Why, and how, to write a letter of support for graduate students during a pandemic

Recently there’s been some talk about how faculty can support graduate students during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, are there things beyond the obvious—checking in with their advisees and providing assistance with funding, job, etc. applications*—that faculty could do but may not have thought of? As an active member of the nationwide grad labor movement and the communications lead for my campus grad labor union, I want to use my experience to offer some thoughts.

Even as specifics might vary across campuses, disciplines, and identity groups, the crux of the answer is universal: faculty can use their relative power. Tenure-track and tenured faculty are less precarious than graduate students. Tenure-track and tenured faculty are financially more secure than graduate students.** Tenure-track and tenured faculty aren’t entering one of the worst academic job markets, if not the worst, in living memory. This means faculty have more room to maneuver—to stick their necks out for their students, to make asks of campus leadership, and to publicly call for more systematic graduate student support.

One easy and effective way to do this is by writing a letter of support to university administrators, a subject I take up in the rest of this post.

I want to shift now and speak to faculty directly. You may be thinking: my graduate students are fine. Their funding is secure. My department has even extended guaranteed funding for grads! These are all fantastic steps. But these policies are piecemeal, inequitable, and incomplete.

Having funding now does not mean that that funding is sufficient to cover expenses right now, nor that it can be used for grads’ most pressing needs (see, for example, research grants that can’t be used for rent), nor that it will be enough should unexpected expenses crop up (as they always do, because life). Grads in one department having funding does not mean that grads in other departments on your campus are secure—and examples of underfunding in one department can be used to justify cutting financial support in another. And extra funding may not actually get at the root issues that cause grad student precarity: universities expecting grads to bankroll essential services, unrealistic workloads with expectations to sacrifice physical and mental health, and institutions that foist additional challenges upon first-generation, LGBTQIA+, international, and disabled grads and grads of color.

Supporting graduate students means supporting all graduate students—and that means grads need institution-level protections, not just department-level ones. So I encourage you to use your relative power and try your hand at writing a letter of support!

I realize this is an unfamiliar action for some. Trust me: you can do this. Here is some guidance.

Why a letter?

1. Anyone can write a letter. 2. The time and effort required are comparatively low. 3. Letters create a paper trail—which is useful if someone tries to claim that no one has expressed concern about issue X.

In essence, a letter lets you formulate and share your concerns. You could also do this by phoning an administrator or by raising an issue at a committee meeting—and hopefully you do these things as well! Given the pandemic, however, people aren’t in their offices answering their phones, and no one wants to be in a Zoom committee meeting longer than they have to. Writing a letter on your own time is a solid alternative.

Letters also contain an element of gravitas. You took the time to put together a thing! That is hard during the best of times (and we are not in the best of times)! You are also a faculty member, and thus a Relatively Important Person, who chose to use limited time to advocate for graduate students; for many administrators, this will merit attention.

You might think that an emailed letter will get buried in someone’s inbox and ignored, and this is certainly a possibility. There are ways to increase the probability your letter will be read, which I discuss below. Regardless, though, letters get opened and considered—labor organizations on your campus have the receipts to prove it.

What do I write about?

I’ll get to structures that work in a minute, but first I’ll address substantive issues.

The best letters address one issue. This can feel challenging, as many issues affecting graduate students are related, and it is not always the case that there is an obvious “most important” issue. Focusing on one issue, however, makes your message clear to the reader. It also makes it impossible for the recipient to triage your letter and take up some concerns while ignoring others, hoping you won’t notice or that you’ll be satisfied if you do because hey, at least you got a partial response.

So how do you choose that one issue? It should be something that affects graduate students across departments, such that an institutional response is appropriate. It should be something specific, such that a reader understands what you want. (Bad: “MORE FUNDING FOR GRADUATE STUDENTS!!!!” Good: “a university-wide extension of guaranteed funding for graduate students by a year”) And it should be something graduate students on your campus care about. Do not assume you know what is best for them! If your campus has a graduate labor union or a unionization movement, check their website or social media to see what issues they’re emphasizing during the pandemic. After you do this research—or if research isn’t possible because there are no online resources about this stuff on your campus—talk with your graduate students about what would help them the most.

As with everything in life: if you’re not sure, ask.

How do I structure this thing?

There are many ways to write a clear, concise,*** effective letter. Here is one to get you started. I’m going to assume you’re writing to an administrator whom you don’t know personally, or whom you might consider a casual acquaintance at best. (If you have strong personal relationships, you can be less formal and raise the issue friend to friend—hopefully this is somewhat intuitive.)

