Grad students petition for lower tuition, financial aid, worker benefits

March 20, 2020, 5:34 p.m.

Over 500 graduate students have signed a petition threatening to withhold support post-graduation if Stanford does not waive or discount tuition and housing fees in addition to maintaining or increasing current levels of financial aid for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. 

In a letter to University President Marc Tessier-Levigne, students also asked the University to cover wages and benefits for hourly and low-wage workers and support Ph.D. students who might require additional time to finish their dissertations.

“Unprecedented times call for unprecedented action,” the letter reads. 

If the University does not take action, students say they will not donate to Stanford in the future, unless they have already made commitments to do so. They will also say they will not aid in the recruitment of prospective graduate students.

Justin Bryant J.D. ’21 organized the petition with a group of graduate students including Joel Simwinga J.D. ’21 and Sam Telzak J.D. ’21. In an email to The Daily, Bryant wrote that he believes the University is acting in good faith, but is falling short in a number of ways. 

“The economic toll of COVID-19 is going to be massive — likely more intense than anything we have seen in our lifetimes — and we feel that the administration was minimizing the financial effects this crisis will have on graduate students,” he wrote. 

Simwinga was excited to visit Asia as part of a new “global quarter” created by Stanford Law School, which was canceled due to the pandemic. For fear of becoming isolated on campus, he began subletting an apartment in New York for spring break. Unlike undergraduate students, he was unsure whether his classes would be moved entirely online, and whether he should move out of his graduate residence. 

“I couldn’t make the decisions I needed to because there was no clarity,” he wrote.

As days passed and all classes transitioned online, he determined it was unsafe to fly back to San Francisco. After Santa Clara County issued its “shelter in place” order — ordering people to stay in their homes and away from others— he chose to move out on Wednesday, having his roommate relocate his belongings to storage or throw them away. 

“Today [Thursday], we learned finally (after asking for over a week) that students who left belongings in their dorms did not have to return to California while there was a shelter in place, but could leave their belongings and also cancel their contracts,” Simwinga wrote. “I had been asking for a week but received no answer, so incurred hundreds of dollars of expense and asked a friend to delay his escape and spend six hours on my behalf moving all my things.” 

“I have felt consistently that the central university fundamentally does not prioritize the financial wellbeing of graduate students,” he added. 

The University did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment on this criticism.

Simwinga is now living in Philadelphia with a friend, but feels he could have made better decisions had he been informed earlier. Like many, he is uncertain about the future. 

“I also don’t know when I will see my own family in person again, or if I will see my grandparents ever again at all,” he wrote. 

In an email to graduate students sent out Monday, Provost Persis Drell wrote that the housing contracts allow for an early release. If students apply to leave before March 24, Drell wrote, fees will be waived. (On Thursday, Drell extended the deadline to March 30.) After the deadline, there will be a $450 charge. If a student chooses to take a leave of absence for spring quarter, they may continue to live in their residence during their contract due to the “extraordinary circumstances.” 

Like Simwinga, other graduate students are having a difficult time deciding whether to leave campus. 

“It’s difficult enough thinking about my own risk and risk to my family, and the university’s lack of transparency with housing policy and quarantine policy made it much harder,” wrote Emma Wang J.D. ’20. 

She believes the University should disclose general information regarding affected students. 

“I think personal information should never be disclosed,” she wrote. “But the university can and should share general information: what kind of students are quarantined? How many? Are they quarantined off-campus, in hospitals, or on-campus? Are quarantined students receiving all the support they need? Do they get food delivered? Do they have people doing their laundry? Also, is it possible that my particular building will be used as quarantine spaces? If so, what led to that decision?”

“It feels like they are deliberately trying to make a decision behind our back and make sure nobody notices,” she wrote. 

Drell told students that all fellowships and financial aid for spring quarter would be provided. However, she added that there will be no tuition discounts for spring quarter. 

“We realize that for many students, there is disappointment that the experience of online instruction will not be the same as the Stanford experience they have come to expect,” she wrote. “If a student feels that a spring quarter with online instruction will not meet their expectations, they have the option to take a leave of absence for spring quarter and re-enroll at a later date.

Bryant says that Drell’s email failed to empathize with the fact that the coronavirus crisis created a reduced, online experience and poses new financial difficulties for students already struggling to afford tuition. He also explained that a leave of absence was unrealistic for many graduate students. 

“For example, third and fourth year medical students who are doing clinical rotations can technically take a leave of absence, but this puts them at a significant disadvantage in terms of applying for residencies — they would have to wait until the next cycle, which could constitute a loss of income,” he wrote. 

On Monday, Drell also encouraged all employees who could work from home to do so. The University has committed to paying all full-time and benefits-eligible part time employees at their current base rate of pay.

The University did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment on the petition.

While the letter was specifically geared toward graduate students, Bryant stressed unity among all Stanford students. 

“In the end, it’s important that all Stanford students — both graduate and undergraduate — come together to make sure that Stanford is sympathetic to the dramatically different financial situations of many of its students,” he wrote. 

This article has been corrected to reflect that the petition makes exception for students who have already made commitments to donate to Stanford. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Emma Talley at emmat332 ‘at’

Emma Talley is the Vol. 265 Executive Editor. Previously, she was the Vol. 261 Editor in Chief. She is from Sacramento, California, and has previously worked as a two-time news editor and the newsroom development director. Emma has reported with the San Francisco Chronicle with the metro team covering breaking news and K-12 education. Contact her at etalley 'at'

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