COVID-19 Updates, Op-eds, Opinions

Ostrovsky ’23, Carroll ’21, Amkieh ’21.5: Why Brown must do more

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Op-Ed Contributors
Thursday, April 30, 2020

Recently, Brown University announced it will temporarily house those fighting coronavirus on the front lines, namely emergency personnel and healthcare workers. This is a testament to the power the University has to do good in a global crisis. To that end, we would like to remind the institution that the needs of its most vulnerable community members have only intensified since the University transitioned to online learning in March. With respect to health care, employment, academics and room and board, we identify areas in which Brown should do more to minimize the damage of this new reality. It is in this spirit that students have come together under the banner of Brown University Students for an Equitable Pandemic Response (SEPR).

What is a more fitting place to begin during a pandemic than health care? We are grateful that Brown’s Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) specifically covers COVID-19 testing. UnitedHealthcare, the parent company of SHIP, has eliminated student cost-sharing for treatment, which means no copays, coinsurance and deductibles — but only through May 31. While this is certainly helpful for the next month, unfortunately coronavirus knows no arbitrary cutoff date. Neither should Brown’s care for the health of all students. We thus call on Brown to fully cover the costs of testing, treatment and eventual vaccination for all students on the plan for the duration of the pandemic

Furthermore, we recognize that the coming summer months will not allow for a normal cycle of health insurance renewals. To that end, we propose that Brown extend SHIP for graduating seniors beyond the August 15 end-of-cycle. The University has given this option to graduating PhD students and Master’s students, clearly demonstrating that an extension policy of this sort is within reason. Taking into account the most uncertain job market that seniors are about to enter, an extension is the ethical thing to do. It is also the safe one. If many alumni have not yet found another stable insurance plan, those unfortunately afflicted may be forced, out of financial necessity, to try to ‘ride out’ the illness. Of course, SEPR understands the reality that Brown cannot oversee graduates’ healthcare indefinitely, but we see this proposal as a fitting measure for an extraordinary moment.  

Recognizing that our country embarrassingly links healthcare to employment  — with millions losing this lifeline because of mass layoffs  — we also suggest ways in which Brown can help mitigate the hardships of its workers. Brown has protected the employment of its full-time staff through June 30. Now, Brown U SEPR is simply calling on our administration to do the same for ALL workers still at Brown, including temporary workers and subcontractors. The subcontracting economy, in which Brown is a participant, can lead to lower wages, less bargaining power and scant employment protections and benefits. These vulnerabilities are clearly magnified by the pandemic. But a mere continuation of employment is not enough. Again, we reiterate the good work Brown has done with respect to its living space for front-line workers across Rhode Island. It is a recognition that essential workers require special accommodations. Continuing on that logic, then, it is incumbent on Brown to provide hazard time and a half pay to workers risking their lives by coming in. Both University and subcontracted workers must receive hazard pay going forward and retroactively for all hours worked from March 12, the day of transition to remote learning. In the long term, SEPR hopes that the pandemic forces Brown to reflect on its participation in the subcontracting economy. In the short term, these steps are how Brown must show it cares for its security guards, maintenance and dining workers and many others who ensure the University runs smoothly.

Another central component of Brown U SEPR’s call to action is for all student workers expecting a paycheck to continue being paid for their scheduled hours through the end of the term. This includes students who have already exceeded their on-campus work expectation in wages earned. Many students rely on University employment for food, housing and other essentials. The University did give $150 for travel expenses to all students on financial aid, but this provision was for one special circumstance. Unlike a sudden flight from Rhode Island, food, housing and supplies are not one-time needs. We fear that now, faced with more than a month of lost wages, student workers are struggling to make ends meet. Considering the value student workers add to campus, pay continuity is a way for Brown to meaningfully express its appreciation.

Beyond the clear needs pertaining to employment and healthcare, we also address the grim reality of learning off-campus. Acknowledging that over 2,600 undergraduate students and 65 faculty have endorsed the call for Universal Pass, we join them in calling on Brown to adopt a universal pass grading system. Brown values undergraduate learning as a formative time for students’ personal growth. In keeping with this mission, we must recognize that COVID-19 has devastated each one of Brown’s 6,752 undergraduates uniquely. Though the semester may be officially coming to a close, it is not too late for an academic policy that brings as much uniformity as possible to a pandemic and economic collapse. 

From an email students received regarding room and board fees, Brown’s refund policy multiplies half of a semester’s total fees “by the percent of parent contribution to the standard cost of attendance.” This decision to only factor in parental contribution makes financial aid dollars ineligible for refund. How illogical, since financial aid is meant to cover precisely what parents cannot contribute! Assessing the refund in this manner, then, seems to skew the benefits away from families who need it most. Now, University administrators might respond to these claims by pointing to the Emergency Funds, Curricular & Co-curricular Gap (E-Gap), which allows students to apply for financial support in times of unexpected need. This approach, however, burdens students to request money for each issue that arises. It fails to capture how financial struggle does not tend to allow significant free time. Similar to grading, then, SEPR advocates for a universal solution: an across-the-board refund of 50 percent of the semester’s room and board costs to all students, regardless of parental contribution.

