When Hannah Rogers moved to Durham in August 2013, she rented a room in a modest two-bedroom apartment on Burch Avenue for $400 a month. The apartment wasn’t far from Duke University, where she was about to begin pursuing her PhD in literature. Duke had awarded her a stipend—$23,400 a year—and though her first paycheck wouldn’t come until mid-September, she figured she’d squirreled enough away to make it work. 

But even with the stipend, Rogers found that she was burning through her savings while her workload was piling up: taking and teaching classes, researching her dissertation on Victorian literature. So she picked up side hustles, like writing for and editing academic journals, cataloging books, and even pet-sitting. 

That extra income wasn’t a lot, she says, “but it might pay a grocery bill. There have been times where I’ve been absolutely grateful for anyone who will offer me a bit of money.”

This summer, she’s cramming to finish her dissertation, sometimes writing for twelve or thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, while dipping her toes into an increasingly bleak academic job market—itself nearly a full-time job. 

In the last six years, her rent has gone up 50 percent; she now pays $600 for her share of a two-bedroom. The cost of living in Durham has risen sharply, as well. The city now considers a living wage more than $15 an hour, or more than $31,000 a year. But Rogers’s stipend has barely budged. She, like other Duke grad students receiving the standard stipend, takes home $11.70 an hour. 

So a few years ago, Rogers did what workers across the country have long done when they’ve believed their working conditions were untenable: She joined a union. 

When Rogers first got to campus, the union didn’t exist, but there were rumblings of student organizing. In 2014, some grad students created a committee to abolish continuation fees, a $7,000 charge for graduates six years or more into the PhD program. From that, the Duke Graduate Students Union formed in early 2016 to demand better compensation and benefits. 

A few months later, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students have the right to collectively bargain, overturning a precedent and greenlighting organizing efforts nationwide. 

That changed everything. Grad students began demonstrating on campus, holding bake sales, and soliciting support from their colleagues. By February 2017, with the help of the SEIU, graduate students held a union election. 

The results were a muddle. Of the 1,089 ballots cast, 691 voted against SEIU representation, to 398 in favor. But between them, the union and the university had challenged 502 ballots over issues of eligibility, more than the margin separating the two sides. That meant the election was inconclusive and headed to the NLRB to decide. 

Facing the prospect of a prolonged, uphill battle, the DGSU ultimately withdrew its petition for certification.

Instead, it formed what’s called a direct-join union and began working alongside Fight for $15 activists in a successful campaign to raise the minimum wage of the campus’s contract employees. But the grad students still felt left behind.

So for the last year, they’ve donned bright orange shirts and staged walkouts, a yoga protest on the quad, and multiple rallies demanding a $31,200 stipend paid out over twelve months (summer funding isn’t guaranteed after year three), a relocation grant for incoming graduates, and pay beginning upon arrival in August. 

And their efforts appear to have paid off–sort of. In April, Duke agreed to raise the graduate stipend to $31,160. Duke has also agreed to cover tuition for six years instead of five, extend family leave, and move up its pay schedule to cover a student’s first few weeks in Durham.

“Only through collective action could we actually show the university that these are the things we need and we are prepared to work together for them,” Rogers says. “We really had to work together and really demonstrate in a very public manner why we need these things.”

But there’s a catch: The stipend will increase in 2022—after Rogers and many of the DGSU leaders who pushed for the wage hike have left.

Duke says the timing is a coincidence. 

In fact, Duke says the union—which the university doesn’t recognize—had nothing to do with its decision at all. The stipend increase, spokesman Keith Lawrence says, has been in the works since 2016, and the delay is only to give the university “sufficient time to plan for the increase in financial support.” 

Raising the standard stipend for all twenty-four hundred Duke grad students will cost the university about $19 million a year. But this is hardly a cash-poor institution. Duke has nearly seven thousand undergrads, most paying nearly $70,000 in annual tuition. Its endowment reached $8.5 billion last year, ranking it the tenth-highest in the nation. Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski earns more than $7 million a year, while top university officials make well over $1 million. 

Lawrence points out that, with tuition, the stipend, and other benefits, “each PhD student at Duke receives more than three hundred thousand dollars in support from the university during their enrollment.”

But this money isn’t a gift. The university arguably couldn’t function without grad students’ work. They grade, they teach, they conduct research, they treat patients—and as Duke and other universities across the country have become more reliant on contingent faculty while cutting back on tenured professors, it’s often fallen to grad students to pick up the slack. 

