Boston U Dean to Struggling Grad Students: Go To the Food Pantry – Guest Post

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An intercepted email from a dean at Boston University to faculty and staff reveals that the administration is responding to poverty-like conditions among its grad students by sending out links to food pantries and short-term loans.

The stipend that many graduate students at the university receive is ~$23,000 per year, about 1/3 the median income of Boston, and the terms of the stipend forbid employment outside the department; additional income through the university is limited to $3,000 per year. Considering the exorbitant living costs of the Boston area, PhD students struggle to make ends meet, with some facing the euphemistic issue of “food insecurity” if they struggle to afford food.  

Although Boston University is a wealthy private institution charging $70,000/year per undergraduate student (for tuition and room and board), they are unwilling to pay their graduate workers a living wage. 

In a move analogous to Wal-Marts holding food drives for their employees, this administrator’s solutions for students experiencing “food insecurity” are to seek external assistance or take on debt, rather than increasing graduate wages so that workers can afford to know where their next meal is coming from. 

Date: Tuesday, November 19, 2019 at 10:39 AM
Subject: Resources for Graduate Students Facing Financial Challenges and Food Insecurity


A number of graduate programs have brought concerns to me about their graduate students’ financial challenges and experience of food insecurity. Even with the best of budgeting, the amount of our stipend (which will continue to increase slowly over the next few years) and the cost of living in Boston means that there are times when it is difficult for our PhD students to make ends meet.  

In response, and with thanks to the Graduate Program in Religion, I wanted to share resources that are available to our graduate students. 

Graduate students may reach out for support and emergency financial assistance at Boston University in one of two ways.

GRS provides emergency loans to all graduate students and advances on stipends to qualified PhD students. The stipend advance may be of particular use to PhD students receiving a non-service fellowship, where the fellowship is paid out monthly.  PhD programs are encouraged to let incoming PhD students know in a timely manner (ideally at the start of the summer) that they can receive a mid-September advance on their stipend, in order to bridge the gap between the start-up costs of moving to Boston and their first stipend payment at the end of September. See for more information.

While Boston University does not operate a food pantry, the Dean of Students’ Office offers meal assistance:

In addition, the Graduate Program in Religion has a new website that lists other resources in the community available to graduate students who are experiencing food insecurity and have implemented a number of measures of their own to support their students:  

Please be in touch with any questions or concerns.


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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Boston U Dean to Struggling Grad Students: Go To the Food Pantry – Guest Post — 3 Comments

  1. I suppose this Dean is unware that food pantries typically permit one visit per month, and offer, for example, one can of soup, one can of beans, one box of cereal, one jar of peanut butter and one bag of rice. If you are lucky you’ll also get a half gallon of milk, a quarter pound of sketchy meat and some fresh produce that needs to be eaten right away before it goes bad.

  2. I agree completely that universities must increase their stipends to university students and provide a living wage, but unfortunately, the nature of this article providing this email does not help the cause. The problem is that the article does not offer any contextualization of this email, nor does it offer any response from the administration. In fact, what the article does not mention is that the administration had been and still is involved in taking concrete steps towards increasing the stipends for graduate students (ask administrators or grad students at BU, and you’d know this). The stipend has increased for each of the last three years and will increase again next year. The stipend for students in the Humanities and Social Sciences will be increasing substantively next year as well. The email published above represents but a temporary measure for students in immediate need as the administration finalizes those steps (at least one of which has in fact been implemented, meaning that as early as next year many incoming grad students will have a substantially higher stipend). Had the article asked the administrators, it could’ve provided not only this fact, but also could have popularized some of the creative ways in which BU is trying to increase funding so that other universities could follow. But as it stands, merely publishing this email without context or interviews runs the risk of detracting from the cause (and it sadly may delegitimate your otherwise very helpful website). For full transparency, I am a faculty member privy to some of the administrations’ efforts in this regard. I am devoted to increasing graduate students’ stipends. 100%, no doubt about it. If you’d like to talk about this more, you have my email address.

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