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As Durham housing costs soar, Duke Graduate School Union demands earlier grant release, paid parking passes

Members of Duke’s Graduate School Union have petitioned administrators since June to release a promised $500 payment by the first day of classes and provide paid parking passes, citing Durham’s soaring cost of living.

Following demands, students will receive that money in late October and won’t have to pay a $20/night weekends and nights parking pass fee. They will still have to pay the $501 annual campus parking pass, although they can spread out payment monthly.

“October is not what we were demanding, but at least now our colleagues and us can plan, knowing that we’re going to get this money on a certain timeline,” said Anita Simha, DGSU co-chair and a fourth year Ph. D. candidate in the biology department.

As the median rent for housing in Durham increases, graduate students are becoming rent-burdened, according to the union’s research committee, which compiles open source data about student issues.

“Graduate students are moving to Durham for their first year and taking on huge relocation costs, moving from other cities, and they have to pay their first month’s rent, and they get that first paycheck in August, but that may not be enough to cover everything,” said Matthew Thomas, DGSU co-chair and a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the English department.

The Dean of the Graduate School Paula McClain acknowledged these concerns in a June 27 email and laid out plans for a “one-time $500 payment to all active Ph.D. students in fall 2022” by using resources from the Provost’s Office.

DGSU members were concerned, however, that details on when and how the payment would be distributed would be communicated “as soon as the plan is ready.”

Since then, DGSU members have advocated for this payment to be distributed by Aug. 29, the first day of fall classes. But Graduate School guidelines dictate that the distribution of funds cannot be available until after the drop/add deadline on Sept. 9, according to Graduate School spokesperson John Zhu.

The Chronicle reached out to McClain for comment, who directed The Chronicle to Zhu, senior director of communications at the Graduate School.

“We definitely would have preferred sooner, but the timeline is dictated by payroll logistics, financial compliance requirements, and the need to have a finalized list of active students for the fall,” Zhu wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

The Graduate School’s Financial Aid office announced on Aug. 10 that the $500 payment will be distributed on Oct. 25 for students on the compensatory payroll and Oct. 31 for students on the non-compensatory payroll.

Simha saw this as a step in the right direction, even if it wasn’t DGSU’s original goal. They plan to continue to demand payments be distributed by Sept. 10, a day after the add-drop period.

The August email also stated that the Graduate School continues to work on “plans for permanent stipend increases,” noting that the school “also increased the funding pool for its childcare subsidy and medical expense/financial hardship assistance program.”

Furthermore, the Office announced students may now “spread out the parking permit fee via monthly payroll deduction instead of having to pay it in one lump sum.”

For Simha, this represents an understanding of the problem, but not the solution.

“[This] is obviously not a sufficient solution, but it shows that Duke and the Duke graduate school understand that that is way too burdensome, so they’re trying to spread out the burden instead of removing the burden,” Simha said.

Further steps

Additionally, the June 27 email announced the creation of a task force to work on stipends and the cost of living for graduate students, consisting of associate professors, deans and directors from each of the University’s six schools.

“The task force was created because most of the Ph.D. Funding sources are not controlled by The Graduate School, but by the schools that house Ph.D. programs, so they must be part of the discussion,” Zhu wrote.

Members of the DGSU believe that the creation of the task force delays addressing the union’s concerns about low stipends at a crucial time.

For Simha, a task force “is what a university does when it wants to do nothing.”

“Grad students know what we do, and we know that it’s not enough,” Simha said. “There’s no research on the issue that’s needed. There’s just one solution, which is [to] pay us more.”

Zhu pointed to the involvement of Graduate and Professional Student Government members, who have been “presenting data from their cost-of-living survey and making recommendations.”

For DGSU, the differences between the GPSG and DGSU are markedly different.

“GPSG works with the administration – within the channels that have power that exist – to communicate, which is great and really needed,” Simha said. “DGSU has a different role, which is to actively build power. The channels that exist for us to communicate with one another aren’t adequate.”

Union pressures

DGSU is not an employer-recognized union. Following an inconclusive election in 2017 after the union and the University challenged 502 ballots over eligibility, the union decided to organize itself as a “direct-action, direct-join” union, withdrawing its petition for National Labor Relations Board certification.

As a result, the DGSU has been previously denied chances for direct negotiation with Duke administrators. But the union’s lack of direct recognition does not mean that the University does not indirectly acknowledge it.

“Previous emails [about] the $500 and the stipend increase didn’t have anything to do with parking,” Thomas said. “Our email and our demands combined parking and the stipend issue, and this email [on Aug. 10] was concerning both the statement and parking. And so it’s clear that they’re responding to us indirectly.”

For Simha, the message the announcement sends is clear: “Pressure works, and more pressure would be even better.”


Audrey Wang
| University News Editor

Audrey Wang is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.

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