A few minutes before 3 p.m. PT on Tuesday of last week, hundreds of Stanford graduate students, all of us scattered across the globe, living and working in different time zones and facing our own set of challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, flooded the inboxes of five Stanford deans — Stephan Graham, Lloyd Minor, Debra Satz, Dan Schwartz and Jennifer Widom — with this letter. In a unified and broad-based action, nearly 200 master’s and doctoral students across five schools and over 30 departments at Stanford rearticulated their request that the University establish a baseline level of support for all graduate students in response to COVID-19. The letter outlines five demands, which include a fully funded one-year program extension, full summer funding at the minimum quarterly rate, the expansion of emergency funding sources, additional fully funded program extensions for graduate student parents and legal counsel for international students.
As of today, the deans have not responded to the letter, nor has any University-wide policy about graduate student support been announced. Yet, since the onset of COVID-19, members of Stanford’s administration have repeatedly asked us to share our concerns with them, to let them know what we need, to tell them how we’re doing. Last Tuesday’s campaign did just that, in no uncertain terms. We need what Stanford’s peer institutions have offered their graduate students: a comprehensive disaster response plan. The situation is kafkaesque. Every week a new survey link from an administrative office asks students to share their difficulties and concerns, and we have yet to see a clear response to any of the valid concerns about funding, housing, and program timelines consistently raised by grad students in virtual town halls, petitions, and coordinated actions. Is anyone reading what we write?
When over a hundred students gather outside the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education to protest the exorbitant health insurance costs for Stanford families, we are guaranteed at least that the administrators present can see and hear us. An administrator may feel compelled to address us with a polite smile acknowledging that a grievance has been registered. They might even utter a concluding remark, something like, “We really appreciate hearing from the students … and we will take your message back to others at the University.” The wording feels akin to what one might read after completing a Qualtrics opinion survey. But in the time of COVID-19, with offices closed and all communication virtual, silence seems to suffice.
Despite the numerous administration emails expressing general concern for our well-being, the deans’ radio silence around a letter sent directly from hundreds of graduate students’ articulating their specific needs seems to reveal that there is a greater focus on creating the appearance of concern than taking any concrete steps. Far from a unique approach, this tactic of ignoring the expressed needs of students and workers is common practice for Stanford’s administration.
Refusing to acknowledge or engage with student activists has been one of the administration’s chief strategies in its effort to deny support to its workers, as well as legitimacy to student groups, particularly Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR). It has been 42 days since Provost Persis Drell pledged in an email to vaguely “support” Stanford’s contracted workers, yet no tangible support has materialized, and June 15 marks the date after which all Stanford service workers will again face complete uncertainty about their financial future. With no visible response from the University, the onus is on dedicated students to stay vigilant about concerns not addressed by the administration and to utilize their own funds to raise financial support for workers’ families.
The consequences of Stanford’s decentralized response to COVID-19, which has placed the burden of supporting graduate students on individual departments with unequal resources, has been both unsurprising and devastating. As evidenced by the Trump administration’s approach to the same crisis, patchwork strategies are not only ineffective but also produce alarming disparities that exacerbate preexisting inequities and hence increase the precarity of immigrants and non-citizens, people of color, people from low-income backgrounds and working-class people, people with dependents, queer people, women and non-binary individuals. This exacerbation is as true at Stanford as on a national level.
On Stanford’s campus, it is the international students who now have to worry about their future legal status, low-income students who face financial hardships after losing much-needed secondary sources of income and student parents who now must home-school their children while continuing their rigorous Stanford program. For many of these students, the situation means choosing between taking on considerable debt or leaving their programs altogether. The University administration’s decision to relegate the fate of graduate students to their individual departments’ financial capabilities is, at best, irresponsible, and at worst, disastrous, especially in light of President Marc Tessier-Levigne’s May 27 email informing us that Stanford’s “units” should expect a 10% to 15% reduction in funding in FY21.
Meanwhile, Stanford graduate students are running out of time. The end of the spring quarter is now fewer than two weeks away. Without a commitment from Stanford to providing summer funding for graduate students, this means that many of us are fewer than two weeks away from the edge of a financial cliff. Students are facing debt, homelessness and increased anxiety as we enter the summer. Stanford’s lack of action is no longer defensible, and we demand action.
Our letter to the deans was a powerful testament to the untapped well of mutual care, support and solidarity that exists among Stanford’s disparate and often siloed graduate student communities. Master’s students and doctoral students, artists and engineers, natural scientists and humanities scholars, educators and social scientists are all advocating as much for each other as for themselves. We are calling all graduate students to join us in our campaign in demanding that our most basic needs are met during this crisis, and we invite all our allies across campus who are similarly dismayed at Stanford’s refusal to support its grad students to tell the administration “how they are doing” by sending this letter to the deans.
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