I write during a tremendously difficult time for our campus and the entire country. I know that many of you are disturbed by the George Floyd killing and the deeply troubling pattern of racism and brutality that is psychologically and emotionally devastating to our community.
These recent events have prompted us to reflect on the disparities and racism within our society and redouble our advocacy for justice and equity.
Compounding this distress is the devastating impact of COVID-19, which has disrupted virtually every aspect of academic life on campus. In the remainder of this note, I’d like to address some of the major challenges and concerns currently facing our graduate students as they seek to complete their degrees and launch their academic and professional careers.
Students have had to delay many research and creative projects, potentially impacting degree progress and the ability to graduate. Students are dealing with increased stress due to financial pressures and health concerns for themselves and their families. Additionally, many graduating students are struggling to find employment during this time of recession.
It is vital for us to address pandemic-related issues strategically and ensure that we help those students most in need.
Please know that campus health and safety will always be our top priority in responding to the pandemic. To guide the university’s ongoing response and develop policies and procedures related to COVID-19, the president announced the formation of several task forces to address issues related to health and wellness, academics, campus operations and more.
We have closely reviewed many questions and concerns in the recent weeks and have begun taking action in several areas. While the university is also heavily impacted by the recession, we are working to provide the best support possible for our students with the resources available.
Graduation & Job Placement
During summer 2020, the Graduate School plans to work with units across campus to ensure that time-to-degree restrictions are relaxed appropriately to accommodate students affected by COVID-19. We will also work with colleges, schools and units (CSUs) to extend support to accommodate students who are delayed and provide additional scholarship support, subject to the availability of financial resources.
The university is working to develop short-term job opportunities across campus—such as postdoctoral positions and lectureships—for a limited number of recent graduates in response to the economic recession. However, this approach alone cannot accommodate approximately 3,000 doctoral and master’s students graduating each year. To address job placement on a large scale, the Graduate School has partnered with Texas Career Engagement (TCE) and the Faculty Innovation Center (FIC) to help students secure jobs upon graduation.
Starting this summer, the Graduate School will engage faculty members and graduate coordinators to further help graduate students identify and secure academic and professional employment.
Graduate students have many unique curricular and financial needs compared to undergraduates during the summer months and beyond. For this reason, the university has chosen to provide support to graduate students in more targeted ways than across the board reductions in summer tuition. Many students receive tuition assistance for some or all of tuition through academic employment positions as AIs, TAs and GRAs. Taken together, graduate students at the university receive waivers and subsidies that amount to a 65 percent discount of overall graduate tuition.
The university has increased the number of AI and TA positions available this summer in units across campus, providing more opportunities for students to progress toward graduation. The Graduate School has committed between $1.2 and $1.5 million to support these positions. This is in addition to support committed by the Office of the Provost.
Additionally, starting in the fall, graduate students in programs overseen by the Graduate School will not pay the 2.6 percent annual tuition increase for the next two years that undergraduates are subject to. The McCombs M.B.A, Pharm D, Law, Dell Med and Option III programs have different policies for tuition.
Also, despite the cancellation of merit increases for other groups on-campus, graduate students will be eligible to receive merit increases during 2020-21. CSUs will receive funds to distribute strategically for the 2020-21 academic year to help elevate stipends, increase opportunity or improve equity, as it is critically important that we enable all of our students to complete their degrees.
Some students have raised concerns about the financial impact on staff members at the university and whether the economic downturn will result in layoffs or furloughs. The economic impact of COVID-19 has significantly altered UT’s immediate financial outlook. To address the pressure on its finances, the university has taken measures to mitigate the financial impact of the pandemic so that the university can continue to achieve its core mission. Thus far, measures have included canceling the planned 2020-21 centrally funded merit pool, limiting new hires and large expenditures, and developing new financial plans for auxiliary units, such as Parking and Housing and Dining.
The prospect of layoffs and furloughs on our campus is frightening. The university will do all it can to minimize such actions but furloughs and reduction in force measures may be necessary in the future, particularly for auxiliary units that are no longer self-sustaining.
The university understands the profound impact job losses can have on members of our community and will work with units across campus to develop solutions proactively to mitigate the financial impact of the pandemic.
Health Insurance & Mental Health
The new graduate student health insurance plan recommended by the Graduate Education Task Force will be based on the student AcademicBlue plan. The new plan, which we hope will be available in the fall, will provide excellent coverage and address many problems students experience when transitioning between plans, including coverage gaps and reset deductibles. In the meantime, we are working with CSUs to ensure that current graduate students do not experience gaps in coverage. The Graduate School is already covering summer insurance for spring TAs and AIs who will be receiving Graduate School fellowships in the fall. During the next two weeks, we will work with CSUs to identify students who have lost insurance coverage and assist those students to the extent that we can.
The Counseling and Mental Health Center (CMHC) currently provides a wide variety of services to meet student needs, including specialized services for graduate students and services related to COVID-19. CMHC does not impose limits on sessions. Although, due to demand, CMHC typically offers short term services for students. Students experiencing mental health concerns can reach out to CMHC for brief screenings and consultations about whether on-campus or community services are the best fit. In the coming weeks, the Graduate School will reach out to the graduate community to raise awareness of CMHC services available to graduate students.
UT Austin is committed to providing a supportive and inclusive academic environment for all students, including African American, Asian, Latinx and other minority students on campus. We are eager to speak out against attitudes and behaviors that negatively impact our students, particularly during these stressful times, and we will voice this message to the campus community.
Additionally, the university is committed to providing support to international students during this time, primarily through the services of Texas Global and its International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS). ISSS can provide international students guidance on U.S. immigration policy, health insurance and the AcademicBlue student health care plan. Additionally, ISSS offers scholarship and grants specifically for international students, as well as emergency financial support.
Interim President Hartzell has been providing updates on planning for the fall semester. The university expects to announce plans by the end of June. Please see the university’s Fall 2020 Planning website for current plans and updates as the fall semester approaches.
The foremost consideration in developing any plans for reopening campus is the health and well-being of our university community. The university is making plans for fall with the best available information from top health experts while understanding that we must be able to respond to any future changes in the prevalence of COVID-19 in Austin.
The university’s Health and Wellness Working Group is developing evidence-based guidelines and recommendations for health strategies such as the use of face coverings, social distancing measures and tactics for protecting high-risk individuals on campus. Their work is informed by the latest epidemiological information and data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organizations (WHO) and local and regional health experts. The university is continuing to examine campus requirements and resources for personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks.
I will be sharing more information soon on findings and plans from the various working groups involved the university’s COVID-19 response. Additionally, the Graduate School and the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) are conducting a survey of graduate students on COVID-19 issues to identify needed resources. Students in graduate programs overseen by the Graduate School have been solicited to participate. The survey results will be made available to the campus community this summer.
We will continue to keep the campus posted on developments on these issues as they evolve leading up to the fall semester.