Grad students look for help from Queen’s donor

Last Updated on December 1, 2023 by YGK News Staff

Weeks after an historic donation to the Queen’s School of Engineering from Stephen Smith, grad students at the university are formally asking the donor to extend his generosity to help with their struggle.

On Wednesday afternoon PSAC 901, the union representing grad student workers at Queen’s, published a formal letter to Mr. Stephen Smith seeking his assistance in reviving the union’s Emergency Food Support Fund.

The letter states that it’s difficult to share in the excitement of the recent donation while many teaching assistants both in and out of the School of Engineering will continue to experience life below the poverty line.

“Your donation was excitedly announced to our members as the meeting of momentum and magnitude,” the letter reads.

“We believe that momentum would actually meet magnitude if no graduate student employee needed to apply for emergency food support programs, or go to foodbanks run by their employer, as Queen’s University often urges us to do.”

The Emergency Food Support Fund was launched by the union in January, providing over $80,000 in grocery cards to more than 800 applicants – an unsustainable amount according to the union.

PSAC 901 says notably, almost a third of those applicants are grad student workers in the recently renamed Smith School of Engineering.

Queen’s recently announced the donation of $100 million from Stephen J.R Smith, and the subsequent renaming of the School of Engineering after him as a show of thanks for his generosity.

The university has said that donation will go primarily towards making changes to courses and boosting the School of Engineering’s access to resources, but has not gone into specifics around how money will be used.

Queen’s did not respond to a request for comment on the formal letter, or whether any of Smith’s initial donation could go towards improving compensation packages for grad student workers.

Grad students aren’t expecting the university to direct any new funds to them however, and so with this formal letter they’ve requested a donation of $500,000 from Smith.

PSAC 901 President Justyna Scezwyck-El Jassem says a donation of that kind would allow the union to unequivocally support the needs of their members for the foreseeable future.

“In the short term we want to be able to offer sustained support for members unless somebody else finds a solution that renders our efforts unimportant or unnecessary,” Scezwyck-El Jassem said.

“We don’t want to come back to the same issue again after 6 months.”

In addition to a financial contribution, the union is asking Smith to exert pressure and “leverage considerable influence and standing in the Canadian post-secondary sector” to help enact long lasting, systemic change that will prioritize recognizing the work of grad students.

Both PSAC 901 and their employer Queen’s agree that the funding coming from the Ontario government has fallen and continues to fall short.

Scezwyck-El Jassem says in spite of the real challenges the university faces, their students and student workers shouldn’t be the people bearing the brunt of the problem.

She says even if Queen’s is able to increase its revenue, it’s difficult to trust that the university will actually invest in its students.

“As long as the model of education is really trying to be based on a business model, I’m afraid that this money will not be redirected towards students, towards more courses, and towards improving the quality of education,” Scezwyck-El Jassem said.

“But will be directed towards managing the education… the funding may not translate directly into improving the quality of education and support systems for students.”