CMU updates Ph.D. stipends, health insurance; some students still voice concern

For years, Carnegie Mellon University lacked uniform practices and minimum standards in many aspects of doctoral students’ experiences. The Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) at Carnegie Mellon identified in their 2015-2025 Strategic Plan that key areas in graduate student experience are health and wellbeing, financial security, sense of community, and family support. Two years ago, the GSA and Carnegie Mellon’s leadership worked together to establish a minimum of 50 percent of individual premium costs paid by the university for all eligible doctoral students. The consistent, minimum health care support was the first phase in an effort to implement the aforementioned minimum standards. On Wednesday, March 16, Provost Jim Garrett, in an email addressed to doctoral students and co-signed by Vice President of Student Affairs Gina Casalegno and President of the Graduate Student Assembly Divyansh Kaushik, announced an update that will “advance holistic support of the doctoral student experience at CMU.”

In an email interview with The Tartan, GSA President Divyansh Kaushik explained the key changes announced in the update by Provost Garrett: “Starting Fall 2022, qualifying Ph.D. students will receive a minimum stipend of $2,250 per month depending on the term of their program. They will also receive full coverage for their health insurance premiums, and a minimum of 10 days of time away from their program in addition to the university holidays.” Qualifying doctoral students are defined as having full-time enrollment in a Carnegie Mellon doctoral program, making satisfactory progress toward their degree in line with program policy, and are stipend-supported and not receiving full external support from another source.

“In several departments, ​​current compensation isn’t enough to reasonably live on,” said Kaushik. “And we wanted to guarantee a level of compensation that didn’t force people to live in poverty in order to pursue doctoral study at CMU.” He said that he first discussed establishing minimum stipends with Provost Garret in summer of 2021. He then worked with Vice Provost for Education Amy Burkert who presented a straw proposal to a group of university administrators and the GSA Executive Committee at the Provost’s Graduate Advisory Board meeting in August. The initial proposal included benefits for Ph.D. students like minimum stipends, full health insurance coverage, vacation policy, parental leave, ability to attend at least one conference during their Ph.D., and financial support to allow students to change an advisor for any reason without worrying about loss of funding. “Since then, we have worked to identify the nitty gritty details and identify what we can get done now and what would require more time in the implementation phase,” he explained.

Many of the above initiatives are well outlined in GSA’s 2015-2025 Strategic Plan, Kaushik pointed out, which was a collaborative document developed after months of campus-wide discussions with graduate students, faculty, staff, and administrators. “As former GSA President Surya Aggarwal highlighted in our Strategic Plan document, ‘With the recent decline of public confidence in higher education, the challenges facing graduate education have never been higher. And it is incumbent on us, and institutions like Carnegie Mellon, to produce well-rounded leaders who can change that perception,’” he said.

Taking the idea and turning it into policy was challenging for Kaushik and everyone involved as they got into the depths of implementation and logistics. The idea of looking at graduate education holistically began long ago, he said, and the first phase went into effect in 2019. He believes that they could have gotten Phase Two done sooner as well without pandemic disruptions. He also disclosed, without going into specific details, that “certain colleges had genuine implementation concerns stemming from budget constraints that had to be addressed.” He emphasized that while the process was frustrating sometimes, he’s proud that they were able to find a way to address these issues collaboratively. “I could not have asked for better partners in this than Provost Jim Garrett, Dean of Students Gina Casalegno, Vice Provost for Education Amy Burkert, and so many others who contributed to the collaborative process,” he said, echoing Provost Garrett’s description of the collaboration between the GSA and Carnegie Mellon’s leadership as a “genuine partnership.”

On March 14, two days before the updates were announced, posters were put up across the campus asking “Do Grad Students Deserve Unlivable Low Wages?”, “Is Our Work Worth 7.5% Less Than Last Year?”, and “Is Some Grad Work Worth 22k Less Than Others?” and accompanying graphics depicting related statistics. A Twitter account called “CMU Grad Students Deserve Fair Pay” started tweeting the posters, which contained a QR code linked to a survey which asked respondents to share how CMU’s “unfair, poverty wages” impacted them. Kaushik clarified that although he agrees that Carnegie Mellon should pay its graduate students better, the GSA was not responsible for the posters.

As part of the update on establishing minimum stipends seemed to address some of the concerns of the poster-and-survey campaign, the Tartan reached out to the group of students behind the campaign, who chose to remain anonymous and identified themselves as “members of the Carnegie Mellon graduate student community advocating for fair pay and dignified working conditions.” They revealed that the group had come together through ties with a few individuals in the School of Computer Science, and that after struggling with loneliness and isolation during the pandemic, they started having candid conversations around the systemic issues that were affecting their experience: power imbalances in their advising relationships, a lack of work/life balance, financial insecurity, medical care that didn’t cover our basic needs. They began speaking with GSA members and Carnegie Mellon alumni who previously held leadership roles to gather data, and did casual walkthroughs to meet graduate students from other departments to understand the similarities and differences in their experiences.

Though the group discussed many structural challenges, they said that one issue that clearly cut across departments and individual grad experiences was financial insecurity. “Coming on the heels of CMU’s announcement of our endowment growing from $2.1 billion to $3.1 billion in a pandemic year, we are outraged that our peers in Drama and Design are paid below the poverty line — or not at all,” they said in an interview with The Tartan. “CMU administration often argues that it would be impossible to achieve pay parity across departments because of their wildly different funding structures (grants, teaching stipends, etc.). Even so, there is little justification for not providing a living wage, or accounting for yearly inflation.”

