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Stanford University is one of the U.S. institutions asking students to sign compacts agreeing to the university’s COVID-19 policies.

Kirby Lee/AP

Grad students challenge university-mandated COVID-19 agreements

On Saturday, Lauren Pope—a biology Ph.D. student at Stanford University—received an email detailing a “graduate student compact” she’ll be required to sign before she can register for the fall semester. The document lays out expectations for how students will behave on campus given fears of COVID-19 transmission, as well as punishment procedures for those who don’t follow the rules. Pope—who returned to the lab in June to resume her research and lives in on-campus housing—is concerned about the one-sided nature of the agreement. “I would be more comfortable signing this … if there were more precautions and transparency on how [the university is] going to keep us safe.”

She isn’t the only one who objects. “By Sunday, students all across campus had come together to … counteract the compact and demand certain things from the university,” she says. “We don’t … understand the extent of how this could impact us legally; we’re just scared because we know it could.”  

As universities across the United States move to reopen campuses, a number of them—including Vanderbilt University, Cornell University, Emory University, the Ohio State University, and others—have asked students to sign similar agreements. This can put graduate students who need to be on campus to perform their research in a tricky situation—and one potentially made worse on campuses getting much more crowded with the arrival of undergrads. (At Stanford, graduate students are permitted on campus but undergrads will learn remotely and only a select few can live in campus housing.)

“On a basic level, I think the primary motivation is that [universities] recognize that there is risk associated with having people on campus and they are worried about lawsuits and the financial fallout that could accompany successful lawsuits,” says Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. “I don’t think it’s right for universities to shift responsibility for this to individuals, especially if it’s the case that individuals didn’t have the ability to make the decision about whether or not they are exposed or at risk of exposure.”

At many universities, students haven’t raised concerns about agreements they’ve been asked to sign, according to several graduate students contacted by Science Careers. But it’s unclear whether that’s because the language is not objectionable or because students haven’t read the language closely. “A lot of the grad students in my department just clicked on it and didn’t read the whole thing,” says Rachel Coombs, a biology Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh, which issued its compact on 6 August.  

That isn’t the case for Coombs, the child of a lawyer. She immediately took issue with the document her university is requiring students to sign, specifically this statement: “I understand that I am assuming the risk that I may be exposed to or infected by COVID-19 and that such exposure or infection of COVID-19 is inherently dangerous.” It’s “very much contractual language,” she says. “It sends a very destabilizing message, a contradictory message almost, that, sure, they’re telling us they’re doing all these things [to keep campus safe], but regardless of whether they do them or not, I’m going to be responsible for the consequences.”  

Coombs returned to campus to conduct labwork in July. She heard from other grad students that someone who works in her building tested positive for COVID-19, but the university didn’t inform her directly, she says. She’s also received notices that common areas in her building were being closed for cleaning because of potential coronavirus exposures, but she didn’t get any more information about where infected people were in the building. “They will only tell you if you’ve been in close proximity with someone who winds up testing positive.” Her fears are now growing as undergrads have started to return to campus.

“Students are not being asked to give up their right to sue the University or any other legal right,” writes University of Pittsburgh spokesperson Kevin Zwick in an email. “Instead, students are being asked to acknowledge and agree that they understand the risks and the behaviors they must exhibit to help minimize those risks.”

But Coombs sees the agreement differently. “They aren’t asking us if we understand the risk. They are asking us to assume the risk. Those are very different things.” Coombs would like to see greater transparency on the part of the university. “If you’re asking me to assume the risk, then I should have access to all of the information to determine that risk—and we certainly don't have that.”

McClure advises students at any universities requiring these types of compacts to tread carefully before signing. “My best advice would be to try as best you can to push back on signing them if at all possible,” he says. “Or prior to signing them … try to get a better understanding of what [you’re] being asked to sign.”

At Pennsylvania State University, such pushback efforts were successful. The university initially asked students to attest that they “assume any and all risk of exposure to COVID-19 that may result from attending Penn State.” But after student complaints, last week the administration altered that language. The document now states that “even with the mitigation steps taken by Penn State and my compliance with this Compact, I acknowledge that Penn State cannot prevent the risks of exposure to COVID-19.”

Administrators at Stanford have also been paying attention to student feedback, sending an email to the grad student community at 11:36 p.m. on Monday. “We received feedback from a number of you that makes it clear that the tone came across as harsh and the lack of contextual information for the compact raised serious concerns,” wrote Susie Brubaker-Cole and Stacey Bent, the vice provost for student affairs and the vice provost for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs. “We appreciate these concerns and are sorry for not providing adequate details and background information.”

The email clarified some of the rules and expectations detailed in the compact. But it did nothing to assuage Pope’s concern that the university doesn’t have a transparent procedure in place to dole out punishment, she says. “You don’t get any appeals,” she says. “There need to be some protections for the students’ rights.” Stanford didn’t respond to specific questions about the university’s policies, but a spokesperson wrote that the compact “incorporates the State of California's guidance … which prescribes the necessary conditions for colleges and universities to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Pope—who serves as the coordinator for the university’s student advocate support network—is working with other graduate students to push the university to further address concerns about the compact and the steps the university is taking to keep them safe. Until it does, she’s not sure whether she’ll sign. Her research, stipend, health insurance, and housing hang in the balance.