Why does it feel like the administration does not value graduate students when making pandemic-related decisions?

Date: August 2020


Dear Deans,

Why does it feel like the administration does not value graduate students when making pandemic-related decisions?

It’s becoming increasingly frustrating that the university keeps emphasizing how they need to “control our behavior” and they will do so by means of threatening expulsion. We were put in a position where we have no options and no voice.

We weren’t allowed to leave the county and now we’re being treated like we’re 17-18 years old leaving home for the first time. We don’t have the same leverage to threaten withholding tuition by taking a semester off and we don’t have labor organizations to fight for our rights. As students/employees it seems like we always get the short end of both.

We already “reactivated” since we couldn’t leave but now we’re being forced to “re-enter”. If these policies are truly “based on scientific analysis” then why aren’t all Cornell community members required to take a re-entry test, complete the re-entry training, and sign a behavioral contract under the threat of dismissal without appeal? “The best available science” suggests that the prevalence of asymptotic cases in faculty/staff is over DOUBLE that of the (mostly) grad students tested so far (2/983 compared to 3/3208 from the Aug. 4th testing update).

Why are we, as grad students, held to different standards than both students and employees? We don’t need to be intimidated into complying. There are many more examples where it feels like the university is ignoring or actively working against us during already difficult circumstances.


A Student and/or Employee


Dear A Student and/or Employee,

Thank you for your Ask a Dean question. I’m sorry to know that you feel that the Cornell administration does not value graduate students when making pandemic-related decisions. Particularly with so much emphasis in various communications and announcements regarding the experiences of and preparations for Cornell undergraduates, I understand it can feel like graduate and professional students are undervalued. I am not a member of any of the designated reactivation or planning committees, but I sometimes can participate in discussions about their work and deliberations, so I have at least some insights into decision-making processes. Concerns related to graduate and professional students are regularly brought up in those deliberations, recognizing the complexities of graduate/professional student experiences.

Graduate and professional students’ experiences and needs are often more complicated, and sometimes quite a bit more complicated, than those of the typical undergraduate student. Although many professional degree students’ experiences may be largely related to completing courses similar to the general undergraduate course-focused experience, research degree graduate students may only focus their first couple of years on completing courses with later years largely or only devoted to research and scholarship, and pandemic-related challenges differ based on those roles. Often research and scholarship is also a part of their early years as well. Research degree students were very deliberately and thoughtfully included in Cornell’s research reactivation processes and permissions and many research degree graduate students eagerly sought and received approvals to conduct research on campus, access curbside library resources, and be approved to conduct certain types of field work in areas away from campus that were deemed safe enough given COVID-19 concerns. Undergraduates were not included in those research reactivation processes.

While some professional degree students may only be enrolled and living in the Ithaca area for one year, many research degree students may live in the area for five to seven years or more, and so often Ithaca becomes their permanent, year-round residence. But for other research degree students, after they complete their coursework, their research and scholarship often takes them far afield from Ithaca, sometimes with global travels, and then back to Ithaca again. So pandemic planning and travel guidelines try to account for this, prohibiting undergraduate student travel for Cornell-related purposes, but allowing graduate/professional students to travel domestically or internationally for Cornell-related essential purposes by petition.

All students, undergraduate, graduate, and professional, are required to participate in an initial testing (called “arrival” testing for simplicity in nomenclature, but communications have acknowledged that many students may already be living in Ithaca, particularly year-round as a permanent residence for many graduate students). All students, and faculty and staff who are approved to spend any time on campus, will be required to participate in regular surveillance testing, but the frequency of testing will likely differ based on the population (e.g., undergraduates may be required to undergo more frequent surveillance testing than faculty, staff, or research degree students who are largely or only working remotely from home). Final plans and requirements for surveillance testing are anticipated to be announced this week. I expect that you will see some nuances related to research degree graduate students in those requirements, although I have not seen the final plan.

All faculty, staff, and research degree graduate students who were approved to reactivate with campus-based work, no matter the frequency, were required to complete a COVID-19 training. The content was likely somewhat different from the re-entry training for students (I have not seen the student training), but having completed the faculty/staff training, I can attest that re-entry training was required and delivered.

As for trying to compare the prevalence of COVID-19 in graduate student vs. employee populations, I caution your reliance too much on only the reported results from Surveillance Testing. Keep in mind that Surveillance Testing is intended for asymptomatic individuals, to allow early identification of individuals unknowingly harboring the virus. That, and arrival testing, are the tests that are administered on campus (not through Cornell Health nor the Cayuga Medical Center’s (CMC) station at the Shops at Ithaca Mall). However, Testing for Cause is for any individuals, including students, who feel ill with COVID-19-type symptoms or have reason to suspect they may be at risk for having become infected with COVID-19. Those For Cause tests are conducted by appointment at Cornell Health or through the CMC testing location at Ithaca Mall. Results from those For Cause tests are not included in Cornell’s reporting of the results of Surveillance Testing, but they are included in the results reported by Tompkins County Health Department. Basing your conclusions about COVID-19 prevalence among any population, or comparing the prevalence among graduate students vs. faculty/staff, would be inaccurate if only based on Surveillance Testing data.

I hope these examples provide some additional perspectives regarding how the different circumstances for graduate/professional students are considered in the various analyses and decisions Cornell leadership is making to navigate these very challenging circumstances. I continue to advocate for thoughtful consideration of the needs of graduate and professional students in the reactivation discussions in which I am invited to participate.

I hope the start of the semester goes well for you.

Warm regards,


Barbara A. Knuth
Dean of the Graduate School