By Esha Dhawan
Over 1,400 students have signed a petition demanding changes to the graduate Campus Compact, a commitment graduate students living on campus are required to sign outlining requirements intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The petition calls the manner in which the compact was released “vague and coercive” and its measures “punitive.”
The petition raised concerns with the Compact Review Panel, the possibility of eviction and threat of visa loss for international students, potential effects on mental health and a lack of consideration for students belonging to marginalized communities.
In addition to the petition, the School of Engineering Graduate (SOE) Dean’s Graduate Student Advisory Council wrote an open letter to the University, and over 180 contributors compiled anonymous reactions to the compact on the collaborative virtual board Padlet, describing concerns with the requirements. Students also wrote that the compact had “rightfully received criticism” in a message to the Stanford community signed by members of the Graduate Student Council (GSC) in an email from Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) Exec.
The compact, released to students Aug. 15 via Axess, states that its purpose is to ensure students “commit to behave responsibly and in ways that demonstrate care and compassion for our fellow students, postdocs, staff, faculty, and community neighbors.” It outlines requirements for screening, testing, quarantine and social distancing.
All graduate students living on campus are required to sign the compact. Students who do not sign the compact will not be able to access campus for courses, research or housing. Students have an enrollment hold placed on their Axess accounts until they decide whether or not to sign the compact.
Some of the most controversial requirements are those regarding guests and travel. The compact requires students to refrain from having any guests, aside from childcare workers, in their apartment or in common areas of their apartment building. The compact describes a “guest” as anyone who does not live full-time in the apartment, banning friends and significant others who are not living in couples housing.
University spokesperson E.J. Miranda declined to comment on student concerns, referring students to emails sent out to the campus community about the compact on Aug. 15, Aug. 17 and Aug. 21 by Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole and Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs Stacey F. Bent.
Brubaker-Cole and Bent acknowledged in the Aug. 17 email that “the tone came across as harsh” and apologized for not providing “adequate details and background information.” In the Aug. 21 email, they reversed the decision to not include an appeals process to the Compact Review Panel and clarified the compact’s travel expectations to align with the University’s travel policy.
“We also know that, for many of you, the University is your educational institution, your employer, your landlord, and also your home, which makes the stakes incredibly high for you and incredibly important for us to get this right,” Brubaker-Cole and Bent wrote.
Graduate students have challenged the nature of the compact. The petition states that the compact “attempts to place a burden on individual student employees” while the University has not presented an “actionable and transparent testing and reporting plan.”
The University announced its plan for testing on Aug. 20, committing to testing at no charge to individuals. Students living in on- or off-campus Stanford student housing will be required to participate in weekly testing, with students being able to request up to two tests per week.
“The University should remind us of the county and state regulations and repercussions for failing to comply with them,” second-year cancer biology Ph.D. student Logan Leak wrote in an email to The Daily. “Instead, they are creating their own rules, reporting system, and policing model that is extremely problematic and threatening.”
“For me, the single biggest issue is how punitive the compact is,” wrote petition organizer and second-year Japanese literature Ph.D. student Kat Whatley to The Daily. “The compact does not take us seriously as individuals who have the ability to safely navigate this global pandemic and subsequent public health orders.”
Compact Review Panel
Graduate students describe the most concerning part of the compact as what happens if the requirements are broken. The section regarding the Compact Review Panel states that “the University retains the right to remove any person from housing or the campus to protect the health and safety of the community.”
The compact states that “all Stanford community members are required to participate and cooperate fully with the panel and any necessary investigations related to violations of this compact,” which Leak called “a very vague clause and leaves the powers of the panel entirely open-ended.”
Leak also cited a possibility of double jeopardy, and other students raised concerns that the compact violated due process and appeals rights guaranteed by the Student Judicial Charter of 1997.
“Denying students due process rights and appeals rights, that’s fundamentally wrong, and I’m shocked that this made it through so many offices without anyone objecting to that,” fourth-year chemical and systems biology Ph.D. student Egan Peltan said.
Brubaker-Cole and Bent wrote in the Aug. 21 email that they “are currently removing language from the compact that says ‘decisions of the panel are final.’”
