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‘You Can’t Eat Prestige’: Graduate Students and Teaching Fellows Strike Over Financial Aid Cuts

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In March 1973, about 700 members of Harvard’s Graduate Students and Teaching Fellow Union braved four days of sub-zero temperatures to protest the newly introduced Kraus Plan, which ultimately reduced financial aid for graduate students.

“Down by the stadium was a big rallying point,” recalled Francis M. Davis ’73, who observed the strike as an undergraduate. “It starts out as being a kind of peaceful demonstration. And the cops show up, and they start beating on their shields and stuff, and so the wild ones in the crowd start getting nasty and start throwing stuff.”

By evening a full-on riot had erupted, according to Davis.

The Kraus Plan stipulated that departments in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences could choose to underfund students by $1,000 of their calculated financial need. That funding would go toward “merit scholarships,” offered at the discretion of department heads. GSAS also had to reduce the size of its incoming class by at least 50 students.

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The plan came in the wake of dramatic federal budget cuts, which left the University with a sudden $700,000 decrease in funding — equivalent to almost $4.8 million today. In principle, the plan aimed to redistribute Harvard’s reduced funds to those who needed it most, but it met widespread backlash from the student body.

On the day of the strike, undergraduate attendance plummeted by 30 percent in an act of solidarity with the protesters. Teaching fellows also considered withholding undergraduate grades until the University responded, but ultimately did not.

“I remember the teaching fellows union effort well (‘You can’t eat prestige’) and was strongly supportive,” E.J. Dionne ’73, a columnist for The Washington Post and a former Crimson editor, wrote in an email. “I grew up in a union town and that shaped my view of unions, then and now.”

Protesters argued that including parental income and teaching salary in financial aid calculations particularly harmed middle-class students and those seeking positions as teaching fellows.

No other Ivy League institution had implemented similar changes despite experiencing equivalent federal cutbacks.

Though it took a 20-member steering committee three weeks to plan the union and the strike, Harvard administration ultimately refused to revise its financial aid plan.

For some students, the strike was just one more event in the series of upheavals that characterized the turbulent 1970s. Amid civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and economic instability, several alumni recalled political tension and uncertainty during their college years but had little to no recollection of the graduate student protests.

For others, however, the graduate strike provided a way for students to participate in the political upheaval of the decade.

“So much debate and discussion filled the dorms and hallways about the state of the country, and its policies around war, and our treatment of people of color in other nations,” Deane Wang ’73 wrote in an emailed statement.

“Taking part in civil action, like supporting the 1973 graduate student strike, seemed like just another necessary personal action to help change some little part of the world,” Wang added.

—Staff writer Makanaka Nyandoro can be reached at makanaka.nyandoro@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Jennifer Y. Song can be reached at jennifer.song@thecrimson.com.

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