Faculty Senate hears reports on COVID-19, graduate student affairs

Oct. 22, 2021, 12:00 a.m.

Despite high numbers of vaccinations among community members, a small number of unvaccinated Stanford healthcare employees have been placed on unpaid leave, School of Medicine Dean Lloyd Minor said in an update on the COVID-19 pandemic to the Faculty Senate. 

In a separate report at the Thursday meeting, Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs Stacey Bent Ph.D. ’92, discussed the University’s initiatives to boost the diversity, accessibility and affordability of graduate education.

After University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s remarks to the Senate, he was asked, but refused to condemn Stanford affiliates who spread COVID-19 misinformation. The request made by epidemiologist and professor of medicine Julie Parsonnet came a month after over 100 faculty members sent a letter to Tessier-Lavigne urging the University to call out its professors who spread misinformation.

“We’d like to ask you now at the Faculty Senate, when will the University stand up for public health vocally, in the United States, and denounce those who instead of contributing productively to the fight against this deadly virus, utilize their affiliation with Stanford to sow dissent and distrust about the public health response, ultimately contributing to our country’s tragically high death toll?” Parsonnet said. 

Tessier-Lavigne responded by touting the measures the University has taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, including being one of the first colleges to require students to be vaccinated to come back to campus this fall. 

This is not the first time Tessier-Lavigne or Stanford has been confronted over this issue. Last year, over 105 School of Medicine physicians and researchers condemned Hoover fellow Scott Atlas in an open letter after the University refused to denounce his controversial views. 

Only after Atlas urged Michigan residents to “rise up” against new lockdown orders did Stanford distance itself from him, issuing a statement that Atlas’s position was his alone and that his views were “inconsistent with the university’s approach in response to the pandemic.” Last November, the Senate voted to condemn Atlas by a vote of 85 to 15.

“I believe we have taken a very clear standard at Stanford on public health by virtue of the actions we have taken for our community and the messaging that we’ve put around that,” Tessier-Lavigne said, caveating that he also believes that “if the University were to start denouncing individual faculty members for the views they hold, we would enter very troubling territory.”

In his report, Minor gave an overview of the pandemic in California, which he said has the lowest number of cases per 100,000 in the U.S. And Bay Area counties, he added, have some of the lowest numbers of infections in the state. Stanford Hospital is currently treating 14 patients for COVID-19, most of whom have underlying medical conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus, he said.

Minor also explained how Stanford employees will be required to get vaccinated by Dec. 8 in compliance with President Joe Biden’s Sept. 9 executive order pertaining to federal employees and contractors. Since Stanford receives federal funding, the rule will mandate vaccination for all Stanford employees, including those “who are not coming to the campus environment.” 

The medical school dean said that 98% of Stanford Medicine employees have been vaccinated. The California Department of Public Health required all healthcare providers to be vaccinated by Oct. 1.

“As of today, less than 0.3% of the workforce is on unpaid leave, and that number continues to fall as more and more people achieve vaccination status,” he said.

With regard to the larger Stanford community, Minor said that over 97% of affiliates completing daily health checks have provided documentation of vaccination and that the University is actively reaching out to those not completing health checks. 

A senator asked Minor about breakthrough cases and herd immunity and noted that the majority of cases treated at Stanford Hospital are breakthrough infections, meaning they are among vaccinated individuals. Since COVID-19 can still be contracted regardless of vaccination status, “we’re having to reexamine what the term herd immunity means.” 

Parsonnet echoed Minor, explaining that “there will never be herd immunity,” particularly since “asymptomatic people” and “people who are immune and have antibodies can transmit the virus.”

Graduate student diversity, affordability

Bent updated the Senate on how graduate students have been impacted by COVID-19 and diversity within graduate programs. 

“Grad students and postdocs experienced significant disruption due to the pandemic,” Bent explained, adding that they faced challenges with research delays, job insecurity, and childcare access. However, graduate degree conferral was not significantly impacted in the 2020-21 academic year despite the challenges of the pandemic.

According to Bent, women in STEM and students who identify as underrepresented minorities (URM) are the fastest growing demographic in graduate student and postdoc populations, and the University is set to matriculate the largest cohorts of URM and women in STEM graduate students yet at the university.

Bent attributed part of this trend to faculty and admissions committees’ recruitment efforts and the fact that many graduate programs suspended standardized testing requirements.

Bent announced the Research, Action, and Impact for Strategic Engagement (RAISE) Doctoral Fellowship Program, which aims to help graduate students have a positive public impact with their research, and the new PRISM-Baker Fellowships, which seek to support postdoctoral scholar diversity by providing financial support for fellows and faculty. 

Fourth-year Ph.D. student Emily Schell, the Graduate Student Council’s representative to the Faculty Senate, raised concerns voiced by members of the graduate student community about housing insecurity and the cost of healthcare. Schell pointed out that the cost of Cardinal Care, Stanford’s university-sponsored health insurance option, is “notably higher” than the cost of analogous options at peer institutions.

In light of these concerns, Bent shared resources such as expanded family grants for graduate students and postdocs with dependent children, as well as the five-year funding commitment to doctoral students recommended by the Affordability Task Force.

Cassidy Dalva '25 is a News Managing Editor at The Stanford Daily. A prospective economics major from Los Angeles, California, Cassidy enjoys baking, playing pickleball, and spending time outdoors in her free time. Contact her at [email protected].Zoe Edelman '25 is one of The Daily's managing editors of the News section. In her free time, she enjoys hanging out with her dogs and sitting outside with a coffee.

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