Last in its class: Stanford lags behind peer institutions in COVID-19 response

Opinion by Emilia Groupp and Alexa Russo
May 14, 2020, 11:38 p.m.

This is the third in a series of op-eds by the Stanford Solidarity Network detailing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on graduate students. Read the rest here: Part 1, Part 2.

Stanford is one of the leading educational and research institutions in North America. Considered “the Ivy of the West,” Stanford is often compared to its peer institutions on the East Coast — particularly Harvard and Yale — and the COVID-19 response is no exception. We therefore expect Stanford to have both the capacity and commitment to ensure a level of support for its students on par with, if not superior to, these other stellar institutions. 

When it comes to supporting graduate students, sadly, this is not the case.

As discussed in our petition and testimonials, coverage by The Daily and our previous op-eds, Stanford graduate students have been deeply affected by COVID-19. Students face suspended fellowships and research grants, library and lab closures, dried up summer funding and a near nonexistent academic job market, in addition to new dependent and other care responsibilities. The current crisis has heightened financial and emotional stress among graduate students, all while we work to maintain our graduate studies and research in the hopes that we can complete them and enter increasingly tenuous faculty or industry positions. This crisis has heavily affected students from communities of color and economically marginalized communities, intensifying existing racial and economic inequalities to an unimaginable degree. 

Yet the University has taken a minimalistic approach to providing financial support to its graduate students during this pandemic. While we acknowledge the unprecedented difficulties the University faces in the current crisis, we expect Stanford to at least meet the bar set by the Ivies when it comes to meeting the needs of its graduate students.

We know that Stanford anticipates future cuts in endowment payouts. However, the question we raise is — in the midst of this crisis, who is prioritized? Other top-tier universities, also facing reductions in their endowment revenue, have made different kinds of decisions, prioritizing graduate students by using the funds they have available. 

The lay of the land: Graduate support at peer institutions

Peer universities with comparable or smaller endowments than Stanford ($27.7 billion) have shown a more concerted and organized approach in addressing the potentially drastic effects of the pandemic on their graduate students. While disparate and rarely implemented universally, these measures meet the urgency of the global pandemic and the uncertain future of higher education writ large in a way that makes Stanford’s response look inadequate. These steps include an extension of graduate degree timelines and funding by up to 12 months, fellowships and health insurance packages for recently graduated doctoral students, full summer funding, expansive emergency funds, and a one-time emergency lump sum for all graduate students.

At the top of the Ivy endowment list, Harvard has $40.9 billion. Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) has offered several substantial, targeted measures to support its Ph.D. students, including emergency “lost-time funding” (for which students in all years are eligible) and an adjustment to graduate degree timelines by up to 12 months. For students whose research or internship plans were disrupted and who are facing the summer funding cliff, Harvard GSAS is offering Summer Research Awards. Finally, the GSAS has offered students who are graduating between May and November 2020 and do not have a secure postgraduate position the chance to apply for visiting fellow status for up to one year, access to Harvard libraries and databases, waiver of tuition, and health insurance at student rates. Importantly, they are able to maintain their institutional affiliation while searching for jobs, which is also necessary to be eligible for various pots of internal funding.

At Yale University, with an endowment of about $30 billion, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) has offered graduate students up to a 12-month extension of funding to all graduate students in years 1-6 of their degree programs. Even Brown University, with the smallest endowment among the Ivy Plus institutions at just around $4 billion (Stanford’s rainy day fund alone is $2.6 billion), is offering “enhanced summer funding opportunities” for students who have reduced summer income, has made all Ph.D. students eligible to apply for an additional semester of stipend support to compensate for time lost due to COVID-19, and is offering extended health insurance coverage to recent graduates. 

In terms of ensuring a basic minimum level of welfare for all graduate students, we also see universities offering graduate students a one-time emergency “no questions asked” sum, taking into account the grave financial difficulties that individuals and families are facing due to the economic crisis engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The GSAS at Columbia University has provided $1,500 to all students, and an additional $1,500 for those without employment at the university over the summer. Others, such as Brown and Harvard, have started specialized COVID-19 emergency funding initiatives for students. 

In comparison, Stanford graduate students have received considerably less support. 

