If I Protest, Could I Lose My Funding?

May 13, 2024

Dr. Vicki Johnson, a mid-age white American woman with straight brown hair and a green blouse. She is a graduate school admissions expert. The words, Ask Dr. Johnson are on the left-hand side.

Dear Dr. Johnson,

I’m a 4th year PhD student in International Affairs on a US campus. My university is all over the news for student protests in support of Gaza and university divestments from Israeli companies. I feel morally obligated to join in these protests because I support what the protestors are demanding and my research is on peacebuilding. It seems like the protests are bringing national attention to the war. Some friends are calling me a sell-out for not getting involved yet and I understand why. My only question is, could I lose my PhD funding for participating in the protests? It comes from a graduate assistantship. I don’t intend to do anything illegal, I just want to be sure the university has no legal way to end my funding for engaging in peaceful protests.

– Torn

 

From Dr. Vicki Johnson:

I appreciate your desire to join your fellow students in peaceful protest for an issue you care about. The U.S. campus protests are indeed creating a lot of national news coverage about the war. But could you risk your funding by getting involved? Yes, there is a real possibility you could lose your graduate assistantship if you do something, even unintentionally, that breaks university rules or local laws.

Participating in a protest inherently comes with risks. Some campus protests are erupting in violence and vandalism, which are causing clashes with police. While you have no intention of doing anything illegal, you can become swept up in crowds and be accused of activities you didn’t have any role in.

Students who receive funding through graduate assistantships are typically at-will university employees, which means they can end your funding without penalty, for any reason or no reason at all. Even if you find yourself in a situation where you feel you were unjustly suspended or lost your assistantship, I don’t know many students who can afford legal representation and the conflict alone may make it impossible for you to finish your PhD at the same university.

So, reflect on what future outcomes are most important to you.

A major problem with some campus protests is that they lack a clear leader, and universities are grappling with how to respond or negotiate with leaderless groups. According to the media, the primary request of pro-Palestinian protesters is for the university to divest their business dealings and investments in Israeli companies. Some universities have stated that divestment is very difficult because many investments are managed by third parties and involve large combined funds. Before you call BS on this response, do you fully understand how your university invests money?

Brown University is a rare example of a university trying to negotiate with protesters and meet the demands for divestment. This shows that campus protests can have power. But even if your university responds, divestment may have no impact on the trajectory of the war.

What other protest outcomes are important to you? National press coverage and attention can be an important factor to change, but it’s not the only thing that can generate change, and media outlets still control the narrative, not the protesters.

If you see yourself as having an important role in international affairs during and after your PhD, weigh the pros and cons of becoming involved in activities now that may constrict your ability to be influential in the future. Research on peacebuilding is a powerful tool for creating more peace in our world. By building real influence, you could use your research platform to influence policymakers and corporations.

And in the meantime, if friends are judging you for not participating in campus protests, tell them what you plan to do now and in the future for the causes you care about and why you’re protecting that capability now.

 

Dr. Vicki Johnson is Founder and Director of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient, and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the creator of the Fully Funded Course and Mentorship Program, which helps graduate school applicants enter top graduate schools with funding awards. 


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