Over the past few days in which the group collected responses from students via surveys, they said they heard that many students are unable to afford basic necessities, choosing between groceries and medical copays, or putting off important surgeries. “One student shared that they are unable to move away from a structurally unsound housing situation because they cannot afford higher rent,” they revealed. Other respondents cited their relatively privileged positions (no dependents, dual income from working partner, or parental support) as the only reasons they are able to participate in their programs. The group pointed out that this has serious implications for Carnegie Mellon’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts.

The group agreed that the update instituting minimum stipends and full individual health insurance premium coverage, among other initiatives, is a great step forward and appreciated the hard work that the GSA Executive Committee put in to make it happen. However, they pointed out that for many Ph.D. students, especially those with family obligations, chronic illness with large out of pocket expenses, among other issues, being paid the minimum stipend does not come close to financial stability. As the cost of rent, gas, and food in Pittsburgh continues to rise, students are increasingly struggling to afford their graduate experience. In the face of big problems, this update feels like a small concession.

“Even students with 12-month funding would make $27,000 pre-tax on the minimum stipend, when CMU’s own estimate claims the cost of living in Pittsburgh is about $24,658 a year (excluding health insurance),” they said. “And with inflation at more than 7% and increasing, this one-time change is only going to be less helpful over time.”

The group stated that most graduate students, including most departmental GSA representatives, were not aware of or able to provide input on the details of this plan as it was negotiated with Carnegie Mellon administration. The group also said that although they had not reviewed GSA communications (besides official emails) or meeting notes, they talked to GSA representatives who heard changes were coming, but did not know details until they were released to everyone. They revealed that they had reached out to a GSA executive member a while ago, who was unable to publicly share their goals and plans that they were negotiating with Carnegie Mellon administration. “We don’t fault the GSA exec for this, but one of our goals is to increase transparency for these kinds of negotiations, by creating a space for graduate students to discuss their concerns and contribute to a broader campaign for change,” they clarified. “If this important change can come from the hard work of a few graduate students in GSA exec negotiating with CMU administration, what kind of systemic improvements could we accomplish as a large, engaged, inter-departmental group discussing our needs publicly?”

Kaushik said that specific details, such as the amount of stipend and percentage of health insurance coverage, were not shared until they were sufficiently confident that those numbers would hold. “We wanted to make sure we were on solid ground before announcing any specifics,” he explained. However, he said that GSA representatives were fully in the loop on the fact that the Executive Committee was negotiating minimum stipends and health insurance coverage with the administration and that progress on these negotiations was shared at every GSA general body meeting starting from December 2021. Besides the updates from the GSA, President Jahanian and Vice Provost Burkert shared some details in December, and again Vice Provost Burkert shared additional progress details in a GSA meeting in March. He added that the weekly GSA executive meeting minutes, which are publicly available, also contained updates on the negotiations. Revealing that students had reached out with ideas when GSA representatives shared with their constituents that they were working on the update, he said that they incorporated several of those ideas into their plan.

The group had also pointed out that the update doesn’t cover masters students, who make up a large portion of Carnegie Mellon’s graduate student body. When asked if there any plans in the near future or in motion right now to improve graduate student wages for students in master’s programs, Kaushik revealed that a working group that is looking at the issue with representatives from the graduate and undergraduate student body, GSA, Undergraduate Senate, university administration, colleges and departments, among others.

The group underscored that even if they use different methods than the GSA, they share the same goals: fair pay and dignified working conditions for all graduate students. “Having our group and GSA working on the same problem from different angles is good for everyone — it makes it clear to the university that this is an important issue for graduate students,” they emphasized.

They also brought up that the university continually highlights the excellent research, creative work, and teaching that graduate students do, while many graduate students sacrifice their future financial stability to come here. “It is also important to realize that for many Ph.D. students, a Ph.D. is effectively our first job, often held for five years or more, where folks might otherwise be saving for their future,” said the group. “We should be compensated beyond the minimum cost of living and given benefits (ex. parental leave, medical leave, dental insurance, retirement contributions) to ensure that graduate students can be healthy and adequately prepared for the future financially.”

In the email announcement, Garrett also wrote that the “university academic and administrative leadership, college representatives and GSA will continue to review proposals that would expand the current student maternity accommodation program to include parental leave options and establish an academic ombudsperson to serve as a resource for all students.”

Kaushik also emphasized that they were not just looking at stipends here, and that it is crucial to recognize that the update is a huge and expensive step forward. He believes that the university is on a great trajectory and should not stop here, saying, “We should look at what else our peers are offering, including everything we had in the initial proposal and then vision, dental, and dependent [health] care as well.”
“It’s not something that changes overnight, and I completely recognize that,” explained Kaushik. “But continuous improvement is something we are always aspiring to on behalf of our students. And the way to do this, in my view, is to work collaboratively to address the barriers that stand in the way.” From his interactions with the Provost and others in administration, Kaushik believes that “everybody wants to get there.” However, he said that having been deep into the weeds of implementation and budgets recently, he also recognizes that it is not an easy task within the constraints of the university’s finances, and hopes that, “we continue to work together to find a way around the hurdles that stand in our way and make CMU a better place for all.”