Response to Open Letter

April 24, 2020

Last week President Katsouleas, Interim Provost Elliot, and Dean Holsinger received an email from a group of graduate students with a link to an open letter created by UConn graduate students calling for additional responses to the COVID-19 crises. More than 400 members of the UConn community (graduate students, undergraduate students, postdocs, faculty, and staff) signed the letter.

It has been a challenging time for the University and all its members, and graduate students have played a critical role in supporting the key mission elements, including successfully transitioning to online classes, supporting faculty, and students and carrying out critical research. President Katsouleas, Interim Provost Elliott, and Dean Holsinger directly responded to Mr. Ramirez about concerns in the open letter. You can read this response below.

Thank you for sharing the thoughtful letter describing concerns that graduate students at UConn face. As you know better than we, graduate students often feel isolated or marginalized even at the best of times, and these are far from the best of times. It has been a challenging period for the University and all its members, and we want first to acknowledge the critical role that graduate students have played in supporting the key mission elements, including successfully transitioning to online classes, supporting faculty and students and carrying out critical research.

We hope you will be pleased to learn that the University has already taken action on several of the items mentioned in your letter: The University will continue to teach its courses this summer and fall. Even if remote instruction is necessary, teaching assistants will be needed at least as much as they have been needed this spring, and it is reasonable to anticipate that most or all of them will receive appointments this fall. The Graduate School has long allowed remote participation in general exams, final exams, and defenses, and it also worked with the Registrar's Office to allow electronic signatures on all required forms, including approval pages of theses and dissertations. Similarly, it has long been possible for international students to complete their degrees from their home country while paying only the continuous registration fee, provided that they have completed all other degree requirements. The Students First fund has long been a priority for fundraising through the University of Connecticut Foundation, and the Foundation has redoubled its efforts to ensure that the Students First fund is able to meet the needs of as many students as possible. Connecticut state government is centrally coordinating the use of space, including residence halls at UConn, to meet a variety of needs or potential needs associated with the pandemic. This includes housing first responders, healthcare workers, patients, those recovering from coronavirus and/or homeless populations. In fact, on April 16 the Board of Trustees approved an agreement between UConn and the City of Stamford that will allow recovering coronavirus patients to use UConn’s largest residence hall in Stamford to house individuals recovering from coronavirus. In addition, space has been identified and held on the Storrs campus for the state’s potential future use, as well as the quarantine and isolation needs for our own students, about 800 of whom remain on campus. In addition to ensuring that all on-campus workers have access to personal protective equipment (PPE), the University has also donated thousands of items of PPE from its labs and research offices to healthcare workers. Governor Lamont also recently issued an executive order regarding the use of masks in workplaces which the university will of course follow.

The University is also responding to other concerns you mention. For example, procedures already exist for graduate student to request extensions of the time needed to complete their degree. We will prioritize this processing for returning students closest to completing their degrees and terms of appointment. The Graduate School will approve any extension request based on hardships associated with COVID-19, provided that the student's major advisor supports their request. In addition, graduate assistants who have their degree conferred in May already have health insurance coverage through the end of August, and graduate students covered by the student health plan have coverage through August 14. In addition, we have been independently considering your request to extend the pass/fail option. We have been thinking of this in the context of ways to ensure a smooth and safe re-entry to campus for all students and staff. We believe a key part of that strategy involves removing any incentives to come to campus sick. Knowing that grade pressure can be a reason students push themselves to come to school when they perhaps shouldn’t, we will be asking the Graduate Faculty Council to approve an extension of the pass/fail option to Fall 2020.

You mention other concerns that we understand and that we are committed to addressing in a case by case basis working with departments, major advisors and outside agencies. Our overarching priority is to ensure that the pandemic does not prevent students from completing degrees towards which they are making satisfactory progress. The circumstances graduate students face differ dramatically from department to department, and even from student to student within a department. The University is, however, working closely with federal agencies, with leaders in Congress and the state, with advisors and departments to address as much of the shortfall in funding for students as possible. There will be some for whom these measures still leave students with substantial hardship as a result of the pandemic. For those students, we will look to provide relief through financial aid.

Finally, the term associated with an I-20/DS2019 is determined by the federal government. Nevertheless, the University is working closely with federal officials to minimize hardships that are especially severe for our international students.

We thank you for writing us to share your concerns and those of your fellow graduate students. Graduate students are the lifeblood of a great university, and UConn is fortunate to have you and your colleagues among us.

Sincerely yours,

Thomas Katsouleas
John Elliott
Kent Holsinger