June 26, 2020

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Dear Cornell, Protect Your Grad Students

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To the Editor:

As Cornell prepares to make major decisions for reopening, it is essential that the University protects the health and safety of all members of its community. As the three graduate student representatives who served on Cornell’s university-wide Reopening Committees, we are grateful to have had the opportunity to advocate for graduate student priorities and appreciate the efforts towards transparency of this process. While the Reopening Committee reports provide recommendations based upon substantial assessments of on-campus teaching and research in the upcoming academic year, we continue to have concerns about the position of graduate students.

Specifically, we would like to highlight the power dynamics implicit in the reopening process, and the very real needs of many Cornell graduate students who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 or live with those who are vulnerable. Requesting to work remotely during this pandemic is entangled with issues of politics, ableism, race and other complex factors. What seems like a logical solution from a supervisor’s situation may from a graduate student’s point-of-view feel like coercion to work under dangerous conditions in order to maintain a stipend, health insurance and an amicable relationship with faculty.

The policy currently recommended by the Committee on Teaching Reactivation Options refers students in need of remote work for medical reasons to Cornell’s Student Disability Services office; students who want the choice to work remotely for other reasons, such as the vulnerability of a family member or housemate, must ask their supervisor for accommodations directly, with a grievance procedure through the Graduate School.

Many graduate students have invisible disabilities or other invisible needs. Many students’ health, family and living situations are unknown to the University. Some of this silence is intentional, to avoid ableism, homophobia, or other forms of discrimination. As Cornell assembles a system to assess who can work remotely in the fall, the University does not have a complete picture of student circumstances.

Here is what we do know:

1. Cornell’s SDS office and the American Disabilities Act are not appropriate tools for accommodating all graduate students who must work remotely this fall. As many disability advocates have explained, vulnerable categories of individuals do not necessarily align with those protected by the ADA or those who have documentation for their medical conditions. Thus, disability services offices are not acceptable tools for facilitating remote work. Additionally, Cornell’s SDS office will likely be overburdened if forced to divert time and resources to remote work requests not under its purview, potentially disadvantaging other students in need of accommodations.

2. Relying on SDS to make accommodations will contribute to injustice within the University. For example, Black patients are less likely than white patients to have their illnesses believed and documented and lower-income patients are often unable to afford visits to specialists who can diagnose complicated medical conditions. Experiences of racism have led to distrust in medical systems and deterred many individuals from seeking medical documentation for accommodations. Systemic inequities have put Black, Latinx and Indigenous people at a higher risk of experiencing severe illness from COVID-19. If Cornell is truly committed to supporting antiracism and promoting equity, it must institute a policy that reflects the social reality that disadvantaged minority groups are less likely to have medical documentation of health conditions, and more likely to experience adverse outcomes when they get sick.

3.  Addressing non-medical accommodations through direct supervisors — including accommodations related to loved ones or housemates with medical issues — compromises student privacy. As it stands, accommodations that are not protected by ADA and/or considered by SDS would require approval from the graduate students’ supervisors. This approval process is problematic: One can easily imagine an LGBTQ+ student having to “out” themselves when a supervisor asks for details about their partner’s situation; or a student-parent having to provide personal details about their child’s health condition. A process that allows supervisors to pry into students’ private lives and make life-and-death calls affecting students and their loved ones is an unconscionable breach of students’ privacy.

These issues are complicated, but the solution is straightforward: Cornell University should implement a non-medicalized process where graduate students can apply confidentially to work and teach remotely without needing to provide documentation. Those who choose to seek these accommodations are doing so to protect their health and safety and those of their loved ones.

Many graduate students are willing to work in-person this fall. However, we must make sure that Cornell is a welcoming and equitable workplace for all of us. In its current form, this accommodations policy gives graduate students little confidence that the University sees our best interests. At a time when sustaining undergraduate education and continuing research during a pandemic is contingent on graduate student labor, an accommodations policy cannot afford to sacrifice our health — or our morale.


Rebecca Harrison ’14, grad

Arielle Johnson, grad

Jeff Pea, grad