From the community | Student activism, not endowment returns, led to recent affordability initiatives

Feb. 2, 2022, 8:09 p.m.

— Tim MacKenzie is a postdoc in the genetics department. He completed his Ph.D. in the chemistry department at Stanford.

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell recently announced a series of steps to address the ongoing affordability crisis facing the Stanford community and larger Bay Area. The announcement centered the recommendations made by the Affordability Task Force, created in spring quarter of 2018, and “are made possible by the exceptional investment returns Stanford achieved last year.” In reality, these recent announcements are the result of tireless advocacy by student activists for many years.

In late 2016, I turned 26 and was no longer eligible to stay on my parents’ health-insurance plan. Suddenly the money that I had been able to put toward student loans went to Cardinal Care premiums instead. As several of us talked in the chemistry department, we learned that the full cost of health-insurance premiums was covered in some departments but not others. The net effect was a pay disparity of several thousand dollars. We decided to circulate a petition in the summer of 2017 calling on the University to subsidize Cardinal Care premiums for all graduate students. More than half of the department signed in favor.

In fall quarter of 2017, we delivered our petition to administrators at every level. The Dean of Humanities and Sciences, the Provost and the President all received the petition on the same day. We talked with our Department Chair and various Vice Provosts. No one was aware of the disparity in health-insurance coverage across departments. No matter whom we talked to, though, they never had any power or responsibility to handle the situation. A circular firing squad was created as lower levels of the administration pointed us up higher, while higher levels pointed us lower. To build support across the graduate student population, we delivered the petition to the Graduate Student Council. In a report on a Graduate Life Survey conducted by GSC delivered in April of 2018, a month before the creation of the Affordability Task Force, student activists called on the University to cover the costs of premiums for Cardinal Care for all graduate students.

Even though we were asking for coverage for all graduate students, administrators told us that individual departments held responsibility for this issue. In the spring of 2018, two of us who were involved with the petition gave a presentation at a chemistry department faculty meeting. Our goal was to enlist faculty support in petitioning the administration to prioritize covering health-insurance premiums for graduate students. We continued to advocate and engage with administrators in town halls and closed-door meetings. Slowly, the students who formed the faces of the campaign — who tended to skew older, as younger students were more worried about retaliation — defended their theses and left Stanford.

In one of my last meetings with the Provost as a graduate student, I was told that Stanford had no plans to cover health-insurance premiums for all graduate students, even though there was majority support in the chemistry department. No other departments were speaking up, so the issue wasn’t a priority. Nevermind that we were told to advocate at the department level. Nevermind that GSC had called on the University to cover health-insurance premiums for all graduate students. As I transitioned to my postdoc, I met with student activists in the physics and applied physics departments, two departments that also didn’t cover the cost of Cardinal Care premiums. We discussed the lessons learned from our efforts in the chemistry department, and how they could carry advocacy forward.

The administration also pointed to fairness as a reason not to cover the costs of Cardinal Care premiums for all departments. Many of the departments that covered the costs of health-insurance premiums did not pay graduate students as much, so the administration claimed the apparent inequity was an illusion. That situation changed when student activists with the Stanford Solidarity Network led a campaign that resulted in five full years of funding guaranteed for graduate students in all departments. Following that victory, SSN joined a coalition of other campus groups to present a Roadmap to Reopening with Justice and Equity in the COVID era. With the detailed and thoughtful recommendations, there was once more a united call from student activists to completely cover the costs of Cardinal Care premiums. The following spring, GSC called for the University to provide coverage of Cardinal Care for all departments. In this academic year’s fall quarter, GSC made full coverage of Cardinal Care premiums an advocacy priority, continuing what had turned into a years-long tradition.

After years of students advocating for coverage of Cardinal Care premiums and being denied, the administration finally changed the policy without any recognition of the work done by student advocates. My story is just one aspect of advocacy from many other graduate students through the years. Behind each action taken by the administration is the thankless work of countless advocates who fought for changes they never got to see. The expansion of family grants responds to years of advocacy fighting for affordability for families. Since becoming a postdoc, I’ve joined SURPAS and advocated upon a foundation laid by generations of trainees before me. Postdocs are often left out of University initiatives and have been called second-class citizens at Stanford, but the advocacy of SURPAS made sure our needs were considered as well. Trainee activists are the ones who have relentlessly raised issues to decision-makers and forced our concerns to become a priority for the administration.

Stanford’s record investment returns did allow for more action on affordability topics than typically seen at once. But the decision of how to spend those returns is always a question of priorities. Even during the height of uncertainty at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when staff salaries were frozen for nearly two years, Stanford could move forward with the creation of a new school. Organized student voices, however, can change policy. Around the same time as the budget freeze, the administration promised five years of funding to all graduate students in the face of an organized, cross-departmental movement. Advocates can be much more effective when armed with knowledge of the sources of money at the University, but the conversation of how money flows to and from the operating budget versus the endowment is an entirely different can of worms. That conversation is for another day — today is a time to recognize the true reason material conditions have improved for graduate students and postdocs: trainee activism.

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