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Speaking Out
January 9, 2007, Volume 53, No. 17

Healthcare for Grad Students

About 10,000 graduate students attend this university to achieve their academic and career goals. Some of these students enter with children and others have them while students. The current policy of the university generously covers up to eight weeks of leave for students who are newly parents and the health insurance offered by many departments to their students, covers the newborn for 31 days after their birth. 

Everyone recognizes that parenting is a challenging task, no less for being a full time graduate student and these policies assist in that, up to a point. The difficulty arises when the parenting students must begin to pay for the healthcare of their child. Assuming that the student’s department pays his or her insurance, the additional cost for a student to insure any dependent, child or otherwise, is $3136 annually (see www.vpul.upenn.edu/shs/lateenroll.html), which is more than twice the cost for the student alone. With that kind of cost students may be forced to seek a part-time job whose earnings conflict with the stipulations of many fellowship types, fellowships that reduce or remove funding if the student earns additional income.  Would students go without insurance for their child in that situation? I would hope not, but the university as their employer is their single source of insurance.

The University could do much for these students simply by affording them the generosity of the coverage that staff and faculty receive and reducing the cost of adding dependents to a student’s health plan.  Not only would all the children of students be insurable, but the students themselves could finish their degrees sooner than if they had a second job.  Thus, a change in this policy would be beneficial to the university as whole and a sign of its generosity to prospective students.

—Shannon Martino,
Graduate Student in Art History


Ms. Martino’s letter reflects a serious national issue relating to the rapidly rising cost of health insurance.  The administration, in consultation with the Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee (SHIAC), which includes students among its members, has worked long and hard to make affordable insurance options available to faculty, staff and students.  An important point to note, however, is that, by law, students cannot take part in Penn’s employee insurance coverage.  The Penn Student Insurance Plan (PSIP) is a group plan that, because of the group’s relatively healthy demographics, provides significant savings to our students as compared to the cost they would incur if they sought to purchase private insurance.  The PSIP also can be used to provide coverage to the student’s dependents, also at significant cost savings when compared to private policies. We recognize the importance of affordable health insurance for our graduate students, and will continue to work diligently to ameliorate the impact of the costs of the PSIP.  I also would encourage students to visit our newly launched “Students with Dependents Website” (www.gsc.upenn.edu/swd), which identifies relevant resources, including healthcare options and information.

—Andrew Binns,
Associate Provost


On “Report of the Ombudsman”

In the “Report of the Ombudsman” (Almanac Nov. 21, 2006), Dr. Pope notes that “a new kind of issue concerning very senior faculty has arisen…..” Dr. Pope describes this issue as a general problem of efficient use of research space because of senior faculty who have lost research grant support. This is not correct with my case.

I was forced to lose research grant support by being deprived of research space before the NIH study section had met to evaluate my application. This happened twice to me. The first time, without warning, in February 2005 when I was busy preparing 2nd submission of my competitive renewal grant application. At that time I engaged in active research with two post-docs, and two visiting students still supported by NIH grant. The chair wrote the “resource” page of my grant application himself and indicated that I would have no lab space within four months. He prepared a personal letter addressed to each of my associates indicating that my lab would be closed in four months.

The second situation, in June of this year, I was allowed to submit a new grant application with research space and full approval of the department. However, again before the study section met to evaluate this new application in August, the chair closed my laboratory and informed NIH that I do not have a laboratory. After this letter, I decided to withdraw my grant application. I had published 23 papers since 2000 in reputed journals including EMBO J, Proc. Nat., Acad. Sci. and Cell etc. My “h” factor (a measure to assess the impact of one’s publication) ranks the third in our department.

On the other hand, certain research space was offered to me in exchange for signing a retirement commitment note. The arrangement was such that the quicker the retirement the better research space deal.  It was crystal clear to me that the chair’s action was taken to reduce the salary expenditure of the department rather than for the efficient use of space as Dr. Pope describes. The space I vacated in 2005 in the Johnson Pavilion is currently empty and not used. 

It is not appropriate for a chair to force senior tenured active faculty to retire in this manner. I went to the Ombudsman but I did not get any meaningful response.  I brought these problems to the “Grievance Commission” but I have not received any response from them for almost two years. These actions are not in line with Dr. Pope’s statement in the beginning of his article “Penn is a remarkably caring and supportive institution.” I am writing so other senior faculty may be alerted to this type of unfair situation.

—Akira Kaji,
Professor of Microbiology, School of Medicine


I regret that Professor Kaji has chosen to air his unfounded complaints about his department in the Almanac.  Since he has chosen this public forum, I feel compelled to respond so as to correct the record.

First, Professor Kaji was never forced to lose research funding.  Professor Kaji had one grant, from the National Institutes of Health, and it ended in December 2004. Subsequent applications were rejected by the NIH, well before the department relocated Professor Kaji’s lab. 

Second, Professor Kaji has never been unjustly denied research space.  In fact, the department had long supported Professor Kaji well beyond what his funding warranted.  Because space is a limited resource, the department decided to relocate Professor Kaji to another building in 2005, in order to accommodate legitimate departmental needs.

Third, the charge that the department mishandled Professor Kaji’s laboratory staff is baseless.  Professor Kaji was paying his staff and funding his laboratory in a manner inconsistent with University conflict of interest and employment policies. My letters to his laboratory members were consistent with a plan outlined for Professor Kaji in February 2005.

Finally, the suggestion that I attempted to force Professor Kaji to retire is untrue.  In response to Professor Kaji’s asking whether he could use his salary to fund research, I offered to provide further support if he lessened his salary’s financial burden on the department by electing a reduction in duties or emeritus status.  We have never tried to force Professor Kaji to retire, and in fact his status is unchanged.  Professor Kaji is free to apply for grants, and if he receives appropriate funding and space is available, he will be given commensurate research space.

I should add before closing that all of the department’s actions were reviewed and approved by the dean of the School of Medicine and the Office of Faculty Affairs.  It also is worth noting that Professor Kaji has made similar complaints before on several occasions, both inside and outside the University.  Not once has anyone determined there to be any merit to any of his complaints.

—Robert W. Doms,
Chair, Department of Microbiology

Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues will be accepted by Thursday at noon for the following Tuesday’s issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated. —Eds.

Almanac - January 9, 2007, Volume 53, No. 17