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Grad students protest affordability, mental health, sexual violence issues at event for incoming and prospective students

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Warning of the University’s alleged failure to address affordability, mental health and sexual violence issues at Stanford, current graduate students and some recent alumni staged a protest outside a GRAD Diversity Day event for admitted and prospective students.

Around a dozen individuals, many from the Stanford Solidarity Network, held signs and spoke with attendees of a reception hosted by the Vice Provost for Graduate Education Patricia Gumport on the third floor of the Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Center.

GRAD Diversity Day is described as an “invitation only event for selected admitted students and promising applicants” from diverse backgrounds coming in to the business, humanities and sciences, engineering, earth sciences and education graduate schools.

“We are so happy you are here, and do hope you choose to come here,” reads a statement from the protestors given to prospective students. “We are here today because graduate students on this campus are facing severe challenges that the university has systematically failed to address, all of which disproportionately affect students from diverse backgrounds.”

Irán Román, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in music and neuroscience, distributed photocopies of a $7.82 paycheck he received in December 2017.

“If you live with one child on campus, your paychecks may look like this,” superimposed text reads.

The demonstration’s wide scope included many issues of affordability — such as housing and healthcare costs — that organizers described as working against greater diversity, as well as alleged insufficiency of mental health resources and “rampant” sexual violence, sexual harassment and gender-based harassment.

Gumport, on arriving at the event, spoke briefly with protestors.

“I welcome the involvement of our current graduate students,” she told The Daily. She described the demonstrators as “role models” and said that the more incoming students know, the better.

Associate Dean for Graduate and Career Education and Diversity Ayodele Thomas also spoke to the protesters near the start of the event, expressing concern about how the demonstration could affect the “lens” through which incoming and prospective students see Stanford. She said she agreed that Stanford needed to do more to improve diversity, but called for a “balanced perspective.”

“What is the message you’re trying to give to students here?” she asked demonstrators.

She asked to speak privately with Justine Modica, a fourth-year history Ph.D. student and a member of the Stanford Solidarity Network who helped organize the event. Modica declined the invitation.

Still, Thomas told protestors, “You’re here now, we welcome you,” offering them refreshments from the event.

Thomas declined to comment on the demonstration to The Daily.

Modica told Thomas and students that she sees improving affordability as a “key way” to improve diversity.

“We can’t keep saying it’s a pipeline problem,” Modica said.

Qualified applicants come from diverse backgrounds, she said, but the high costs of being a student contribute to more narrow representation at Stanford.

“If you think diversity is about affordability, get involved with us when you come,” Modica told attendees as they arrived at the event.

Much of the protestors’ material relates to the financial challenges students face on campus.

“We do not have affordable and accessible mental health services,” the statement reads, referencing two recent suicides and calling graduate students “overworked” and “underpaid.”

“We do not have affordable housing on this campus,” it adds, stating that many students meet the criteria of “severe rent burden” set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). “For people without personal wealth, being a graduate student here often means living with dire precarity, and we have little to no choice about where we can afford to live.”

The statement also notes the rising costs of childcare and healthcare.

Lastly, the statement warns incoming and prospective students of a “toxic culture” of sexual violence and sexual harassment, alleging that these acts are committed with impunity.

“There are no consequences for faculty, staff and students who commit sexual violence on this campus,” the statement states.

“Much more needs to be done to make Stanford accessible to students from diverse backgrounds,” the statement concludes. “We hope you come to Stanford, and please join us to push for change.”

The University did not respond to The Daily’s requests for comment.

Activism event

After attending the protest, Kari Barclay, a third-year theater and performance studies Ph.D. student and a member of the Graduate Student Council (GSC), hosted an event in the Graduate Community Center commemorating past advocacy of graduate students at Stanford.

Working in chronological order toward more recent advocacy efforts, Barclay began with “Take Back The Mic,” a 1968 event in which members of the Black Student Union seized the microphone from Provost Richard Lyman at an assembly, “Stanford’s Response to White Racism.” At the assembly — convened with an all-white panel four days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — graduate student Frank Omowale Satterwhite read a list of demands calling for greater representation of African-Americans at Stanford.

Barclay encouraged attendees to get involved with campus advocacy and offered tips on how to do so.

He also covered a 1998 rally where more than 1,000 graduate students protesting unaffordable housing conditions camped out in Main Quad, displaying signs reading, “Look Mom, no housing,” and “Rent plus Ramen equals stipend.”

Some problems, he said, had continued.

“Homelessness is no joke,” he told the audience. “I know graduate students who experience that here at Stanford.”

But the event spurred on the construction of additional on-campus housing “because students stood up for their rights,” Barclay said.

Contact Charlie Curnin at ccurnin ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Charlie Curnin '22 is a Managing Editor of News. Contact him at ccurnin ‘at’ stanford.edu.