A Message to Graduate Students from John McCarthy, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs

To:       Graduate Students

CC:      Faculty

From:  John McCarthy, Provost & Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs

Date:   May 8, 2020


Graduate education is central to our mission as a public research university, and our commitment to providing our graduate students with excellent educational and research opportunities remains unchanged despite the significant challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has unleashed not only a public health crisis but also an economic crisis that has severely affected our university and all of Massachusetts. Our campus incurred an over $40 million deficit generated by the closure of campus facilities and resulting reimbursements to students. Going forward, we will have to exercise great financial discipline as we plan for the future during these uncertain times.

During this period of unprecedented disruption, we firmly believe that the university should play a leading role in helping our graduate students navigate this uncertain terrain so that they may continue their education in the months and years ahead. We realize that the public health crisis 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. 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. This fund is an additional supplement to the regular financial aid process and other relief programs already available to students, as well as the assistantships awarded to graduate students. Awards of financial support through this fund will be based on demonstrated need. The application process will be announced next week.

By combining institutional and Federal funds, the university’s graduate student financial aid fund will provide relief to both our domestic and our international graduate students. The latter comprise nearly 40% of the graduate student population. Additionally, the International Programs Office (IPO) advising staff continues to be accessible via email and Zoom for individual advising and immigration needs. The IPO also continues to partner closely with the Student Legal Services Office in instances when international students need legal counsel on matters that are outside of IPO’s regulatory and legal purview. Students are encouraged to contact IPO or Student Legal Services for further information and assistance.

Many graduate students have been able to continue with their coursework and research during this period of remote instruction. We recognize, however, that there are many students whose research has been disrupted by the closure of campus facilities or an inability to access research sites elsewhere. The Provost, Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement, and the Deans will continue to work closely with our faculty to assess students’ academic and research progress and develop appropriate contingency plans as needed. Given the variation among our 48 doctoral and 78 Master’s degree programs, this planning is best managed within the programs and colleges to ensure that students receive the instruction, mentoring, and professional development best suited to their fields of study. We are pleased to see that programs and faculty across campus are continuing to hire graduate student research assistants, teaching assistants, and instructors for this summer and the upcoming academic year. To date, nearly 800 graduate students have been hired for summer assistantships (with more appointments in process), confirming graduate students’ ongoing participation in the life of the university. In advance of the contractual April 15 deadline, I authorized the colleges to proceed with Fall reappointments of TAs and TOs. I have also exempted all students, graduate and undergraduate, from the hiring freeze in Academic Affairs.

The campus remains committed to moving forward with the construction of modern and reliable residential facilities for graduate students and their families. The Residential Life staff have been working closely with North Village and Lincoln residents and local landlords since fall of 2019 to assist in the transition to alternative, off-campus housing. These staff have provided flexible move-out schedules to conform with applicable state guidance and individual needs. Residential Life staff will continue to communicate with students about their plans in the upcoming weeks and months.

Additionally, the Student Affairs and Campus Life unit has developed an extensive list of resources and support services that are always available to graduate students. Graduate students can find information about how to access both university and community-based resources on the Single Stop Resources webpage. The offices of our legislative delegation are also prepared to offer assistance: Senator Jo Comerford and Representative Mindy Domb. Working with state government, we are investigating whether graduate students who lost jobs are eligible for unemployment payments.

In order to fulfill the university’s mission of advancing education and research, campus leaders are engaged in extensive planning for the fall semester and are exploring ways to ensure that students can continue their studies. As the Chancellor shared with our campus community last month, he has convened an administrative working group, which I chair. He has also organized six committees to gather information and provide feedback to the working group. Graduate students, including representatives from the Graduate Student Senate, sit on committees where their insights and perspectives will be most important as we work to develop plans for the fall semester. Informed by this process, a decision regarding the fall semester, whether the campus operates remotely, in-person, or in some combination, will be made by early July.

We do not know when the pandemic will end, and while our planning for the fall will depend on the progression of the pandemic – and the attendant restrictions on travel, size of gatherings, and general threat to health and safety of individuals and the community – we are engaged in extensive planning for every possible scenario, and will communicate decisions as soon as they are made so our graduate students can also plan accordingly.