I’m also assuming you’re writing this letter by yourself. If you want to get a bunch of faculty to sign onto the same letter, or if you want to organize your colleagues to each write individual letters about the same issue, great! The latter especially can be extremely effective, though it requires more coordination. We’ll start small for now.

  • Subject lines are important! A reliable formula is “Concerns about [specific thing].” Concerns are important to address; the recipient will want to open your email (or, even if they don’t want to, they’re likely to feel that they need to). [Specific thing] can be the issue you’re writing about (e.g., “fees charged to graduate students”; “rent in university housing”), or it can be slightly broader, e.g., “graduate students in the sociology department”, even if your message is about an issue that affects all grads. This feeds into the strategy of starting narrow and broadening; more below.
  • Start with well-wishes—this indicates you realize the administrator is a human first. “I hope you are well during this difficult time” can be enough, but feel free to use whatever feels right. You can also put well-wishes at the end of the letter if that feels better, but make sure you include them somewhere.
  • Then introduce yourself: why are you someone the reader should listen to? “I am a professor in the chemistry department”; “I’m writing in my capacity as chair of English and director of the School of Library Science”; etc. If you serve on an important university committee or faculty governance body—i.e., you have another source of power—or if you have met the administrator in person before, you should mention that as well. Keep this very brief, such that it shows up in the one- or two-line preview that your university email client provides and indicates that you are an Important Person whose email merits opening.
  • Clearly state what you’re writing about, e.g., “I’m writing to express my concerns about [X].”
  • Clearly state why [X] is a problem—if possible, in personal terms. EX: “It worries me that during a global pandemic, the university is still requiring graduate students, many of whom will not have income for the next few months, to shoulder the cost of mandatory fees.” Avoid the tendency to use passive language. Graduate students are not “being asked” to do something; the university is the one doing the asking, and it is less an ask than a requirement if there are penalties for not doing it. You need not be hyperbolic or melodramatic, but do strive for accuracy.
  • Start a new paragraph, then explain how it affects graduate students you know. This is important for both personalizing your letter—personal stories are a tried and true advocacy tool—and for further establishing your authority to comment on the issue. EX: “Several of my advisees have approached me with concerns about [X]. Unfortunately, my department is small and does not have the resources to help with [X]. If [X] is not addressed, my advisees will not be able to undertake their research, which will have [Y] effects.”
  • Start a new paragraph and broaden: “This issue does not only affect my own graduate students. I worry about students in smaller departments that have fewer resources. I also worry about marginalized students who may feel less comfortable advocating for themselves, even as their needs are greater. This issue requires an institutional response.” Etc. etc. Broaden however you think is most appropriate, as long as you convey a) that this issue matters to many grads, not just a select few, and b) that this issue requires an institutional response.
  • Start a new paragraph and state what you want. EX: “Given [things I already said], it is important that the university does [Y].” Y should be delimited and feasible. There are a number of ways to demonstrate this: if you know how much Y costs, include that! (Your graduate labor union, if applicable, has likely already calculated this cost.) You might also mention what your peer institutions have done about the issue—this is the easiest way to show both that your proposal is reasonable and that your institution is falling behind the curve by not responding. Any time you can bring up the university’s reputation or ranking, do so—administrators love this stuff.
  • Start a new paragraph and conclude with short, strong sentences about why this issue is important, in amongst all the others. EX: “I recognize that this is a time of financial uncertainty, and there are many demands on university resources. Still, not addressing [X] risks the reputation of the university and its ability to attract top researchers in the future.”
  • State what you will do if you do not receive a timely response. If this feels uncomfortable, recognize that it is not a threat, but rather a promise to follow up and/or hold administrators accountable for doing their jobs. EX: “I will follow up in a week if I don’t hear from you. I look forward to your response.” (Then actually follow up.) Or, “You will also be hearing from my colleagues soon, as we share the same concerns.” (Obviously only say this last bit if your colleagues will actually write letters.)
  • Sign off with the same humanity with which you began. EX: “Many thanks, and take care, [your name].”
  • Use fewer em-dashes than I do, probably.

Who do I send this to, and when?

