Northwestern University Graduate Workers Letter Expressing COVID-19 Concerns for STEM Graduate Researchers

Covid-19 demands for STEM workers

July 27th, 2020

Dear President Morton Schapiro, Vice President and General Counsel Stephanie Graham, Interim Provost Kathleen Hagerty, Interim Dean Kelly Mayo, Vice President for Student Affairs Julie Payne-Kirchmeier, Vice President for Research Milan Mrksich, Senior Associate Vice President and Chief Risk & Compliance Officer Luke Figora, Director of Environmental Health & Safety Gwen Butler:

This letter comes from the Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW) and was spearheaded by a coalition of NUGW members who work in multiple STEM departments. We are writing to express our concerns over Northwestern’s handling of on-campus COVID-19 cases, which threatens the lives of all STEM graduate students, faculty, and staff who work in STEM buildings. Specifically, we are concerned about:

  1. Pressure placed on STEM graduate researchers to return to both the Evanston and Chicago campuses. This pressure threatens the lives of all STEM graduate researchers who work in labs and are thus put at risk of contracting COVID-19 on their commutes and inside their labs. It also places an especially undue and discriminatory burden on STEM graduate researchers who, due to preexisting health conditions, face heightened likelihood of life-altering illness and even fatality if they contract the coronavirus. 
  2. The inadequate response of the university to on-campus COVID-19 cases, especially since the June 1st, 2020 return to lab announcement. Risk management has inadequately handled the most recent (known) case in the Chemistry Department and the University seems to have deliberately misinformed the Northwestern community about COVID-19 cases after taking down the COVID-19 case tracker that was available as late as May 22nd, 2020, a week before graduate researchers returned to lab and at a time when the university knew that graduate researchers would be returning to lab. Due to pressure from graduate students, staff, faculty, and reporters at the Daily Northwestern, the tracker has been suddenly restored (as of 7/24/20). Despite the tracker reporting that there have been 21 COVID-19 cases on Northwestern campuses since the June 1st reopening, most researchers were not previously made aware of any of these cases. 
  3. The lack of sufficient response to previous NUGW, CoalitionNU, NU Community Not Cops, and Compass Workers demands including the NUGW’s Sick Out Demands, divesting from law enforcement and investing in Black students, supporting historically marginalized and under-represented graduate students and student groups at Northwestern, and paying dining workers. 

Below, we explain each of these concerns in greater depth. 

I. Concerns regarding STEM graduate researchers returning to labs

While the university has emphasized that the return to campus research labs is “voluntary,” there is no financial or institutional support behind that promise. There are financial, academic, and health reasons why in reality, this return is in fact mandatory, inequitable, and ableist. 

First, STEM graduate researchers who work on purely experimental work cannot work from  home. Should they “voluntarily” choose to stay home to protect their individual health, they cannot make research progress, which puts them at both a financial and academic disadvantage relative to students who choose to come into lab. The University has not offered any guarantee of extended funding for graduate students  to ensure that they will be able to complete their research once it is safe for them to do so. Further, STEM graduate students’ academic success and future career in academia is often tied to their productivity and presence in the lab, placing significant pressures on them to come into lab or else harm their careers. This highly unequal power dynamic between faculty advisors and graduate students has been exploited in various academic settings to force graduate students to overwork themselves for fear of career repercussions, such as receiving negative recommendation letters or failing to receive permission to graduate. Further, it can even result in harassment. These concerns have been repeatedly documented over the past decade in the annual Graduate Leadership & Advocacy Council (GLAC) survey reports and current avenues of recourse including harassment reporting mechanisms and conflict mediation between advisors and students are not satisfactory solutions. These avenues are completely managed by Northwestern faculty and administration, with no third-party arbitration, which only reinforces the power dynamic. Because of these dynamics, graduate researchers feel pressure to return to lab in order to keep their advisors happy, to protect their future careers, and to ensure they do not run out of funding due to delays in data production

Additionally, return to research plans were poorly executed and not equitable. The University required that all individual PIs develop safety plans for their own labs. While we understand that PIs understand their group’s research the best, PIs are not public health officials and these plans have not been evaluated by third party experts despite pressure from NUGW to ensure safety for all graduate researchers. Additionally, most return to research plans were guarded by PIs instead of shared with neighboring labs. Not allowing for transparency with neighboring colleagues can create grave disparities in the level of safety precautions taken by particular labs, which ultimately puts everyone in each building at risk.

