Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 18, 2020

TRU's petition highlights concerns of graduate students

By MICHELLE LIMPE | September 16, 2020

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COURTESY OF MICHELLE LIMPE

Graduate students criticize the University’s COVID-19 guidelines for students, citing a lack of transparency and calling for revisions and clarifications.

Teachers and Researchers United (TRU), an unofficial graduate student union, began circulating a petition against the University’s coronavirus (COVID-19) guidelines for students on Sept. 4. In the petition, TRU urges the administration to increase student involvement in the decision making process, particularly in matters that directly affect the student body. 

TRU acknowledges that some of the guidelines are necessary to enforce recommendations set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; however, the group argues that the University must increase its transparency and create a standardized procedure for penalizing students who violate these guidelines. 

“The university has once again shown that it will prioritize its institutional interests over the wellbeing of its constituents. Given the vague, coercive, and punitive nature of these guidelines, which are largely unnecessary when the entire university is operating virtually, we fear that the enforcement mechanisms behind these guidelines will allow further abuse in the post-COVID future,” the petition states. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, TRU representative Alex Parry, a fourth-year PhD student in the History of Medicine, highlighted growing concerns among graduate students. 

TRU has been working closely with the Graduate Representative Organization (GRO) on Homewood Campus, the Graduate Student Association at the School of Medicine and the Student Association at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“While all of us are united in the desire to check COVID, all of us are also united in our belief that these guidelines are problematic and were not transparently produced and disseminated,” Parry said. “The guidelines were overly broad and made it effectively impossible for students to protest Hopkins policies.”

In the petition, TRU noted that the Student Code of Conduct now prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people both on- and off-campus. TRU believes that political protests, religious ceremonies and sports events are included under this ban. 

TRU argued that these events should be allowed, especially amid the recent wave of protests around the United States, as long as attendees adhere to public health protocols. 

In an email to The News-Letter, Assistant Vice President of External Relations for the Office of Communications Karen Lancaster stated that Vice Provost for Student Affairs Alanna Shanahan addressed many of TRU’s concerns in a letter to the GRO on Sept. 1. 

In the letter, Shanahan clarified that the University supports students’ freedom of expression.

Junior Marissa McDonald, a member of the COVID-19 Student Advisory Committee, shared that this specific concern was brought up at the Committee’s most recent meeting. 

“[Administrators] specifically said they had no intention or thought about protests when writing these guidelines. They said, ‘I think you guys give us more credit for malicious intent than we actually do,’” McDonald said.

Parry cited the administrators’ response to this issue as an example of the University’s ignorance and lack of foresight.

“Even if certain things were or were not intended, then fine. If that’s the case, revise the guidelines and be more specific,” he said. “These are easy fixes that if the administration actually cares about making these guidelines clear and effective, they should be able to follow up on them.”

According to Lancaster, the University is urging students to work with administrators to ensure that protests and religious services can be carried out safely.  

Another major concern that TRU emphasizes in the petition is the University’s lack of procedures for penalizing students who violate the guidelines. 

Fourth-year History of Medicine PhD student Kristin Brig-Ortiz stressed that without a standardized process, punishments may be administered inequitably.

“As we know, microaggressions and racial bias happen more often than not unintentionally these days. We’re a bit concerned that the University might end up targeting certain populations without being aware of it,” she said. “It’s entirely possible that the University is more likely to catch someone if they are an underrepresented minority.” 

The petition also underscored that the guidelines seem to only apply to students, which TRU believes is illogical given the guidelines’ purpose to protect the entire Hopkins community. According to Parry, graduate students are consequently placed at a higher risk due to the lack of public health protocols for faculty and staff, since both groups work in the same spaces. 

Lancaster stated that there are no additional security measures in place beyond the Hopkins Campus Safety and Security patrols and the Student Life Student/Community Liaison. Any allegations of violations to the guidelines, she wrote, will be referred to the Office of Student Conduct. 

“Expectations regarding compliance with university COVID-19 guidance apply to all university affiliates, including faculty and staff, not just students. Staff noncompliance is handled via the usual HR disciplinary process; faculty noncompliance via professional misconduct policies and procedures,” she wrote.

Parry emphasized that the University needs to improve its transparency and collaboration with the student body.

“These changes keep happening without any kind of accountability. Graduate students were minimally involved in the composition process,” he said. “In fact, most undergraduates were not involved. When the rules were rolled out and there was an opportunity to critique and refine them, many concerns were raised but hardly of which were dealt with.”

He added that, as a result of COVID-19, many graduate students have also incurred additional expenses. When they requested financial help from the University, Parry said, the University merely redirected students to find a solution within their departments. However, many departments lacked the budget to reimburse their graduate workers.

“This lack of guidance and wishful thinking that only benefits the administration in the long run is not just representative in the way these guidelines were produced but are characteristic of the entire University response to COVID-19,” Parry said. 

The University is focusing too much on policing graduate and undergraduate behavior, Parry said, rather than keeping everyone equally responsible and providing them with the resources to stay safe.

“In response to COVID-19, the University has been more concerned with undergraduates. I don’t necessarily mean to say that they care about the welfare of undergraduates, but they care about undergraduate tuition money,” he said. “A lot of the decisions have been driven by revenue, rather than a deep feeling of responsibility for the undergrad population.”

He emphasized that there needs to be solidarity among the entire student body — both undergraduates and graduates — in holding the University accountable and protecting the community. 

According to Brig-Ortiz, the Student Code of Conduct groups graduate student in the same category as undergraduates, highlighting the need for graduate student recognition from the University.

She described the actions that TRU hopes to see from administrators. 

“We’re not saying all of the guidelines are wrong. There are some guidelines that should be kept but some that need revision and clarification. There are some guidelines we’d prefer to see eliminated,” Brig-Ortiz said. “In general, we would really like to see more clarification and substantial revision across the board.”

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