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Grad students at UVa still waiting for their university stipends

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University of Virginia students physically distance themselves while studying at Lambeth Field.

Graduate students at the University of Virginia did not receive their stipends from the university on schedule, putting them in a crunch to pay bills during the holidays.

At least 40 students were affected, the chair of the campus labor group said, adding that this isn’t the first time the university has failed to pay on time.

UVa blamed the delay on a change in staff and a shorter winter break. It expects students to begin receiving stipends Tuesday.

“Most graduate workers live paycheck to paycheck on an income far below the living wage for Charlottesville, meaning most of us do not have savings we can rely on in emergencies,” the United Campus Workers of Virginia said in a statement.

Laura Ornée, a doctoral student at Virginia and chair of the labor group, noticed on Christmas Day that her $2,000 monthly stipend had not arrived in her checking account.

The money usually surfaces by the 25th of each month, so when it still hadn’t arrived the next day, she started asking around. Other graduate students, including most of the history department in which she works, were affected.

Brian Coy, a spokesperson for UVa, said the university typically promises the money by the first of the month but often sends it earlier in order to provide a cushion.

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Graduate students began emailing the student financial services department but didn’t receive an immediate response. So the labor group mounted a social media campaign, asking students, staff and alumni to tweet in support of the affected graduate students. Scores of people connected to UVa tweeted Thursday, asking school President Jim Ryan to “#CutTheChecks.”

Administrators responded Friday morning, saying they were “truly sorry for the worry and uncertainty caused by the delay.” They expect payments to begin Tuesday when banks reopen, though it may take some banks longer to process payments than others, administrators said.

UVa lengthened its winter break after the November on-campus shooting, which reduced the amount of time the school had to process payments.

The administrators, including Provost Ian Baucom, learned of the delayed payments Wednesday and returned to work Thursday to process them. UVa will contact landlords and make emergency funds available to pay late fees and other unexpected expenses for affected students, the administrators said.

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Without her stipend, Ornée couldn’t afford to pay rent, which is due Sunday. She borrowed the money from her parents, but not all graduate students have that resource, she said.

Among the students affected were members of the Bridge to the Doctorate Fellowship — a program for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who receive master’s degrees and prepare for doctorate programs.

The university has shown “a complete lack of respect for graduate workers by refusing to prioritize something as basic as paying us on time,” the labor group said.

Graduate students often teach classes and perform research for their universities. In turn, the university compensates them with a degree and a small stipend.

When she teaches, Ornée leads three 50-minute discussion sections in the history department with 20 students each and grades papers and tests. She also is conducting research for her dissertation on feminist and human rights activism from the 1970s to the 1990s.

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This isn’t the first time UVa has neglected to pay stipends on time, Ornée said. She is aware of two other instances where groups of graduate students did not receive their checks on schedule, as well as other instances where the university was late paying individuals.

“We want some sort of guarantee it’s not going to happen again,” Ornée said.

Coy said the university is examining its payment process to ensure the error isn’t repeated.

Labor movements for graduate students and adjunct faculty have taken shape in recent years, as those groups have asked for greater compensation.

Professors and graduate workers at UVa unionized under the United Campus Workers in 2020, and Virginia Commonwealth University followed in 2021. There are about 600 members statewide, Ornée said.

Earlier this month, VCU opted to give employment benefits — including health insurance and the ability to participate in a retirement savings program — to about 160 postdoctoral scholar-fellows, something a number of universities already do, including UVa, Virginia Tech and the College of William & Mary.

Postdoctoral scholar-fellows at VCU are employees on research grants who conduct research, train graduate students, write grants and teach. Graduate students at VCU and UVa are already eligible for health insurance.

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Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, health systems and more for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 and spent 11 years in the Sports section. (804) 649-6109

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