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Rutgers graduate students discuss CARES Act Commission proposal

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Graduate students associated with the Rutgers American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) submitted a proposal last week for how the University should distribute Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for students.

The Daily Targum previously reported the University received $27 million designated for student relief during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, but Rutgers officials have not yet announced how students would be able to apply for this relief or what criteria needed to be met.

Alexandra Adams, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers-Newark, and Ian Gavigan, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History, are both members of the AAUP-AFT Graduate Steering Committee and Executive Committee and co-chaired the CARES Act Commission proposal team.

Adams said people became aware that the University received its share of the CARES Act funding but had not released any details.

"I think they are trying to determine how to allocate funds without the input of the people that would be receiving them," she said. "We are pushing to make sure that the distribution of this fund is fair and equitable, and the administration is not working with us."

Gavigan said the uncertainty surrounding the funding prompted graduate students to develop a plan, which he said is based on equity and accountability. The proposal group consisted of members from all campuses and included graduate student workers in the AAUP-AFT, non-union members as well as graduate students on fellowship. He said they also spoke to student government leaders for their input.

"We were able to put together a group of (approximately) 20 people to work on this and we produced something over the course of a few days with input from all corners of the University," Gavigan said. "Which I think is a pretty sharp contrast to the fact that we still don't have a plan from administration."

Adams said the University has a history of not including student input in its decision making.

"They have been given almost complete autonomy over these funds and have historically not been student-centric, nor fair, with their supplied funding, let alone what they have at their disposal internally," she said.

The proposal states the CARES Act aid should be available to undergraduates, graduate students, professional students as well as student workers, like part-time lecturers or teaching assistants on all three campuses, the Targum reported.

The CARES Act Commission proposal also states the relief should cover living expenses, including housing costs, food, transportation, utilities, caretaking expenses and healthcare expenses, as well as fees incurred from purchasing work from home supplies, the Targum reported.

Gavigan said the team working on the proposal included these provisions to address the various conditions and disparities students across Rutgers are experiencing.

"It was really important to us every step of the way to be thinking about what the equitable system looks like, how do we want to make sure public money through the CARES Act isn't going to reinforce existing inequities, existing disparities between groups (and) between campuses," he said.

The proposal also calls for funding to cover legal fees for undocumented or international students who may be affected by the COVID-19 crisis, the Targum reported. Gavigan said the Department of Education released CARES Act guidelines after the proposal was submitted stating undocumented and international students would not be eligible for relief funding. He said the University should still meet the needs of these students.

"Without a question, we're calling on the University to make sure the aid and relief and emergency funding is available to those groups," Gavigan said.

Gavigan said the proposal also aims to simplify the aid application process and prevent members of a student's department from knowing details about their financial situation by having a straightforward, centralized relief application that would be reviewed by members of the CARES Act Commission only.

The Commission would consist of both student and union representatives. Gavigan said the student government organizations on all three campuses as well as the AAUP-AFT are all focused on advocating for student needs, which he said could be beneficial for the Commission.

"I think that we already have really good and really engaged self-government and self-organization going on, and it seems to me that those would be the kind of areas that we would want to draw on to have student oversight and participation in the Commission," he said.

Gavigan said the University acknowledged the submission of the proposal but has not said whether it will adopt any of the provisions. Adams said she does not think the University will effectively distribute the funding on its own.

"I especially feel this way based on the central administration's lack of response to our proposal, and I feel it will require a united force of (undergraduates), (graduates) and faculty to combat this lack of transparency to gain clarity as to how (Rutgers) intends to spend these funds and how students must be part of that process," she said.

Gavigan said the University should adopt the AAUP-AFT's proposal because it ensures the University's most vulnerable student groups are given the help they need during this emergency and holds Rutgers officials accountable. Additionally, it can serve as a model in the event that the University receives additional federal relief in the future, he said.

"It's the best solution because it's put out rigorous standards for what money can and should be used for to make sure that people can take care of their urgent human needs in this moment," he said.

Although the University has not said whether it is considering the CARES Act Commission proposal, Adams said it has received attention at other universities nationwide who are interested in similar initiatives.

"I am in contact with many East Coast and some West Coast institutions in the hope of creating a standard for what our students can demand from our institutions based on our proposal," she said.

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