The inability to crack a book in Suzzallos gorgeous reading room is the least of these students troubles.
The inability to crack a book in Suzzallo's gorgeous reading room is the least of these students' troubles. UW Libraries

After months of sending mixed messages, and under plenty of pressure from the UAW Local 4121 International Solidarity Work Group (ISW), on Wednesday the University of Washington finally "committed to honoring...funding agreements" with incoming scholars currently living outside the country, according to an email sent to the ISW from Joy Williamson-Lott, dean of UW's Graduate School.

The school's thousand or so incoming research and teaching assistants have spent the last few months pressing the university for answers about their employment status, contemplating Mission Impossible-like quarantine schemes to travel to the U.S. in the next few weeks before school starts, considering appointment deferrals for an unspecified number of months, and worrying about cutting short academic careers they've spent a lifetime building.

Though the email from Williamson-Lott represents an "important signal," said UAW financial secretary Dan Hart, the immediate future of these far-flung RAs and TAs will remain hazy until the end of next week, when the UW plans to offer more details on their appointments.

Mixed Messages

The road to "we'll tell you more next week" has been long, frustrating, and panicky.

Last spring started off normally enough. The UW offered a number of international scholars fall appointments as teaching assistants and/or research assistants, and many of those scholars accepted those positions.

Then the pandemic hit. Governments restricted travel and shuttered embassies, and university administrators began the process of figuring out what campus would look like come autumn.

To make matters even more complicated, in June the President signed an executive order suspending the issuance of several kinds of visas. On top of that, in July, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued guidelines requiring international students and instructors to attend schools offering in-person classes or else face deportation/ban from entry. By mid-July, ICE rescinded its guidelines, largely as a result of a lawsuit from Harvard and MIT. And in August, the Trump administration added exceptions under certain circumstances to its visa suspensions.

Hundreds of incoming UW postdoctoral researchers and graduate teaching assistants—especially those living in China, Iran, Brazil, most of Europe, and the UK, where travel bans remain in place—watched these events unfold and started politely peppering their advisors with questions.

The big question: If the pandemic and any associated travel bans prevented them from entering the country before late September, could they work remotely outside the U.S. in the fall?

Up until yesterday, the answer from various UW administrators was, and here I'm paraphrasing: "Yes! But also no! Moreover, we're not sure because of complex tax issues, and we're not sure when we will be sure! And uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, maybe you should consider deferring for a quarter or a year depending on your department's needs?????"

In the middle of July, a few incoming international scholars met to discuss the mixed messages UW department administrators sent them regarding fall employment positions, which are protected by the UAW 4121 collective bargaining agreement.

One of the scholars at the meeting, an incoming PhD student and instructor from China, said her colleagues reported that some departments "requested a valid visa to maintain the appointments remotely, some transferred the discretion to advisors, while some departments clearly denied the remote mode for all incoming PhDs."

Another incoming PhD from China said his department would support remote work but "did not know if the University will allow me to conduct a TA job from outside the US without a valid visa," even though no law or UW policy prohibits RAs and TAs from conducting their work abroad, even without a visa.

Both of those scholars requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

After the meeting, that group hooked up with the grad student union's International Solidarity Work Group and drafted a petition demanding UW create a "system-wide Task Force to address the needs of international and undocumented populations" composed of a majority of non-citizens.

The union said UW didn't respond to the petition, and the mixed messages continued despite and, of course, because of the lack of a campus-wide policy.

One of the Chinese researchers said her department told her in mid-August she could work remotely all fall. However, during a meeting later that month between UAW 4121, the UW Office of Labor Relations, the UW Graduate School, and the Fellowship office, she learned her advisor was wrong. This researcher said she ultimately confirmed her appointment with her department late last week, but she doesn't trust it. "One of my colleagues was notified that her RA position this autumn had to be canceled after she was guaranteed to work remotely in early August," she said. "In the email she shared with me, the statement was that 'the University will not let us hire students that are outside the U.S. at this time.'"

In two other emails to international scholars from two very different departments, administrators repeated suggestions to defer admission. "It looks like the most practical option is for you to defer until Winter 2021. Without a visa we cannot pay you as a TA nor offer you tuition support," one administrator wrote. "I know you are willing and able to attend online and I will continue to search for alternatives. However, I think you should be thinking about deferral."

Kim Meier studies how the visual parts of the brain develop and change when people have atypical vision in childhood.
Kim Meier studies how the visual parts of the brain develop and change when people have atypical vision in childhood. Kim Meier

In another mid-August situation, the International Scholars Office (ISO) initially denied Kim Meier an extension of her request to work outside of the country, an option available to certain visa holders who plan to be gone for more than 30 days but less than a year.

