had staff in the hospital who were being forced to work and getting sick and not getting the proper paid time off, et cetera. They’re really just hoarding it because they want to go to their shareholders and say, look at all this money we made even though you were worried we’d lose it. You should give us all raises as the admins.
It’s really a self-serving cycle where the bottom just continues to get nothing. As with any corporation – Which Hopkins claims it’s a progressive university. It is a corporation just like any other, and their motives are driven by profit and protecting that endowment money. That is the truth of what they’re doing. Every time they claim otherwise, they’re trying to cover up the fact that they’re just another corporation trying to profit like so many others have during the pandemic.
Caleb Andrews: Yeah. Max, you had said this earlier that you’d walk past these gleaming new buildings, these beautiful new facilities to court new students and expand the university. What we saw is that Hopkins is, I think, over $9 billion in endowment. As Andrew said, there’s tons of money there not earmarked for the building of new buildings or anything like this.
But when we look into these financial audits and everything, what we find is that the university is very interested in expanding into real estate. Like many, many other universities, a lot of their money is tied up in the S&P 500, so a lot of this is invested like any other hedge fund, or trying to expand into the regions around its campus as it attempts to grow.
I think that’s a little counterintuitive because they’re attempting to grow while they cannot take care of the people that are enabling that growth in the first place. You see these multi-billion dollar, over 10-year ventures that they’re saying, oh, well, we’re building new facilities. We have these new rec centers. We have these new, this, that, and the other thing, and it’s like… I don’t think it’s tenable. It can’t be.
It’s interesting. One of the faculty actually had an independent audit of finances, and what they found is that, of these investments, they’re underperforming the S&P 500 year after year. Even with all of their endowment, all of their money, they cannot manage it well.
I don’t know what else to say other than I think their priorities are misplaced. They’re clearly interested in making money, but they’re not interested in taking care of the people that enable them to make that money.
Maximillian Alvarez: I think that’s powerfully put.
I know that I’ve got to let you both go in a moment, and so I wanted to round out by asking where things stand now. This is the beginning of a new school year. We were chatting before we started recording about how it’s a whiplash situation, because after two years of pandemic conditions, now the school is flooded with people. And so it’s got to be disorienting to be on campus right now.
But obviously these problems that we’re talking about don’t just suddenly go away when a new school year starts. So I was wondering if you could say, by way of rounding, out where things currently stand? Is there any movement on holding the university to account with these insufficient payments, with these late payments that throw graduate workers into financial chaos? And what can folks who are listening to this do to show support for you all and for the workers who keep Johns Hopkins running?
Andrew: Yeah, I mean, with the new academic year, we have all of the undergraduates returning to campus. We also have the new first year cohort of all of the graduate programs.
I think the thing that I think is different this year than in the past is we have been working really hard to get ourselves organized with our colleagues. And so these first year students, like many of us before in any other circumstances, would probably be like… They come in super excited, and I’m coming to an incredible institution with all these resources. It doesn’t take very long to realize that they’re not giving you everything they have.
I think the thing that’s really different this year is we’re being upfront with a lot of these incoming students. This is something you’re going to face. We have been telling people like, you should watch that first paycheck, because there is a higher likelihood than average that you as a first year just coming in for your first check will not get it on time, and it’ll just be two weeks late.
We’re being very upfront with the fact that the budget, it’s not going to work out. You’re probably going to have to take on some debt or get a second job. I know tons of people that have second jobs.
We’re at this point where we’re working to build up the infrastructure to be able to really do something about it. But at the same time, we’re not going to allow these students to come in and just get pummeled by that realization. We’re going to be very upfront and say, this is exactly what is probably going to happen to you. We are here for you, and as soon as it happens, join us and let’s do something about it and really build up a movement of all the grad workers to tangibly make changes to improve our research conditions because they can afford it and we deserve it. Only when we come together and demand it will we actually be able to achieve it.
Caleb Andrews: Yeah, I think a lot of workers across the country are starting to realize that they don’t just have to sit there and take their lumps, that there are things they can do. And one of those is organizing with each other, trying to solve these problems together, and take it to their admin and say, hey, these are the things we need to work safely. These are the things we need to have a living wage and to have a good experience here. And we are, we’re putting that groundwork in.
I will say that if anything, with more people on campus, university has been more ill-equipped than ever to actually provide to our needs. Unreliable transportation around campus is a huge problem right now. A couple weeks ago, they actually cut Lyft credits for students, basically, so if you were stuck outside when there wasn’t a shuttle going, couldn’t get a Lyft credit from Hopkins any longer.
We had more people on campus now that could probably make use of that sort of thing to get home safely. The shuttles themselves are… They don’t want to expand routes. They don’t want to add to the fleet, so you have more students with less capacity to actually handle that. Doing basic services for students, I think, they’re starting to struggle with.
It’s going to be an interesting semester here, but we’re ready for it. We’re organizing with our fellow workers here, and we’re making sure that we can take care of each other.
Just as an example, in my Department of Material Science, we sent out a petition to all the students and said, we know you’re not making enough. Would you like to make more? We got 70 to 80% of the department to sign on, all the workers in the department signed on, we took that to admin.
We didn’t get everything we wanted out of that, but we did get a raise to staunch the bleeding a little bit. It just goes to show that when you do work together, when you aren’t silent, when you don’t just sit there and take your lumps, change is possible. It really is.
Andrew: Yeah, one other thing that I just wanted to mention is there’s a really serious power dynamic for grad students, with their advisors in particular, that you don’t see at a lot of jobs, where your whole career trajectory is determined by that advisor. And so there’s that added element of you’re not really making enough, you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you type of thing.
That’s honestly more pronounced for those that are on visas or undocumented and don’t have the security of like, oh, well, if I were to not be in my advisor’s lab or in the research group… A lot of these people would not be able to be in the country anymore.
Something that we’ve heard more and more, especially recently, is that a lot of students have been dismissed for made up reasons. And the real reasons for those… There was a group of people in the education school that were dismissed for seeking disability accommodations that ended up getting denied, and then they ended up being dismissed for not making satisfactory progress because they didn’t get the accommodations that they needed.
Other examples include there’s an ongoing track record of Hopkins not protecting grad students, and there was news coverage a couple years ago on two professors who were dismissed for sexual violence against their advisees and that power dynamic. This was an open secret within these departments for years, and nobody did anything about it because there was no mechanism to hold them accountable. It was only after a bunch of students got together, again, coming back to organizing together, there were protests and petitions, and finally there was action taken. One was dismissed and one resigned right before being dismissed.
That person who resigned actually was the admissions director for my program right before I was recruited to join the program, and I didn’t know about that until after I was here. It’s just like, yeah, it happens. No one really talks about it anymore, but there’s been no movement made to prevent that from happening again.
Realistically, that isn’t going to change without us getting organized. It’s not in the university’s best interest to actually protect us. It’s in their best interest to just make these problems go away, and it’s less costly for them to just sweep it under the rug.
But yeah, I mean, just to close, for folks that are interested in hearing more about our struggle and how you can support, you can… Caleb and I both work with Teachers and Researchers United. We’re a group of students banding together to build up the kind of organization needed to take on the university and advocate for ourselves. You could find us on social media @TRUhopkins on Twitter. We also have a website, trujhu.org, and you can find our email there as well. But if you want to reach out, see how you could support us, we’d be happy to chat with you about it.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, Caleb, Andrew, thank you both so much for sitting down and chatting with us today. I really, really appreciate it.
Caleb Andrews: Thanks for having us, Max.
Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone listening, this is Maximilian Alvarez at The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for listening.