How Stanford measures up

So far, Stanford has expanded the Emergency Grant-In-Aid Fund for COVID-related expenses, but these only extend to costs that are “unusual or exceptional.” In a curious omission, the fund does not cover “standard living expenses.” At the same time, the cost of living for Stanford students is the highest among peer institutions. Living costs for Stanford graduate students are approximately $3,400 a month, compared to University of Pennsylvania ($2,080), Cornell ($2,270), Dartmouth ($2,360), Brown ($2,480), Princeton ($2,612), Yale ($2,700), Columbia ($2,800) and Harvard ($3,000).

In the first two op-eds in our series, we’ve made it a point to give credit where it is due. Individual schools at Stanford, constrained by their specific budgets, have taken up initiatives that are a step in the right direction. The School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S), for instance, has committed additional funds towards “postdoctoral fellowships” for recently minted Stanford Ph.D.s, as well as TA positions and other opportunities for doctoral students in the later years of their program. The fellowships are limited, and are not yet guaranteed, but were expected to number “in the 10-20 range” and are being branded as “competitive.” H&S Dean Debra Satz recently raised the projection to “30 such positions, hopefully more,” while doubling down on the call for “students beyond their 6th year to complete their degrees in order to position themselves to be strong candidates for these competitive post-doctoral fellowships, lectureships, and teaching opportunities, which require a Ph.D.” 

While encouraging students in their sixth years and beyond to complete their degrees as fast as possible will reduce the financial responsibility of the University, this additional pressure to complete and compete does not appreciate the pandemic’s toll on mental health and productivity that stands as an obstacle to degree completion. Nor does it account for the fact that without full financial support, students will not be able to commit as much time to their research, and many students who will graduate and then not receive one of these competitive post-doctoral fellowships are effectively being forced out into a nonexistent academic job market.

Stanford has largely decentralized the responsibility for decisions related to extensions in degree completion and funding to individual departments. This has created glaring disparities in how different departments and schools have approached the material and emotional well-being of their graduate students. For instance, there is a pattern of providing summer funding to students in the first few years of their Ph.D. programs only, leaving students in their third year and beyond with no support. Other departments are not providing students with summer funding at all, and while some offer exceptional, supplemental or emergency funds, the guidelines and scope of these funding sources are unclear. 

Already existing inequalities between schools and departments at Stanford are thus exacerbated in this time of crisis by a  piecemeal approach of routing even extraordinary funding through schools and departments, without basic minimum parameters and benchmarks. To top it off, departments and schools have been instructed to factor in future budget cuts into their decisions, which has further discouraged concrete action toward supporting graduate students. In these extraordinary times, we need far more serious steps from the University on behalf of all graduate students. 

The University is individualizing a collective concern by offering fragmented resources that only a few students can take advantage of, rather than fully meeting the needs of all graduate students in a crisis that is affecting higher education globally. By failing to provide resources to graduate students, Stanford is implying that a lack of funding is an individual concern rather than an issue shared by all students at this time. This has the result of forcing students, particularly international and minority students and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, into increased financial and academic precarity. It is imperative that there are basic minimum University-wide or, at bare minimum, school-wide guidelines and decisions extending graduate student funding and timelines. 

To overcome exhaustion and pessimism, we need institutional change

Last week, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers received an email from Stacey Bent, the vice provost for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs. After noting that Stanford maintains a “deep commitment of caring for its people,” she called on us to move forward with resilience and optimism. The email included a link to yet another survey asking for “suggestions and ideas for how we can continue to serve our mission of research, teaching, and learning and support [graduate students and postdocs].” This op-ed series is our continued response. We speak on behalf of concerns shared by students across the University, and hope that the University hears us when we say we need it to do more. We need Stanford to be a leader among its peer institutions, not a timid follower.  

It will take more than platitudes of “resilience and optimism” to support graduate students through the all-consuming financial, emotional and medical crisis of this global pandemic. It is time to rethink our approach to such a crisis as this. We need alternatives that offer more than just further competition for scarce resources and an accelerated push to return to market conditions — to which there is necessarily no return. We need something that resembles actual caring, commitment and the courage to act in the interest of the well-being of this community.

Emilia Groupp, Anthropology 

Alexa Russo, Anthropology

Contact Emilia Groupp at egroupp ‘at’ and Alexa Russo at arusso18 ‘at’

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