“We will also be adding language to the compact that indicates that there will be an appeal process,” Brubaker-Cole and Bent wrote. “Students who have already signed the compact will be given the right to appeal.”
In the Aug. 17 email, Brubaker-Cole and Bent wrote that “the panel’s primary role is to educate and reinforce community expectations.”
“The panel will take stronger action only on serious violations that put the community at risk, for example hosting or attending ‘super-spreader’ events, repeated or reckless behavior, or creating significant risk to your fellow students by consistently refusing to follow the requirements of the compact,” Brubaker-Cole and Bent wrote.
Brubaker-Cole and Bent wrote that they are in discussion with student leaders representing the ASSU and Graduate Student Council regarding “details about how the panel will work, how behaviors that appear to violate the compact might be addressed and what actions the panel might take with each level of violation.”
Peltan also expressed concerns that faculty members living and working on campus are not required to sign the compact and students on Padlet raised similar concerns that faculty are not subjected to the same testing requirements as students.
“I don’t know if I can tell myself a story where the Campus Compact was created with good intention and the best interests of graduate students at heart, or even in the best interests of the University at heart, if I’m being completely honest,” he said.
Highly impacted communities
Graduate students said the threat of eviction raised by the Compact Review Panel was especially unwarranted amid a pandemic.
“Any compact that creates the possibility that students might be evicted, during a global pandemic, is punitive and ineffective,” Whatley wrote.
“Our goal is to prevent a significant cluster of cases, or even a shut down of the entire campus community,” wrote Brubaker-Cole and Bent in the Aug. 21 email. “Removing a student from housing was only ever intended as a last-resort measure.”
Peltan, who works in a wet lab in the School of Medicine, said he was especially concerned for medical students and students in high-risk environments. He expressed that many medical students were afraid of eviction given that it was unclear whether a positive test was a compact violation.
However, the University clarified in the Aug. 21 email that a positive test is not a compact violation and “students who become ill with Covid will be referred to Vaden Health Services for support and care.”
The limitations the compact imposes on having guests could also impact students’ ability to see loved ones and their students’ mental health, according to anonymous feedback on Padlet.
“My partner does not live with me but we are essential to each other’s mental health,” a poster wrote.
The petition calls for the compact to “encourage the use of safe strategies that take mental health into account, such as a ‘closed loop’ social cluster of up to 10 people.” Students in the ASSU Exec letter stated that they will push for a more expansive definition of “household” that includes five-person social pods and off-campus significant others.
The University “must invest more in mental health to meet the demand of the student body and prepare for the inevitable consequences of the harsh Compact,” Leak wrote.
Brubaker-Cole and Bent wrote that they “need to sustain the current guest and visitor language while we await the county’s guidance,” in the Aug. 21 email, but are “beginning a discussion about our next steps” if they receive approval for students to bring loved ones into their homes as visitors.
Students also raised concerns that the compact would disproportionately affect members of marginalized communities. Peltan said marginalized students “prosecuted” by the panel who are unable to afford outside counsel would be at a disadvantage relative to wealthier students.
The petition also states that Black and Brown students may require more emergency travel to assist family members and may lack the resources and financing to obtain basic necessities without significant risk of exposure.
Brubaker-Cole and Bent wrote that the University would “do its best” to provide quarantine housing for students who need to travel due to family obligations or an emergency situation.
Miranda declined to comment on concerns that the compact would disproportionately affect students from marginalized backgrounds.
Additionally, class enrollment is a requirement for international students to maintain their visas. Graduate students wrote in the ASSU Exec letter that they were advocating for University policies that would allow students abroad to receive fellowships.
According to graduate students, there was also a lack of input by students and even certain faculty members in the decision making process. The SOE Dean’s Graduate Student Advisory Council wrote that they heard from SOE Deans and department chairs who were “blindsided by the announcement.”
“Treat students with respect and dignity so that we can create a healthy and safe Stanford together,” Whatley wrote. “Students do not want to be antagonistic towards the University but without mutual trust, which is deeply necessary during a pandemic, we can’t help but expect the worst.”