UMass grad students air concerns during virtual town hall

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus COURTESY PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/12/2020 12:20:32 PM

AMHERST — Around 200 graduate students and their supporters gathered virtually for an “emergency reverse town hall” on Monday to protest what they say is an inadequate university response to their needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The virtual town hall also comes on the heels of an unfair labor practice charge filed against the university by the UMass chapter of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), which alleges that the university is partaking in union-busting activities.

At the virtual meeting, attendees read off various testimonials submitted anonymously through graduate students, many of whom expressed concerns about difficulty balancing their studies, teaching, and childcare; finding a secure living arrangement; finding employment over the summer; managing their own mental health, and generally “feeling that the university does not have my back,” one testimonial read.

“We need to acknowledge the importance of support … personally, professionally and academically,” said Nefeli Forni Zervoudaki, a doctoral student studying comparative literature, during the virtual meeting.

The graduate students allege the university is engaging in union-busting tactics by telling department heads to address collective requests on an individual, case-by-case basis after members collectively filed for vacation requests from May 11-15. This response “attempts to side-step that it is a collective action,” said Ty A. Smart, a doctoral student in English and event organizer. 

“This is the same tactic that the university is using for evicting international students from graduate housing this summer during the pandemic,” Smart wrote in an email to the Gazette. Many of these international students live in North Village and Lincoln apartments, which are set to be demolished later this year, and must leave by May 31 and June 30, respectively.

Reached for comment, a university spokesman directed the Gazette to a May 8 letter addressed to graduate students from John McCarthy, provost and senior vice chancellor for Academic Affairs.  In the letter, McCarthy wrote that the university recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic “has caused immediate and real challenges for our graduate students, and we are working to support students in need.

“A first step was the distribution of support to graduate students who lost hourly jobs in dining and elsewhere after spring break,” McCarthy wrote. “Now, to help graduate students stay on track with their academic progress toward degree completion, we have pooled institutional and federal monies to create a graduate student financial aid fund of $1 million.”

Support from this fund will be granted in addition to regular financial aid, other relief programs, and graduate student assistantships, according to McCarthy. Funding will be awarded “based on demonstrated need” beginning this week. 

For many international students, an additional concern is finding employment over the summer while many businesses that offer seasonal work are shut down due to the pandemic, especially when international travel barriers prevent students from returning to their home countries. Graduate student workers also demanded protections for these students in a drive-up protest outside Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy's residence last month.

The graduate student workers also listed financial security and employment protections; housing, food and family support; healthcare for all; "stopping the clock" on academic, procedural and financial matters; and collaborative governance among their demands.

The UMass chapter of the Graduate Employee Organization has gained letters of support from the History, English and International Education departments.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at



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