Meier, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology who studies the development of visual perception from childhood to adulthood, is a Canadian working on a J-1 visa. She had been living in Seattle since 2018, but she moved back to Canada when COVID-19 hit due to health concerns and a need to be near her husband and family.

After essentially rubber-stamping requests to work remotely throughout the spring and summer, the ISO denied her request to continue through the fall.

In an email to Meier, the ISO said confusion about UW's policy on working overseas were in flux. "However," the administrator continued, "I can tell you that it appears that the policy will discourage (or perhaps prohibit) working overseas by any scholar unless UW has specifically sent the person overseas to do work that cannot be accomplished by staying in the US. That does not appear to be your situation. Therefore, I believe it is unlikely that the policy will allow us to extend an Out of Country request for you so that you can continue to work outside the U.S. by your own choice."

Meier said this response was "really frustrating—devastating, really."

"While before they had indicated that working out of the country was not going to be a problem, they were now essentially telling me that they can't help me because of some policy change that is not yet in place, nor has any documentation supporting it," she said. "I had essentially been told that I had less than two weeks to get back to Seattle—even though my office space is closed and we are not running experiments right now, and when I got back to Seattle I'd still be working remotely."

Though Meier said a return trip would have been possible, fear of catching the virus as a high-risk person made her hesitate, "especially to go to a location where COVID spread was higher than my current location."

Meier said she and two other postdocs who'd received similar emails from the ISO ended up working with the union's workgroup and scoring extensions through October 31, allowing them to continue working while avoiding travel during the pandemic.

🎶"They say, 'You're a little much for me / You're a liability'" 🎶

Hart, the grad student union's financial director, said UW central administration told him "directly" they needed to work through three major problems before issuing a blanket policy for paying RAs and TAs who work remotely overseas, though several other peer universities have already issued such policies.

One concern was "global export control," or, in plain terms, "brain drain," Hart said. Requiring international scholars to work within the U.S. would make it easier to keep that research within the U.S. Another issue involved patents. If all the research for a product was completed in Canada, say, but patented in the U.S., it was unclear to the UW which country would have the rights to that patent.

The "key issue," according to UW spokesperson Victor Balta, involved tax liability. "[Academic Student Employees] can work without a visa, but the issue is that most country’s tax laws have provisions stating that if an employee is located in that country for an extended time frame, the employer is doing business in that country through a permanent establishment," Balta said. "At this time, the UW does not have a corporate registration or legal presence in many of our ASEs’ countries of residence, including China, and gaining presence is extremely time-intensive and complex—with different regulatory requirements in each country."

"Without legal presence," Balta continued, "Our ASEs may become liable for paying local taxes in their country of residence, which is a challenge. Without payment from the University, it puts their status as an employee—and the benefits that come from that—at risk."

Hart acknowledged the UW would need to beef up their administrative support for their international scholars to deal with these tax and benefits issues, but he again pointed to other universities who had already found ways to honor the collective bargaining agreement for these incoming teachers and researchers.

To that end, on Monday, the union drafted a second petition demanding blanket acceptance of RA and TA appointments regardless of visa status or working location. "If UW is planning not to fulfill its commitments, please notify us of the reasons for this by September 1, 2020, so that we may exercise our rights under the Collective Bargaining Agreement or make alternative plans for our future life," they wrote.

A day after the union's deadline, Williamson-Lott sent the email confirming the UW's plan to fulfill their financial commitments.

But in some cases, the damage had already been done. "Due to the financial pressure the silent UW has put on our colleagues, many of us have decided to quit our programs, pay for online courses this fall [instead of working out a tuition waiver], or travel to a third country for 14 days during the pandemic due to the travel ban," said one of the PhD students who wished to remain anonymous.

"We believe at this point the UW should be well informed of our challenges in obtaining a visa, traveling to the US, and paying the tuition by ourselves," she continued. "The school could have helped by making a clear and even unwelcoming attitude earlier, so the few of us who are lucky to have a valid visa and sufficient money could arrange the trip to avoid troubles from the late arrival."

Hart put the point a little more finely. "The university bumbling through this is not a benign act," he said. "At best, the Trump administration's attacks created a confusing policy network. Universities aren’t getting clear guidance, and maybe even getting signals that they should be conservative in these moments."

"The outcome," he continued, "is that even if not required by the federal government, universities have signaled they aren’t going to provide funding to people from other countries. This is by definition how institutionalized racism and xenophobia works: It’s not an institutional policy, but the impacts remain."