Further, the research safety requirements of masking in all common spaces and minimizing researcher populations have not been effectively enforced. While unofficial, there are many reports of graduate researchers not properly masking in common spaces like hallways and labs, and PIs breaking the 65% capacity limit rules by expecting all workers to come into labs. This includes, but is not limited to, blatantly ignoring capacity rules, registering more workers as “essential” than are strictly necessary, and counting collaborators who rarely if ever use a given lab space in the total capacity count. We specifically note that during the phase when only essential work was allowed, the definition of essential work as anything which, if paused, would lead to “loss of time or resources” was broad enough to allow almost any experimental research to be continued. As a result, many labs remained open and continued what would not be considered essential work by many institutions. The current channels of reporting these transgressions do not delineate how the identity of the reporter will be protected.

An additional harm from a lack of third party oversight of these plans is the inherent ableism at the heart of the University’s plans. For students with disabilities and/or chronic health conditions that put them at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 and having serious health complications from the virus, the University’s failure to coordinate equitable plans and ensure  third-party oversight prevents their needs from being prioritized. Students who cannot safely work around hundreds of researchers in one or more buildings due to the higher risk of COVID-19 related health complications must work fewer hours than their colleagues who can face those health risks. This has clear implications for their academic progress and may even put them at risk of repercussions from their advisors. The message sent to graduate workers with disabilities or underlying conditions is that their lives are less important than the University’s productivity and profits. This is unacceptable. 

II. Mishandling of campus COVID-19 cases and deliberate misinformation of campus community

The recent case of COVID-19 within the Chemistry Department has highlighted several weaknesses in Risk Management’s role in minimizing the spread of the virus. We aim to communicate our perspective of these weaknesses and how they have invoked widespread anxiety and a distrust in the university. 

On Sunday, July 12th, a positive COVID-19 test result was received by an individual in the Chemistry Department and the research group affected was made aware of an internal case of COVID-19. The Chemistry Department made an official announcement to the community at large around 3 pm on Monday, July 13th.

Regarding the handling of this incident, we express the following concerns:

  • Due to the lack of a concrete plan for publicly disseminating alerts and useful information regarding on-campus COVID-19 cases, nearly all research personnel attending campus on July 11th through July 13th were unaware of potential exposures to COVID-19 within the confines of their work.
  • To date, many neighboring STEM departments have not released announcements regarding this case that geographically affects them. In fact, Risk Management instructed other departments to not make their students aware of this case. As a result, news of the confirmed case in Chemistry has spread by word of mouth, allowing rumors to develop and some departments releasing vague, ambiguous emails of general concern to their departments. At least five different research groups across two different departments share hallways with the infected individual, but none were made aware of this. We remind Northwestern that it is important to protect all students in the workplace, and this lack of transparency and deliberate secrecy is seriously concerning.
  • Northwestern’s goal of keeping individuals’ identities confidential  in the contact-tracing process has been undermined by the origination of rumors due to the University’s failure to publicly  report on-campus cases swiftly. In this recent instance, the spread of rumors exposed information about the infected individual including their research lab affiliation. A prompt public announcement from the University providing useful, but still anonymous, details would have mitigated panic and the generation of rumors. We want to emphasize the importance of both privacy and public awareness. Both are possible with a prompt response from the University about COVID-19 cases.
  • To date, no information regarding the infected individual’s whereabouts on campus before the positive test was received has been publicly disclosed. The University insists that individuals who had direct contact with the infected person, but have not yet been contacted by Risk Management, should speak up. However, this is not possible if no information is disclosed. Risk Management’s contact tracing strategy relies completely on perfect recollection from infected individuals about their contacts over the preceding two weeks, leaving significant room for error.
  • The COVID-19 case counter was only recently restored (July 24th, 2020) after pressure from graduate students, staff, faculty, and reporters at the Daily Northwestern. The tracker shows there have been 21 COVID-19 cases on Northwestern campuses since the June 1st reopening

This recent case provides evidence that keeping the task of contact tracing as a private and sole responsibility of Risk Management has resulted in widespread rumors, anxiety, and an increased probability of viral spread. We are aware that the HIPAA Privacy Rule prohibits a completely public approach to contract tracing, and we respect the individual right to privacy. However, this does not preclude a middle-ground between pure transparency and opacity, whereby aggregate case counts, with dates and general locations cannot be shared publicly. We have the right to protect the health of ourselves and others, particularly during a global pandemic. This cannot be done without some transparency from the University in fighting the virus

