Tulane needs to step up for graduate workers

Solidarity Tulane

Solidarity Tulane is a group of graduate students working to improve conditions on campus for graduate workers.

For the past two years, Solidarity Tulane has been waging a campaign for fully funded health insurance for graduate workers. The COVID-19 pandemic heightens the urgency of these demands and underscores the plight of the university’s graduate students. 

In light of the current crisis, we call on Tulane to:

  1. Immediately open access to the student health center to all members of the Tulane community, including graduate students, staff, Sodexo workers and their families. In a moment when hospitals are running out of beds, it is absurd that the health center would deny care to any member of our university community because they have not paid a $320 campus health fee. We acknowledge that the health center has limited resources, but insofar as staff are able, they should commit those resources to ensuring the health and safety of everyone on campus.
  2. Guarantee all graduate workers who are past the coursework phase an additional semester of funding. It is unreasonable to suggest that graduate students can complete their research as usual when travel is banned, libraries and labs are closed, and social distancing prevents contact with human subjects. This is especially urgent for graduate workers with children, many of whom are now providing full-time childcare due to the closure of K-12 schools.
  3. Guarantee fully funded health insurance for all graduate workers, ensuring that we can get the care we need to keep ourselves healthy and our colleagues safe. The university currently requires graduate students to bear 50% of the cost of an expensive, Tulane-sponsored Student Health Insurance Plan, T-SHIP, or purchase an equivalent plan on the marketplace. We are offered no coverage for vision, an expensive optional dental plan that offers extremely limited coverage, and no aid for dependents.
  4. Eliminate all fees related to healthcare for graduate workers, including the $30 installment fee that individuals are forced to pay if they cannot afford premiums up front. This fee specifically targets the poorest members of our community.

Graduate workers subsidize the university. We help research move forward, teach classes, grade work, and provide mentoring and guidance to undergraduates. Yet many of us struggle to meet basic needs and excessive healthcare costs add to that burden. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, the cost of living for a single adult in Orleans Parish is $24,972, yet graduate workers’ annual stipends at Tulane can be as low as $18,000. Paying $1,469 per year for health insurance leads graduate workers to make decisions to forego crucial medical care or make other financial sacrifices to make ends meet.

In Spring 2018, Solidarity Tulane presented a petition to Provost Forman and Associate Provost Michael Cunningham asking the University to cover 100% of the costs of graduate health care. This petition garnered over 500 signatures, most of them from graduate students. Despite the successful petition and moving testimonials indicating a need for change, the administration has done nothing to lower the burden of health insurance costs borne by graduate student workers, nor have they made any meaningful attempts to engage with our concerns.

Due to the cost of healthcare as well as stagnant stipend allotments, many graduate students waive Tulane’s student health insurance, instead opting for subpar insurance with potentially precarious outcomes. We also interact with a system at Tulane that prioritizes undergraduates and their needs. For example, two weeks ago one member of our group was deterred from accessing a therapist at CAPS for Counseling Services because, she was told, all CAPS appointments were devoted to helping students, presumably undergraduates, prepare for the upcoming university closure. Yet graduate students bear the emotional weight of the pandemic as well, and many of us, especially international students, also had to decide whether we should remain in New Orleans.

Once again, Solidarity Tulane is asking the university to consider the burdens that underfunded health care puts on its graduate workers and our community as a whole. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that access to high-quality healthcare, especially for medically vulnerable members of our community, affects the well-being of the entire university. 

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Now that Tulane is facing an actual healthcare crisis, where will the university position itself? How will it show its graduate workers that they are valued, not only for their work and productivity, but also for their health, well-being, and the efforts they put forth every day to allow our community to function and thrive?

Are you a graduate student with specific needs or concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic? Take a minute to fill out our short survey! You can also contact Solidarity Tulane at [email protected] or connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.