The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Vanderbilt graduate students protest university’s Spring 2022 COVID-19 response

On Jan. 18, graduate students protested the university’s lack of remote and hybrid options as well as their testing protocols among other COVID-19 policy grievances.
Sam Stubbs
Vanderbilt graduate students and graduate workers gather at the Harold Stirling Vanderbilt statue to protest university COVID-19 policies on Jan. 18, 2021. (Hustler Staff/Sam Stubbs)

UPDATED: This story was updated at 5:10 p.m. CST to include coverage of students’ concerns on NewsChannel 5 as well as a response from the university.

On Jan. 18 at approximately 12 p.m. CST, around 25 graduate students gathered at the Harold Stirling Vanderbilt statue in front of Library Lawn to protest the university’s Spring 2022 COVID-19 policies. The protesters voiced concerns over a lack of hybrid and remote learning options, ambiguity in COVID-19 policies and a lack of adequate masking supplies. 

The protest was organized by second-year graduate student Nick Goodell and fifth-year graduate student Katie Larson, who were aided by third-year graduate student Lindsay Breidenbach, second-year Maxwell Hamilton and sixth-year Alexander Korsunsky. They were joined by other graduate students, many of whom are paid by the university as they work in research and teaching roles, per second-year graduate student Miguel Moravec.

Goodell, who is studying modern European history, specifically expressed discontent that graduate students and workers’ voices were excluded from discussions regarding COVID-19 policies. He specifically criticized a Town Hall hosted on Jan. 12 that was advertised as a discussion surrounding COVID-19 policies and a time for questions.   

“This was not a town hall; this was an information panel,” Goodell said. “They told us about decisions they had already made about our health and safety—decisions they made without us.”

Goodell, Larson and Breidenbach started an online petition on Jan. 14 that has accumulated 340 signatures as of print. The petition lists three major grievances: a lack of hybrid course options, the need for broader testing accessibility and a lack of clear guidelines for what happens when someone tests positive and how they are expected to keep up with their work.

“We commend the administration’s decision to provide three KN95 masks to all, but this is not enough to last us the whole semester,” Goodell said at the protest.

Furthermore, The Hustler obtained an email from an administrative assistant in the Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training that states that the office had not yet received any KN95 masks, but would communicate how best for students to collect them when they do.

Vanderbilt graduate students and graduate workers gather at the 2001 Grand Ave administration building to protest university COVID-19 policies on Jan. 18, 2021. (Hustler Staff/Sam Stubbs)

NewsChannel 5 Nashville reached out to the student protesters, and subsequently released a segment on Jan. 19 around 4:00 p.m. CST tonight addressing students’ concerns. They highlighted that hundreds of students have signed the petition and cited their concerns.

“They’ve asked administrators to offer accessible hybrid options for teaching and all other degree actives no questions asked,” reporter Levi Ismail said. “They also demand broader access to testing and K95 masks for those students who still have to meet in-person.”

Breidenbach, who suffers from asthma, spoke on the segment, reporting being denied hybrid learning options when she requested them. 

“I do matter, and they’re just not treating me like I matter,” Breindenbach said on the segment.

Ismail also stated he received a statement from Vanderbilt stating that they are doing they best to find solutions and highlighting that omicron is less severe of an illness.

“They feel that there’s less of a risk involved with in-person learning especially with vaccinated staff and students,” Ismail said.

The Hustler also received a response from the university, emphasizing the measures put in place to ensure safe in-person learning.

“While we understand that many members of our highly vaccinated campus community who test positive may remain asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms, we also must protect the most vulnerable in our community and the surrounding Nashville area, which is why we have taken a number of actions designed to continue in-person learning while making health and safety a priority,” the statement reads.

Numerous graduate students at the protest offered their own testimonies after Goodell’s speech. First-year graduate student Tricia Duke shared her concerns around the lack of hybrid and remote options for learning, teaching and other required activities for graduate students and workers. She also said she has a chronic illness that makes her more at risk for getting sick from COVID-19 if she were to contract it. 

“What I need the administration to understand is that I don’t only need to be able to stay home when I am sick; I need everybody else to be able to stay home when they are sick,” Duke said. “If we are going to continue to advocate for interdependence and community as a university, we can’t still pretend that health is an issue of individual responsibility amidst this pandemic.”

Wielding hard copies of their petition and posters bearing messages such as “We Need More KN95s,” “We Need Remote Options” and “Solidarity With Grad Labor,” the group marched to the university administration building at 2001 Grand Ave after the speeches.

Moravec, a second-year Ph.D. student studying Civil and Environmental Engineering and vice president of the Graduate Student Council (GSC), emphasized that the protesters hoped to have a conversation with administration members upon arriving at 2001 Grand Ave. However, per Moravec, upon arriving, an office assistant spoke with the protesters, informing them that there were no administrators available to speak to them as a majority of them were working remotely at the time.

“Clearly, additional dialogue is needed if over 300 community members are fearful for their health and skeptical of current policies around omicron,” Moravec said. “We will use every resource available to us in the GSC to organize a discussion between concerned student workers and Graduate Dean André Christie-Mizell.”

The protesters taped their petition, including signatures, to the front door of the building. As graduate students stepped up to the door, each taking their turn to tape a page, Moravec asked his colleagues, “What are you taping for?,” prompting them to speak on why they were present at the protest.

In response to this question, Vanderbilt graduate student Kathy Maxwell detailed that her father is in critical condition with COVID-19 and her mother-in-law and husband are both in high-risk categories. 

”I feel I am putting myself and family at risk,” Maxwell said. “We all want to be in class as safely as possible, but we don’t need the extra stress of risking safety, at least until more data is gathered.”

A virtual follow-up meeting to the protest will be hosted by Goodell and Larson on Jan. 19 at 6 p.m CST to discuss any administrative response their petition evokes and further updates to Vanderbilt’s COVID-19 situation.

Aaditi Lele and Katherine Oung contributed reporting to this piece.

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About the Contributors
Sam Stubbs
Sam Stubbs, Former Staff Writer
Sam Stubbs (‘24) is from Arlington Heights, Illinois, majoring in Human & Organizational Development and Communication of Science & Technology with a minor in Computer Science. He currently serves as a staff writer for the News section of The Hustler. In his free time, he enjoys building out his nonprofit startup, Chicago Beach CleanUp, rooting for the Chicago Sky and collecting vintage Vanderbilt streetwear. He can be reached at [email protected].
Charlotte Mauger
Charlotte Mauger, Staff Writer
Charlotte Mauger ('24) is a student in the College of Arts and Science majoring in public policy with a minor in French. When not writing for The Hustler, you can find her on FaceTime with her cats, watching movies or exploring all Nashville has to offer. You can reach her at [email protected].
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