July 6, 2020

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Consider ‘Opt-In’ for Grad Students During Reopening, Cornell

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To the Editor: 

The leaders and members of the 11 organizations comprising Cornell University’s Graduate and Professional Student Diversity Council, along with members of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, the Reopening Committees and the graduate student community at large, urge the University administration to stand up for and protect its graduate workers. In response to COVID-19, the current graduate student accommodation policy requires students who do not feel safe engaging in in-person research or teaching to register through Student Disability Services (for personal health conditions) or to appeal to their supervisor (for other concerns). We believe that graduate students should be granted the autonomy to decide their own level of comfort with in-person research or instruction; leaving these decisions to anyone other than the student at hand is dangerous and will exacerbate existing inequities in our community. This policy will disproportionately harm those members of our community who are already marginalized by existing exclusionary practices within the university and society at large. This policy is also directly at odds with recent university-wide statements made regarding Cornell’s commitment to equity and racial justice.

We provide the following examples of how this policy will yield disparate impact:

  1. People who are low-income, queer, transgender, undocumented, Indigenous, Latinx and/or Black are less likely to have access to routine quality medical care. Students from these groups may not have documented diagnoses of conditions like asthma or hypertension that greatly increase one’s risk of COVID-19 complications.
  2. Many of the groups above – particularly Black, Latinx and Indigenous people – have already been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in the United States. As people return to Ithaca and COVID-19 cases rise, these disparities are likely to present themselves in our community.
  3. Many Asian people have faced blatant discrimination linked to the pandemic that may affect Asian students’ likelihood of feeling safe working on campus. The mechanism to receive accommodations for general concerns about returning to campus is not sufficient to protect these students.
  4. International students have varied access to health care and may not have the required diagnosis or documentation to indicate their medical risk. Given current travel restrictions and the current political climate, it is also extremely difficult for international students to anticipate their ability to return to the U.S. to participate in in-person instruction. As per Dean Knuth’s May 1 update, international students not currently in the U.S. are only eligible for assistantships under very narrow criteria including being forced to come back to Ithaca despite potentially deadly medical risks.
  5. Graduate students living with families and friends have other risks to consider aside from their own. Some students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, may need to frequently leave town to care for family members during COVID-19. It may be especially difficult to get documentation or approval to work remotely for at-risk family members or roommates.

Dean Knuth’s July 2 announcement about this graduate student policy is deeply worrying and leaves many questions unanswered. First, putting decisions about graduate student well-being in the hands of faculty and administration will inevitably give way to coercion and force students to unnecessarily disclose their own and/or others’ sensitive personal information. Dean Knuth reiterates that faculty have been “instructed not to probe for personal details,” but this statement is rather vague and not enforceable given the independence that individual professors have. Second, the “Processes for COVID-19 Accommodations and Options for Graduate Students” chart indicates that an “assistantship stipend may terminate…if assistantship duties cannot be conducted.” Graduate students have demonstrated during the Spring semester that all assistantship duties can be conducted completely online. This statement will inevitably discourage students from seeking out necessary accommodations for fear of losing their funding. Even under normal circumstances, when assistantship duties cannot be conducted, the Graduate School often helps students find alternative funding; in cases of paid parental accommodation, for example, the Graduate School typically covers the student parent’s stipend, and in other cases, there are provisions for providing emergency funds. As such, the Graduate School should make a commitment to find such alternative solutions in worst case scenarios. Finally, Dean Knuth says that “a key guiding principle is to strive to foster graduate students’ abilities to complete their degrees.” We strongly believe that the Graduate School’s priority should go above and beyond the completion of degrees to include graduate student safety, health, and well-being – even if at times this might impede degree completion.

Graduate students should be trusted with the agency to make their own decisions about their health and safety, as has been granted to faculty and undergraduate students in the plans outlined by President Pollack on June 30. Graduate students are the backbone of teaching and research at Cornell, and we demand the same degree of protection extended to all other members of the University community. We, the undersigned, propose that in-person TA and research duties be opt-in rather than opt-out, and that those who perform their duties remotely maintain the same level of financial compensation as those who work in person, at the stipend rates announced in Dean Knuth’s May 1 email to graduate students. Furthermore, students who do not opt into in-person responsibilities should be guaranteed that future funding will not be rescinded as a result of this decision and must be protected from any other future retaliation.

Stephanie Tepper, grad, Co-President, LGBTQ+ Graduate Student Association

Sam Bosco, grad, Co-President, LGBTQ+ Graduate Student Association

Alice Wolff, grad, Treasurer, LGBTQ+ Graduate Student Association

Trey Ramsey ‘12, grad, Board Member, LGBTQ+ Graduate Student Association

Gwen Beacham, grad, President, Graduate Women in Science

Janani Hariharan, grad, Vice President, Graduate Women in Science

Mikaela Spruill, grad, Vice President, Black Graduate and Professional Student Association

Andrea Darby, grad, Secretary, Black Graduate and Professional Student Association

Bam Willoughby, grad, Community Service Chair, Black Graduate and Professional Student Association

Gerardo Carrillo, grad, Treasurer, Latinx Graduate Student Coalition

Kelly Murray, grad, Co-Chair, Multicultural Academic Council

Andrea Patricia Llinas Vahos, grad, President, Cornell Latin American Student Society

Reut Shachnai, grad, Outreach and Community Involvement Coordinator, First Generation and Low Income Graduate Student Organization 

Elvisha Dhamala, grad, Co-President, Graduate and Professional Students International

Bruno M. Shirley, grad, Graduate and Professional Students International

Sarena Tien, grad, Society for Asian American Graduate Affairs

Jeff Pea, grad, Graduate Student Representative, Committee on Research and Operations Reactivation

Arielle Johnson, grad, Graduate Student Representative, Committee on Preparation for Online Teaching

Rebecca Harrison ‘14, grad, Graduate Student Representative, Committee on Teaching Reactivation

Martik Chatterjee, grad, Student Advocacy Committee Chair, Graduate and Professional Student Assembly

Hannah Bidigare-Curtis, grad, Student Advocacy Committee Member, Graduate and Professional Student Assembly

Carlota Aguilar González, grad

Catie Ball, grad

Christopher Berardino, grad

Daphne Blakey, grad

William Cameron, grad

Vasileios Charisopoulos, grad

Casey Ching, grad

Alan Chiu, grad

Rene Crespin, grad

Tessa Devereaux Evans, grad

Millie Dibble, grad

Alexis Dziubek, grad

Maya Ezzeddine, grad

Teresa Flanagan, grad

Joshua Garcia, grad

Clarice Guan, grad

Gillian Hagen, grad

Natalie Hofmeister, grad

Breanne Kisselstein, grad

Shanthanu Krishna Kumar, grad

Kavya Krishnan, grad

Kasey Laurent, grad

Anna Lello-Smith, grad

Nathan London, grad

Natalia Lopez-Barbosa, grad

Rachael Mady, grad

Gavin Mosley, grad

Manisha Munasinghe, grad

Sarah Naiman, grad

Rachel Neugarten, grad

Chinasa T. Okolo, grad

Marguerite Pacheco, grad

Grace Phillips, grad

Alec Pollak, grad

Bharathy Premachandra, grad

Elena Sabinson, grad

Andrew Scheldorf, grad

Tessy Schlosser, grad

Adrienne Scott, grad

Juhwan Seo, grad

Wade Simmons, grad

Sean Sinclair, grad

Brianna Tate, grad

Meredith Welch, grad

Bam Willoughby, grad

Chencong Zhu, grad