I'm finishing up my third year of a PhD program this Spring. Until recently, I had assumed that I would have four years of funding as many of the PhD students do. However, after asking the department chair, I was told that "the department resources are stretched (as usual) and we made our recruitment plans based on those cycling off funding, including you. There is always a possibility that our recruitment efforts do not go as planned, but it is unlikely that we will be able to offer a fourth year of funding."
My award letter states that I have three years, with the "possibility of a fourth year based on availability of departmental funding." What does "based on availability of departmental funding" actually mean, legally? Does it mean that the department can continue to recruit new students instead of keeping on current ones?
I'm at a public university. Is there any way to find out whether the departmental funding is actually unavailable? Is it enough to ask HR, or might there be any other resources I should search out?