Columbia University is facing an uproar after announcing last week that it would pay doctoral students to teach only if they are in the United States, a policy officials are now trying to walk back.

Nearly half of the roughly 6,000 students in Columbia's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences are international, many of whom said they expected to stay abroad for the upcoming academic year due to concerns about the pandemic. The new mandate applies to all doctoral students regardless of whether they teach online or in-person, and comes as Columbia faces resistance from faculty members over the school's effort to hold some in-person classes in the fall.

Other universities, including The New School, Rutgers and Yale, have said that Ph.D. candidates and graduate students will be able to work from where they are abroad and still be paid.

Students enrolled in Ph.D. programs typically pay no tuition, but they receive a stipend for living expenses that includes a salary for teaching. The current stipend for Ph.D. students within the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is $30,232, according to the university's website. Of that sum, about $10,000 comes from teaching nine months out of the year.

In an email sent this past Friday, Columbia said it was conditioning the payment of teaching on the return to the U.S. “to avoid jeopardizing international students’ visa status."

“These central policies are informed by issues of work authorization, risk to visa status, tax implications for individuals and the University, and applicable local laws,” the email said.

But many students noted that the university did not cite any specific laws, and some legal experts have questioned Columbia's justification.

By Monday, however, the university said it was looking to reverse its decision.

“We are actively exploring options that will allow the University to pay service stipends to graduate students who are abroad and have valid U.S. employment authorizations; we hope to have a resolution shortly,” a spokesperson said, in a statement.

The initial announcement immediately prompted sharp criticism from several Ph.D. students, some of whom said their departments had already assured them that they would be able to work remotely.

“My initial reaction was genuine despair because I am abroad and I’m wasn’t planning on going back for various reasons,” Zeinab Azarbadegan, a history Ph.D. student who is currently in London, said. “I had been constantly told by my department that I should be able to work from abroad.”

Azarbadegan, 30, said she had been hearing rumors about Columbia’s decision for a few weeks. As with other international students, her summer has been extremely stressful. In July, the Trump administration said it would prohibit student visas for new students that were not enrolled for in-person classes. Following a lawsuit by 17 states including New York, the federal government rolled back the order.

On top of that, Columbia Ph.D. candidates were informed last month that they would be able to teach this summer from abroad. But only one day later, university administrators backtracked, saying they weren’t sure if they could.

“The prospect of losing all of my income that I had depended on and was the reason why I had moved to London was daunting,” Azarbadegan said. “I had no backup plan.”

She also argued that the policy seemed arbitrary. Two years ago, she was researching abroad and still able to teach her class virtually.

The email to Ph.D. students came only a few weeks after Columbia sent an email pressuring faculty to teach in-person this fall. In May, Columbia, along with New York University, announced that they would be seek to hold some in-person classes. 

That decision has come under greater scrutiny as other schools like Harvard, Princeton and Johns Hopkins have said they would conduct only online courses in the fall.

Navin Sridhar, a 25-year-old Ph.D. candidate in astronomy who is from India, said he’s already facing financial hardship and that cost of a plane ticket to New York would be too costly.

Plus, he added, flights from Chennai, the closest major city near his hometown, to New York depart only once or twice a month. 

“It is practically not possible for me to just book a flight and be back in the next couple of weeks,” he said. 

New York University sent a similar email to graduate students and Ph.D. candidates on Tuesday saying they will not be permitted to work from abroad.

Both Columbia and NYU did not respond to requests for comment.

A Ph.D. candidate who belongs to the NYU Graduate Employee union said union members had been working with the school since May to figure out what would happen with international teaching assistants. Forty percent of graduate students at NYU are international. 

“I think they just woke up suddenly and realized there might be issues,” said the individual, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “This is beyond us, it just doesn’t make any sense.”