Union activists who want to organize Duke University's graduate students marked International Women's Day by rolling out a demand that the institution guarantee its doctoral students a $31,200 annual stipend.
The request from the Duke Graduate Students Union prompted the observation from university officials that they're already planning to go to a $31,160 benchmark in the 2018-19 academic year anyway.
But the union, an affiliated of the Service Employees International Union, sees the figure as an average that masks department-by-department variations in pay practices along with a reliance on summer payments that don't always happen.
Predictability is "absolutely one of the main goals" the group has for doctoral students , as "it's very hard to conduct the work we do" without it, said Hannah Rogers, a union spokeswoman and Ph.D. student in Duke's English Department.
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The union coupled the pay benchmark to demands that Duke guarantee stipends for all 12 months of a year, and that it provide incoming Ph.D. students $1,000 in relocation expenses.
While Duke this year says it pays doctoral students in most of its key graduate and professional programs $30,550, the reality is that many students in the humanities don't necessarily see that, Rogers and literature Ph.D. student Casey Williams said.
To get there, one needs to couple a $22,912 stipend for the nine months of the fall and spring semesters to an additional $7,637 that covers the summer.
"Some years, you have guaranteed funding over the summer months," Williams said. "Other years, you don't. So for a lot of students this will be a bump up."
The stipends are essentially money to live on that comes on top of the tuition waivers graduate-level programs at Duke typically supply to Ph.D. students.
The underlying problem, as Rogers described it, is that it's not always easy for a student to predict his or her cash flow. Departments have leeway when it comes to awarding summer funding, and they "haven't been very open about" how those decisions get made, she said.
In the union's eyes, the 12-month guarantee would solve that problem.
But already, "almost 90 percent of Ph.D. students receive year-round funding," and Duke's overall financial package for them is "at or near the top of the range for leading American universities, said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs and government relations.
He added that that's an increase from seven years ago, when only about 60 percent of doctoral students got a year-round stipend.
Williams and Rogers said the union picked $31,200 as its target for an annual stipend because, presuming Ph.D. students put in 40 hours a week, it corresponds to the $15-an-hour benchmark Duke's committed to pay its regular staff by mid-2019.
The variation in summer-pay practices is especially vexing for international students, who face federal immigration restrictions on their ability to take off-campus jobs, said Anastasia Karklina, a Ph.D. student in literature who's from Latvia.
"That means no coffee jobs, no waiting tables, no occasional freelancing gig here and there," Karklina said.
For the union, the push is also an attempt to convince fellow graduate students the group's worth supporting and joining.
Its attempts to formally organize them fell short early in 2017, when it trailed in a representation election. Its strategy now relies on showing "we're able to make material gains for our members," Williams said.
And it does have some successes to point to, notably Duke's decision last year to begin offering tuition offsets to sixth-year Ph.D. students who otherwise lacked departmental or outside funding to continue their studies.