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

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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