It’s to Duke’s advantage, then, to keep the grad students from organizing.   

In giving the students a higher stipend while fighting their unionizing efforts, Duke might be playing a long game, says professor David Zonderman, a historian of labor movements at N.C. State: The university pays a little more, but the power dynamic remains fundamentally unchanged.

“We call that a ‘union avoidance strategy,’ and you can use a carrot or a stick,” Zonderman says. “It’s about power or control.”

Actually, Duke’s long game need not be that long: In September, the NLRB—now run by anti-union Trump appointees—will revisit whether grad students at universities like Duke should even be able to unionize in the first place.

In the 1970s, roughly two-thirds of faculty at universities across the country were either tenured or tenure-track, positions that afford professors job security and near-absolute academic freedom. Almost a half-century later, less than 30 percent are. Most teaching and grading is done by contingent faculty and graduate students, whose struggles are increasingly interrelated.

It’s not just about saving money, although adjuncts make less than tenured professors. Contingent faculty are paid per class—sometimes as little as $1,500 per semester—often without benefits, sometimes while paying down hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans. Just as important, they have little job security. Their contracts are at risk if they cross administrators or department heads. 

This has created what Sarah Lawrence College professor Nicolaus Mills described as an “academic underclass”: “The faculty having the greatest amount of contact with individual students are those on the lowest rung of the academic ladder,” Mills wrote in a 2012 article in Dissent.

In recent years, contingent faculty have been unionizing with increasing frequency. In 2017, Duke’s contingent faculty became the first at a major private university in the South to successfully unionize, bargaining for a pay hike of up to $8,000 per class per semester.

Graduate students at many public universities across the country—though not in North Carolina—have also been able to organize and collectively bargain, because their union rights are governed by state law. (North Carolina does not allow any state workers to do so.) But in 2004, the Bush administration-era NLRB ruled that grad students at Brown University—like Duke, a private institution—weren’t eligible to organize because the grad students were students, not workers, so they weren’t covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

That changed in 2016 when an NLRB controlled by Obama appointees gave grad students at Columbia the right to organize. Its decision led to union drives at several elite universities. Harvard began bargaining with its graduate student union last October, followed by Columbia.

Other efforts have devolved into bitter stalemates, including a hunger strike at Yale in 2017. Yale’s union, which attempted to organize various departments separately, quietly withdrew its petition for recognition last year—“a signal that the movement to organize graduate student teachers on American campuses … is facing tougher sledding under the Trump Administration,” according to the New Haven Independent

Indeed, Trump’s appointees to the NLRB, including new chairman John F. Ring and general counsel Peter Robb, have made the body an actively anti-union organization. 

Last year, in fact, Ring unilaterally announced that he was terminating the existing contract with the NLRB’s professional association and replacing it with another, while Robb restructured the agency’s field offices to effectively demote local directors deemed too pro-union. Bloomberg reported in May that Robb has directed agency staffers to pursue charges against labor organizations for things that were formerly considered harmless errors—losing an employee complaint or not returning a worker’s phone call. 

So when NLRB takes up the issue of graduate student unions in September, another reversal seems like a given. At that point, Zonderman says, “grad student unions will be very hard to organize going forward. Existing unions will probably find it hard to negotiate any new contracts.”

Graduate students at Duke find themselves in a precarious position. Their academic success depends on balancing teaching and research under the eyes of a handful of advisers. And they worry that, if they cause too much trouble, their careers could be at risk, and without a union, they’ll have no way to protect themselves.

“You have to deal with this power dynamic where your boss is also your academic adviser and is holding your whole academic degree in his or her hands,” says North Carolina AFL-CIO president MaryBe McMillan.  

Casey Williams describes himself as “the best-case scenario.”

The PhD literature candidate made it through college on a full-ride without amassing mountains of debt before starting a career in journalism, writing for The Huffington Post. When he decided to pursue his doctorate at Duke in 2016, he was unaware of just how little his $23,400 stipend would cover. 

Between $800 in rent for a one-bedroom apartment, utilities, food, and therapy appointments, his basic living expenses inched above $26,000 this year. Freelance writing and an additional fellowship from the Kenan Institute for Ethics bridge the shortfall with little wiggle room. A medical issue? A laptop breaks? He’s out of luck.