This will vary depending on the issue at hand and how your institution is organized. Try to figure out who can actually make a decision about the issue: if you are writing about funding, for example, that may be the purview of the vice chancellor for finance, or perhaps the dean of the graduate school. Ask your colleagues if you are not sure. (Your graduate labor union, if applicable, likely knows.) It may be tempting to write the chancellor or president, but that is unlikely to be an expeditious choice, as you will have to deal with their layers upon layers of staff first, unless you know them well. You can address the letter to multiple administrators of roughly the same rank if you are still unsure of whom to contact (both the VC for finance and the dean of the graduate school, for example), though I would max out recipients at three.

Timing is important. You want to increase the chances that your email will appear at the top of the recipient’s inbox whenever they check it. On average, people tend to reliably check their email in the morning and at the end of the day. Day of the week also matters: a mid-morning message on a Tuesday is less likely to get buried than a late afternoon message on a Friday. Of course, none of this is a science, but don’t be the person who sends a letter at 11 p.m. on Saturday night because that’s when you had time to write it and then gets frustrated when you don’t get a response.

How can I increase the chances that my letter gets a response?

The biggest problem with letters of support is that they are a private action. Aside from the recipient, no one will know that you wrote this letter unless you tell them. So, tell other people! Transform your private action into a public one.

The easiest way to do this is to share a PDF of your letter on social media (with any private information you included redacted) with something like “Today, I sent this letter about [X] to university administrators. I am appalled that [institution] continues to [do whatever bad thing] during a global pandemic. [Institution] must implement [Y] immediately for all graduate students.” This attracts attention: most graduate students are not used to faculty advocating for them, either because it doesn’t happen much or because it mostly occurs behind the scenes (so we don’t know about it). We love to see it—and we’ll share the good news! Your colleagues might also see your post and get inspired to engage in similar advocacy work for graduate students.

Putting your letter on social media also puts the university on blast (especially if you tag them): it shows them that you’re serious and sends a signal that they, in turn, need to take you and your asks seriously.

If you’re not active on social media, you can turn your private action into a public one by talking about the issue you raised with your colleagues. This is not a praise fest—the goal is not to receive a proverbial trophy for Doing a Good Thing—but rather an opportunity to indicate that this sort of advocacy is an option faculty might pursue. At the very least, you might make more faculty aware of an issue they hadn’t thought of before, which is also important work.

And about that whole power thing…it’s intersectional.

I began this post with the assertion that tenure-track and tenured faculty have more power than graduate students, and I will die on this hill. But I do want to add nuance. Tenure-track faculty are more precarious than tenured faculty—and their views may carry less weight with administrators. A tenure-track Black woman is more precarious than a tenure-track white man. The risks to her of engaging in advocacy work like this are much higher, especially if she mentions publicly that she’s doing this work. (She’s also more likely to already be doing advocacy work.) Pick your dimension of identity. Power disparities abound.

This is why it is so important that the most secure among us to do the work. This doesn’t mean tenured white men taking charge, or dictating how everyone else should do the work, or pressuring someone else into doing the work and then taking the credit. It does mean tenured white men (and tenured white women, and tenure-track men, and so on and so forth) speaking up because they’re more likely to be listened to. And it does mean those with more power normalizing advocacy work, decreasing the ability of administrators to perpetuate “angry minority” narratives, and assuming more of the risk.

In the words of Toni Morrison: “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” You have power. Your power can help your graduate students. Use it.

*If this is not obvious to you and you haven’t made any effort to reach out to your graduate students since the start of quarantine, you may excuse yourself. I’m not here to teach you basic human decency.

**This is occasionally a point of contention, so let me be explicit. At UW–Madison, where I attend graduate school, the minimum university-wide guaranteed stipend rate for a graduate assistant is just over $18,000—this is for nine months for a graduate student lecturer. The average rate is closer to $20,000, dispersed over nine months. What is a living wage in Madison? About $27,000 for a calendar year, according to City Council. Assuming no summer funding—and for many grads, summer funding is not guaranteed—and taking into account the range of grad assistant stipends and their inexplicable variation, grads would need to make between $4,000 and $9,000 over the summer just to hit the 12-month living wage standard. And this is before we consider the time and mental energy looking for and then doing extra work takes away from one’s dissertation research, along with the thousands of dollars in mandatory fees grads are required to pay back to the university each year, even if their tuition is covered. This situation is not abnormal among grad students in academia, and in fact grads on many campuses have it worse. There is simply no comparison to the salaried situations of tenure-track and tenured faculty.

***I have never been concise in my life. Do better than me.

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