Finally, we must remember that Brown is not in a bubble. According to the University’s website,  “the story of Brown is also the story of Providence and Rhode Island.” This quote could reflect a laudable commitment to the community, but in light of Brown’s tax arrangements, we caution the University to tamp down its pride. The University’s exemption from Providence property taxes translates to over $30 million less for the city — especially biting when budgets for the whole state are running thin. By pledging $10 million to mutual aid efforts in Rhode Island, Brown would justify belonging in Rhode Island’s story. To this end, we’ve put together a list of local groups that University donations could help tremendously.

Unlike President Paxson, Brown U SEPR is by no means optimistic about a return to normalcy on campus in the fall. Instead, we are focusing on fundamental human needs that do not depend on a calendar: health, employment, financial well-being. We may lack a blueprint for how to successfully overcome a pandemic, but we will not stay quiet at home.

In Solidarity,

Brown U SEPR

Brown University Students for an Equitable Pandemic Response is a student group that was created in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the University’s handling of the crisis. You can share a story about how the pandemic and the University’s response has affected you by emailing them at or through this anonymous form:

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  1. It’s so comical that you say “65 faculty endorse universal pass”-that’s clearly not the majority. Universal Pass only further perpetuates inequity, because it basically invalidates people’s struggles and hardships that they’ve faced in previous semesters while prioritizing people’s struggles this semester. For example, statistics demonstrate that at at least 1 in 5 women face sexual violence on this campus (statistics are likely higher because of underreporting). If a student experienced this last semester and suffered academically, she has to live with the grades she got. Even if she did receive accommodations (which would require reporting the incident to the school, which can very traumatizing for many victims), the school would never make everyone go pass/fail in order to eliminate inequity for women facing sexual violence on this campus. Why should this semester’s hardships mean anything more? Students advocating for this policy are invalidating other people’s traumas and prioritizing their own political agenda over the majority of students’ needs.

  2. While I admire SEPR’s initiatives regarding student fees/refunds, the universal pass proposal is beyond unethical, and it honestly seems illegal to me. Many families have been saving money and working so hard since the day their child was born to be able to send them to a school like Brown, and they are not paying tens of thousands of dollars this semester to have them receive grades of “pass” on their transcripts. Universal Pass also invalidates all the hard work that students put into their classes up until spring break. I had a 90% in my organic chemistry class before break-so I should end up with the same grade as someone who had a 70% before break? Again, beyond unethical. Additionally, what is so comical is that they say 65 professors endorse universal pass-but Brown has a total of 964 instructional employees! If you can’t do this math to figure out that this proposal is not popular among professors, you should not be at college! Students advocating for this policy are looking at this as an opportunity to get their names out there, appear in the news, and appear like social justice warriors, but really they are just hurting so many people who are paying tens of thousands of dollars to be here. You need to redefine who your “most vulnerable” is. “Most vulnerable needs to include students who experienced great traumas prior to this semester that were depending on this semester to save their GPA.

  3. You write that, “In keeping with this mission, we must recognize that COVID-19 has devastated each one of Brown’s 6,752 undergraduates uniquely.” In denying students who have previously experienced so many hardships the opportunity to get their grades and save their GPAs, you are only devastating them more and causing so much more uncertainty.

  4. Ignoring the issue of universal pass, if Brown spends tens of millions meeting these demands now, what do you think will happen to financial aid awards in the coming years? We’re fortunate to go to a wealthy school that can absorb a financial blow, but Brown is not a bottomless font of money. I’d rather Brown continue to bring in the best possible classes by maximizing financial aid than volunteer extra taxes or “refund” money that families were never charged.

  5. I completely agree with the above statement by Tieran. Students are demanding all sorts of “refunds”, but there is often to basis to these claims. Why should students be charged less for tuition? The professors are still putting in the same amount of work into their classes (besides driving to campus from their homes), so it makes sense that tuition should cost the same. Professors are still holding office hours, rewriting syllabi, and creating and designing lecture materials. Brown student leaders are asking for a refund are doing it for the same reason they’re doing universal pass-they feel it makes them and the school look like angels who are trying to protect the most vulnerable. However, these claims have no logical basis and only end up hurting things. For example, as Tieran said, financial aid in the coming years might be less, and professors might have to take large salary cuts, causing them to go teach at different universities. Our caliber of staff and faculty would definitely dwindle. It’s easy to say that we need to give out all of these free handouts/funds, but these policies would not be feasible. We just want the best for Brown.

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