Dear President Tessier-Lavigne:
We are currently in uncharted territory. Our political leaders and the American public have finally begun to grasp the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, which will fundamentally disrupt the daily routines and livelihoods of individuals in this country and across the globe. Hundreds of thousands of people may die; countless others will face financial catastrophe.
As the impact of COVID-19 takes form, it has been heartening to bear witness to the courage and selflessness of many in our community. Individuals—from health care professionals to TSA workers to grocery-store employees—have put their health and safety at risk to help secure the health and safety of countless others. Many institutions have followed their lead, absorbing catastrophic costs and adjusting how they conduct business to meet this extraordinary moment.
However, Stanford University—the institution with the most direct effect on our lives—has been notably absent from this response. While we commend the University for demonstrating flexibility regarding exams and grading, the University has failed to act with leadership and empathy in other critical areas, including housing and tuition. We cannot help but feel that Stanford has chosen to put its pocketbook ahead of our health, safety, and financial and emotional well-being.
It is in this context that we received a troubling email from Provost Persis Drell on Monday, March 16, 2020. Two parts of the email stand out. First, Stanford University made clear that it would not consider changes to its housing contracts. The University did not provide guidance to graduate students until nine hours before Santa Clara County’s shelter-in-place protocols were scheduled to take effect. The guidance that Provost Drell finally provided leaves Stanford students with the impossible choice of incurring cancellation fees or violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the shelter-in-place protocols to return home before March 24.
The purpose of the shelter-in-place protocols is to limit community spread of COVID-19. Graduate students who travel home risk exposing their family members, many of whom are high-risk individuals, to COVID-19. Thus, if students elect to remain in Stanford housing, they face a financial penalty for keeping their families safe. By forcing graduate students to decide whether to pay for Stanford University housing or travel home in the middle of a global pandemic, the University is asking Stanford students to choose between their physical and emotional well-being and their financial welfare.
Second, Provost Drell refused to change the tuition structure of the University. COVID-19 threatens the resources and future employment of every Stanford student. The administration’s refusal to address student concerns over our largest expense—or to provide students suffering hardship with individualized solutions—shirks the responsibilities of an institution of higher education and the values of this community. In particularly insensitive language, the administration gave Stanford students a choice: pay full price for online classes or “take a leave of absence for spring quarter and re-enroll at a later date.”
We understand that this situation remains dynamic and that the administration may be working on a response that has not yet been released to students. But the administration’s actions so far have demonstrated a lack of commitment to Stanford’s graduate student population. At a time when many of our family members and friends are at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 and are facing unemployment, we offer three proposals that we hope you will accept:
(1) waive or significantly discount tuition and on-campus housing fees for the duration of the crisis, while ensuring housing availability for all graduate and professional students;
(2) commit to cover all existing obligations to employees and contractors, including wages and benefits for hourly and low-wage workers and full support for PhD students if they require additional time to finish their dissertations; and
(3) commit to maintain or increase current levels of financial-aid assistance for all financial aid recipients to ensure that living and academic expenses are fully funded for both the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years.
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented action. If Stanford University assists students in this time of need, then many of us will feel indebted to this institution and proud to be associated with it. However, if Stanford fails to take meaningful action, we will not donate to Stanford University in the future unless we have already made commitments to do so. An endowment exists to ensure the security of a university and its constituents in times of great need. How could we contribute to Stanford’s endowment if it is not leveraged in this emergency? Additionally, unless meaningful action is taken, professional and masters students in particular cannot in good conscience engage with or aid in the recruitment of prospective graduate and professional students. Furthermore, if students contact us directly, we will have no choice but to highlight the University’s disregard for the health and safety of its graduate student population.
Your legacy, and the legacy of this institution, will be defined by the actions that are taken to meet this moment. We thank you and Stanford in advance for rising to the occasion and implementing policies that do so.
The Graduate and Professional Students of Stanford University*
*By signing this letter, you are agreeing that the drafters retain permission to make grammatical and technical, but not substantive, revisions at any point.
**UPDATE: We wish to thank the administration for providing greater clarity and a humane policy for cancelling graduate student housing contracts, and hope that future policy changes will similarly prioritize graduate student well-being.