In light of these concerns, and as Northwestern STEM graduate workers whose labor creates value and profits for the University, we demand clear and honest answers to the following questions:

  • Why was the information about 41 total COVID-19 cases on the Chicago and Evanston campuses withheld from the campus community until recently (July 24th, 2020)? Why will the case counter only be updated weekly? Why can it not be updated daily to actually make this information useful to graduate students who are on campus frequently?
  • Why was the COVID-19 status website taken down? It was available online as late as the last week of May, but removed immediately prior to the June 1st research ramp-up.
  • Why were graduate researchers not made aware of the most recent COVID-19 case in Tech (the week of July 17-23)? Why does Northwestern not consider Facilities workers part of the research community when they work in research labs?
  • Why is the Northwestern community not kept up to date about COVID-19-related deaths in the NU community?
  • Are there special measures being taken to track exposure of Northwestern medical staff that also work in Feinberg research labs, given their increased likelihood of exposure to COVID-19 patients?
  • Why are randomized testing measures not already in place to protect graduate students who are working in labs on campus?

We also demand clear and honest answers to the following questions, which affect not only STEM graduate researchers but the Northwestern workers, graduate students, undergraduate students, faculty, and staff more broadly: 

  • In drawing from its nearly $11 billion endowment, why is Northwestern limiting the payout rate to 6%? Given that funding lapses can prevent lower income students from continuing or pursuing advanced degrees, how does this decision uphold Northwestern’s “mission of academic excellence and research eminence?” 
  • How will the University enforce participation in the Daily Symptom Survey? How will the results of the DSS be disseminated to students, faculty, and staff to ensure transparency of the reopening process?
  • How will the University prevent undergraduate students from spreading the virus by socializing? Particularly as students return to campus in under two months?
  • Why are undergraduate students coming back to campus at all if most classes are going to be online? And why were graduate students not consulted at all regarding this decision?
  • How will in-person classes affect graduate teaching assistants, not only in STEM departments, but campus-wide?

Cases of COVID-19 will inevitably rise on campus in the coming weeks as the state continues to reopen. Illinois has seen a measurable increase in daily statewide case counts, rivaling numbers observed in early June. Therefore, time is of the essence. We demand prompt incorporation of the following actions into Northwestern’s on-campus case response:

  • An explanation for the deliberate misinformation of the Northwestern community regarding withholding of information about 21 COVID-19 cases since the June 1st lab reopening. Northwestern administrators explained during the first NU return to campus discussion series event that the website was taken down to protect individual privacy when there were limited people on campus, but the case tracker was taken down at the end of May when hundreds of graduate researchers were about to return to campus the next week. Thus, we find this previous explanation inadequate.
  • Prompt public announcement of COVID-19 case information to neighboring departments/buildings as it arises.
  • Disclosure of case-specific location and time information to yield a small degree of control to the community over contact-tracing.
  • Creation of an easily accessible information disclosure portal that infected individuals can opt into if they so choose. Members of the Northwestern community should be able to monitor this webpage/mobile app to ascertain if they have interacted in any degree with the infected individual(s). Privacy and individual autonomy should still be maintained to ensure that no retaliatory behavior could result in someone sharing a non-consenting individual’s personal information. This sort of portal should be administered through the University to ensure only consenting sick individuals can input information. We note that Germany’s global and open-access application allows users to contact trace without divulging any personal information besides their health status. 
  • Review of the decision to bring undergraduates back to campus, taking into account graduate students whose concerns have largely been ignored. We understand that faculty did have an opportunity to fill out a survey to express their opinions, but graduate students did not. Additionally, during the Northwestern Return to Campus Discussion Series, all graduate student concerns have been ignored despite repetitive questioning of university officials. We recommend a survey to gather mass opinions from the NU community that includes the voices of service-workers, graduate students, and postdocs. 
  • Review of the University definition of essential work, to ensure that only truly essential work is continued if quarantine restrictions are set up again.
  • Third-party oversight of departmental compliance to return to research guidelines, independent of departments and VPR. Relying on departments to self-police compliance is ineffective given that many violations are not being reported due to fear of retaliation.