“If the stipend can work for anybody, it’s a person like me and for me,” Williams says. “And the graduate school at Duke shouldn’t look like me. They shouldn’t all be young, relatively healthy white men without dependents.”

But according to literature student Julien Fischer, that’s pretty much the case. “The overwhelming majority” of those in the program “are white cisgender men,” Fischer says, “and that seems true across the board.”

He believes the low pay is to blame. 

“It feels almost impossible to exist only with a graduate student stipend, and it’s very difficult to take on additional work,” Fischer says. “It seems almost like only the people who have personal wealth are the ones that are supposed to make it in these graduate programs.”

Kevin Spencer is not as fortunate as Casey Williams. The thirty-nine-year-old Canadian-born lit grad student spent several years teaching at Korea University but worried that, without a PhD, he’d eventually be pushed out of the job market. His wife, who is Korean, was able to obtain a visa, so he started at Duke in 2015.

At first, he was happy with his $26,000 stipend. But in 2018, Duke denied him summer funding, leaving him without a paycheck for three months. That summer, his daughter, Jia, was born. With no other choice, he dipped into his modest savings to keep his family afloat.

“If we had had our daughter before this, I wouldn’t be doing a PhD, definitely not. It would have been a totally irresponsible decision at that point,” Spencer says. “As soon as you get there, they give you two years of decent funding, and then you are in far enough, they can yank it away. They are really squeezing us because they could, because nobody was making a fuss about it.”

Their old apartment had cockroaches, so they moved to a more expensive place after the baby was born. Spencer stopped buying coffee in the morning. The preschool his wife worked at donated baby clothes.

“I need dental work, I know I do, but I’m not sure how to pay for it,” Spencer says. Duke does not provide dental insurance.

He expects to earn his doctorate in 2021. He’ll be over forty, and he’ll have depleted his savings—money he hoped to use as a down payment on a house.

A year later, the stipend hike will kick in. 

That’s convenient, says Fischer, who will be entering his sixth year in the program at that point. 

“There is a way in which erasing institutional memory helps bolster [Duke’s] powers over its workers,” Fischer says. “Our fight for a greater stipend wasn’t for the future. It was for the right now, because many of us are struggling to pay rent, pay bills, struggling to provide for children.”

On April 18, the DGSU planned a sit-in during parents’ weekend, in which members would camp out in front of Duke Chapel as part of its “ticket to a living wage” campaign.

A week before the protest, Duke announced the stipend increase. The graduates decided to gather anyway.

“We decided to make it a victory celebration,” Williams says. “Duke’s decision to increase the stipend amount wasn’t inevitable and wasn’t a coincidence; it came after our union worked for over a year and a half to push them to do this.” 

Despite the wage increase, the fight isn’t over. They want Duke to increase the stipend sooner. But the larger fight is for a seat at the bargaining table.

“I think it really shows the power of a union, whether you are an officially recognized union or not, by coming together you can really create change,” says McMillan, the NC AFL-CIO president. “You can raise wages. You can create a better working environment.”

But at Duke, the victory is bittersweet. Amid the springtime celebrations, when dissertations are accepted and students adopt the honorific doctor, there’s increasing anxiety—even at a Southern Ivy—about who will end up with a job.

“There’s a lot of great scholars leaving academia,” Rogers says. “Graduate students who absolutely would have made academia better and their particular specialization fields better through their research and teaching and yet there have to leave because they can’t afford to continue on.”

The number of people earning PhDs has risen, but the number of tenure-track positions is plummeting, especially in the humanities. Rogers knows her chances of landing a tenure-track position are slim. And she’s not sure whether, cobbling together several adjunct gigs, she’ll make more than she does as a graduate student.

But what she’s seen organizing and advocating at Duke has given her a reason to fight.

“While you can’t control the market, that does make me hopeful,” Rogers says, “that there is a future of colleagues who care and seek to advocate for each other and do want to invest in unions, in graduate students, in undergrads.”

Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss at ltauss@indyweek.com. 

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One reply on “After Years of Organizing, Duke’s Grad Students Got a Raise. Duke Still Won.”

  1. This was beyond pathetic. You basically showcased a bunch of people who are pursuing fields of study that are, at best, trivial and shrinking. Humanities are a joke. They are basically an intellectual virus that only serves to propagate more pathological copies of itself. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that you did profile any struggling science or engineering majors…

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