A Memo from the Provost Regarding PhD Students

Originally published June 24, 2020

A number of people have asked me what I think of the Provost’s internal memo of June 19,  regarding PhD students, which has been the subject of a social media storm, and is now being commented on in the media more generally, after somebody posted it online (not me, just in case anybody is tempted to think that). I think that this represents something of a public relations disaster for a university administration that appears to be rushing policy documents out without sufficient internal consultation. One might have hoped that the university would have released a public statement by now to address the reasonable concerns that PhD students have expressed concerning the stated policies (here, and in many other places). All this being said, I have heard, through reliable channels, that the PhD graduate student policies that will actually end up being instituted are not going to be as punitive as one might think if one were to take this document at face value. 

I have heard that BU does not, in fact, plan to withdraw funding from international students who have good justifications for not being able to get back in time (e.g. border restrictions or cancelled flights); what will be crucial, apparently, is that a good faith effort is made to return.  There is also a concern that the 14-day quarantine condition mentioned in the document might mean graduate students cannot return at the end of August, but must instead return in mid-August. Again, I’m hearing that this may not be what the university is actually requiring. I’ve been told that international PhD students who need to teach can return at the end of August and then teach online for a couple of weeks if they are in quarantine. Whether these interpretations are what was always intended and the memo could have simply been written more carefully, or there wasn’t enough thought put into considering the implications of what is said  in the document, I don’t know. A strange condition, to my mind, is that they are requiring all new PhD students to be living in Boston from the beginning of fall semester, even though they are not teaching (first year students don’t teach, at least not in departments I’m aware of), and even though they are permitted to take all of their classes online. I haven’t heard that this policy will be weakened. I don’t know why the administration requiring this. My best guess is that the university simply wants to be able to count these students as having arrived on campus. Students who have finished all teaching duties and can do their research elsewhere as they finish off their dissertations are not required to return to Boston.

Russell Powell and I remain committed to the idea that graduate students who teach or assist teachers at BU should not be put in a position where they are being treated differently than the rest of us with respect to teaching on campus. We continue to believe that during this pandemic, all of us should be provided with the right to teach from anywhere, just as students are being provided with the right to learn from anywhere.