We are appalled by the apparent disregard for public health the university has displayed while handling the COVID-19 pandemic on campus. The issues we discussed erode our confidence in Northwestern to combat the spread of the virus and lead us to believe that the university prioritizes financial profits over students’ health. If our questions and demands are not addressed, we predict avoidable numbers of on-campus COVID-19 cases and deaths, unnecessary burdens on community mental health, decreased confidence in on-campus safety, diminished research productivity, unnecessary breaches of privacy through circulation of rumors, and long-lasting impacts on Northwestern’s reputation. This university could not function without graduate workers conducting research and pursuing degrees. As such, graduate students deserve the same protections promised to undergraduates.

III. Lack of response to previous NUGW, CoalitionNU, NU Community Not Cops, and Compass Workers demands

Although this letter is primarily targeted towards the protection and safety of STEM graduate workers, faculty, and staff who work in STEM departments, we note that the University’s failures reflect a broader and unacceptable negligence towards the most marginalized workers and students in the Northwestern community. 

NUGW has repeatedly called for policies that would meaningfully support graduate workers whose fieldwork and research timelines have been indefinitely delayed, who are now primary caregivers and cannot make progress on their degrees, and/or who are themselves immunocompromised and must quarantine indefinitely. Notably, NUGW has called for a blanket one-year extension in funding for all graduate workers (which, despite their protestations, the University can afford), subsidized health insurance for dependents, and paid leave policies that do not place the burden of providing documentation in order to be accessed on sick or grieving individuals. While STEM graduate researchers often do not have the same funding challenges as those in the humanities and social sciences, we are in unequivocal solidarity with the demands of all graduate workers at Northwestern, including a universal one year of funding to account for unavoidable research disruptions. We note too that TGS’s recent extension of milestones for graduate workers without funding attached is an inadequate response. 

We know that the university has recently offered six months of paid medical leave of absence to provide students time away from campus to treat physical or mental health conditions that prevent them from successfully completing their studies. This funding will not affect the five years of guaranteed funding promised to PhD students. While we welcome this change, as it will provide some much-needed relief to many students who previously had to take medical leave without any form of financial support, we contend that the paid MLOA remains a narrow and insufficient response to the challenges that graduate students face during a pandemic. As stated on the MLOA website, “each leave is individualized based on the needs of the student and handled on a case-by-case basis.” But we know that the individualization of university aid, which relies on the discretion of the Dean of Students Office, leads to the intensification of already existing race, gender, and class disparities. We note too that receiving a paid MLOA still requires students to vacate University housing, which is unnecessarily disruptive and may discourage students from pursuing MLOA if they have no other living arrangements. Further, the extension of the MLOA suggests that graduate students are only worthy of support for delayed research timelines if they get seriously ill with COVID-19 or another illness — effectively waiting for students to contract coronavirus rather than offering them support upfront. Such an assumption overlooks the fact, articulated by NUGW on numerous occasions, that the challenges faced by graduate students during a pandemic are not limited to health problems that would qualify under an MLOA. A better, more equitable, and more comprehensive form of support would be to provide a universal one year of funding to all graduate students, regardless of their health status, and to require more equitable accommodations in labs so that every graduate worker has an equal opportunity to make research progress.

Further, Compass dining workers rallied to demand compensation for wages lost during the campus shutdown that were promised by the university, yet never delivered. Instead, the university has chosen to fire many of these workers who do not have other means of income during a global pandemic and unemployment crisis. That this news comes as federal unemployment is set to expire this weekend is doubly cruel. We condemn this action from the University, who is choosing to hoard its $11 billion dollar endowment and million-dollar administrative salaries rather than pay its workers, many of whom do not have savings or alternative financial support to rely on. This decision to lay off workers, who are primarily Black and Brown, rather than pay them reveals the University’s alleged commitment to racial justice to be nothing more than empty words. We encourage all who are able to donate to these laid off workers via Student Organizing for Labor Rights’ venmo account, @solr_nu. 

Lastly, but not least, we stand in solidarity with the 8,000 community members who signed a petition developed by Black undergraduate and graduate students, including NUGW, Coalition NU, and For Members Only, that urged Northwestern to invest in Black students and divest from law enforcement. Sadly, these demands have been consistently ignored by administration, who have instead come unprepared to meetings with Black undergraduate and graduate students. We note that if President Schapiro is actually committed to “opposing anti-Blackness,” as he has previously stated, the University must defund, disband, and divest from one of the most thoroughly anti-Black institutions: the police. Vacuous calls for “reform” are not enough, the University must invest in Black students and divest from law enforcement now. 

We thank you for listening to us and our concerns and hope you will respond to our demands in a timely fashion. We look forward to working with you to preserve public health at Northwestern.


Northwestern University Graduate Workers