Students and faculty erupted in protest this weekend after Columbia announced that it would require graduate students to return to the United States to keep their teaching and research positions regardless of their citizenship status. Following widespread criticism, the University has since announced that it is exploring other options to the policy, though no update has been released.
The initial announcement, released this past Friday, stated that the policy intended “to avoid jeopardizing international students’ visa status,” but it did not specify any legal or financial restrictions on paying workers who reside outside the country or why the policy applies to U.S. citizens who do not need work visas. All Ph.D. candidates in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences—in which over 50 percent of the student body is international—are required to work as instructors or researchers for at least three years of their fellowships.
Three days after Columbia’s announcement, New York University announced a similar policy that prohibits graduate workers from working abroad. However, many other institutions, including the University of Chicago, Stony Brook University, and Yale University, lack any restrictions on paying workers who live outside the United States.
On Monday, a University spokesperson told Spectator that Columbia intends to modify the policy announced last week but did not respond to requests for comment on the reasoning behind the initial restrictions. An update to the policy has not yet been released.
“We are actively exploring options that will allow the University to pay service stipends to graduate students who are abroad and have valid U.S. employment authorizations; we hope to have a resolution shortly,” the spokesperson wrote.
The policy was immediately decried by graduate workers, faculty, and other University affiliates who cited fears of financial and housing insecurity. Many Ph.D. students rely on teaching and research positions as their primary source of income for up to six years of their studies.
Zeinab Azarbadegan, a rising 7th year Ph.D. candidate in GSAS, had planned on teaching remotely from the United Kingdom in the GSAS Teaching Scholars Program. After last month’s order from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement threatened her student visa, she lost her off-campus lease and decided to stay in London for the fall. The policy announced last week would have required her to either abruptly return to New York and secure housing or sacrifice the job she relied on for income this fall.
The University’s policy vacillations have impacted Azarbadegan’s ability to study and work toward her degree.
“It’s impossible to actually stay mentally healthy and sound during these conditions when you’re constantly in a very unstable situation in general, because of the pandemic. The University just makes it even more unstable rather than bringing some stability in a situation of crisis,” she said.
On Aug. 7, The Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers, the union that represents Columbia’s graduate student workers, released a letter to University administrators in which it condemned the decision as “cruel and unnecessary” and demanded that teaching and research assistants be paid for remote work while abroad. As of this article’s publishing, the letter has garnered over 800 signatures from graduate students, faculty, alumni, and others.
“We reject that denying pay to student workers situated abroad in any way protects the visas of international students at the University. There is no legal basis why students residing outside the United States cannot be employed,” GWC-UAW wrote.
As of Aug. 11, graduate students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science; the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; and other graduate schools have not received any communications regarding working from abroad. However, the policy would likely affect all graduate students, as all doctoral degrees at Columbia are administered by GSAS even though many programs are housed in other schools.