The inflexibility of the ‘Flex Term’ model

Opinion by Megha Parwani
Sept. 17, 2020, 10:36 p.m.

The University administration recently cancelled an in-person fall quarter. This was a good decision, reflective of the facts that California now leads the country in coronavirus cases and that attempts to safely reopen universities elsewhere have quickly, predictably failed. Alongside the news of this cancellation, students also received a call to action. Vice Provost Susie Brubaker-Cole wrote to us that, while this “pandemic may leave us confused and unsettled, it does not have to stifle our ability to have hope and vision.” She suggested that we can take this moment of disruption to re-imagine the world we want. Instead of climbing “the ladder,” towards our pre-pandemic and likely changed plans and dreams, Brubaker Cole discusses how today’s global disruption has given us a moment to “step off the ladder, look around and ask ‘what can I do to help?’, what do I care about?’, and ‘what role can I play in bringing about positive change?’”

These are important questions. The need to pause and re-evaluate our priorities is undeniable but also a privilege. In not having to worry about meeting my basic needs and having a degree of certainty in my situation for the next few months, I am well-situated to ask and begin to answer the question, “what can I do to help?”  

Not all Stanford students can say the same, and our wealthy University could help such students. But, instead of expanding opportunities for students to pursue full-time internships, research and other work aimed at social impact, the University has curtailed these opportunities through the Flex Term model. 

In this model, students declare one of their four quarters in the 2020-2021 school year a “Flex Term.” During their Flex Term, students can participate in student organizations and pursue full-time research and work opportunities funded through Stanford. Tuition, we are told, will not be charged. A July 22 Re-Approaching Stanford announcement also revealed that students will be able to take a free 5-unit class during their Flex Term. Yet the Flex Quarter, by design, is in tension with Brubaker-Cole’s call to “step off the ladder” we were climbing before the pandemic. 

The Flex Quarter model limits when and how we can step off the ladder because, “except under exceptional circumstances, you must have been enrolled in classes for two quarters before you are eligible to participate in full-time Stanford-funded opportunities during your Flex Term. Therefore, these types of opportunities will, with rare exceptions, only be available in Spring and Summer Quarter.” 

Put differently, Stanford will not support full-time research and internship work during fall and winter quarters. If someone wants to take time off, for instance, to work with a nonprofit that would not be able to hire interns otherwise — that is,  to make a “positive change” during this global crisis — they will have to turn elsewhere for funding and mentorship usually provided by programs like Cardinal Quarter and the previously year-round Jane Stanford Fellowship. If someone wants to pursue full-time research into the impact of COVID-19 on women in developing countries, as an opportunity at the King Center for Global Development allows, then they cannot do so unless they enroll for two quarters beforehand. Though called a “Flex Term,” the model reduces students’ flexibility when planning for the upcoming year, presenting them with more trade-offs at an already difficult time.

If someone decides to take a regular leave of absence and not a Flex Term, they cannot access Stanford’s “programs and services,” according to Brubaker-Cole’s email. They cannot access financial resources, such as grants or fellowships. Nor can they access club-based opportunities, for they would need to declare a Flex Quarter in order to participate in Voluntary Student Organizations. Students with leadership positions in VSOs now have to choose between leading their organizations — many of which build valuable community experiences and make a social impact at a time of social distancing and global crisis — and taking care of themselves by taking leaves of absence. They face, in the words of student leaders themselves, “a cruel dilemma: choosing between personal well-being and responsibility.”

The restrictions of the Flex Term pose the greatest obstacle for first-generation and low-income students. These are students that cannot necessarily afford to pursue an unpaid internship, research or other full-time position. Barred from Stanford-sponsored work and funding, they might not be able to “step off the ladder” in the fall and winter. 

Considering this, we should scrutinize why the Flex Term was introduced in the first place. What is the rationale behind this new model and why was the preexisting LoA model insufficient? In University communications, the Flex Term is portrayed as a new option allowing students to remain plugged into University life. And to be sure, the Flex Term’s free 5-unit class will allow unenrolled students to remain engaged with Stanford in a way they could not during a regular LoA. But restrictions on when students can work and research with the University do not benefit students. They actually hurt certain students. These restrictions only seem to benefit the University’s bottom line, insofar as more students might now feel compelled to enroll in classes online during the fall and winter quarters, despite classes being largely remote and tuition remaining unchanged.  

The Flex Term model, upon closer inspection, amounts to Stanford withholding its immense wealth and privilege, at this time of need, from students looking to contribute to things beyond Zoom University. In doing so, it also undermines Brubaker-Cole’s call to action: making a “positive change” in the community during a pandemic is not always feasible in the absence of financial and social support. More broadly, it undermines Jane Stanford’s often quoted, and more often discredited, vision that Stanford University “promotes public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization.”

Contact Megha Parwani at mparwani ‘at’

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Megha Parwani '22 was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volumes 258 and 259. She designed Frankly Speaking, a crowd-sourced opinion column, and served on the Editorial Board for Volumes 259, 258, and 256. She is double majoring in Philosophy and Political Science. Contact her at mparwani 'at'

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