Graduate students continue to protest university response to omicron variant

A crowd of about 20 alumni, students and members of the Vanderbilt community gathered outside Buttrick Hall on Jan. 26 to share their testimonies and demand KN95 masks and hybrid options from administrators.

Graduate student protest

Charlotte Mauger

Students protesting outside Buttrick Hall, as photographed on Jan. 26, 2022. (Hustler Staff/Charlotte Mauger)

Brina Ratangee and Jessica Barker

Approximately 20 Vanderbilt community members gathered outside of Buttrick Hall on Jan. 26 to continue protesting the administrative response to the omicron variant. Attendees held handmade signs reading “WE NEED MORE KN95’S,” “We Need Remote Options,” “My Health Your Wealth” and “Solidarity with Grad Labor,” while others gave speeches

Nick Goodell, Katie Larson and Lindsey Breidenbachsecond-, fifth- and third-year graduate students, respectivelystarted an online petition on Jan. 14 that has accumulated just under 500 signatures as of print. It calls for “accessible hybrid options,” “broader testing accessibility” and “clear and consistent” COVID-19 guidelines, particularly for teaching assistants and instructors who test positive. The Jan. 26 demonstration was prompted by administration’s response to the petition.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us all and continues to do so as we work to find the best solutions possible while taking into account a variety of diverse needs and perspectives,” a Jan. 21 email from the Office of the Chancellor addressed to Larson and other graduate students reads. “We have taken a number of actions designed to continue in-person learning while making health and safety a priority.”

Larson called the response from administrators “scripted,” adding that it was redundant “fluff” with no new substantial material. A number of graduate students, law students and alumni each took turns sharing their testimonies with the group of protestors. 

Miguel Moravec, vice president of the Graduate Student Council, said in his speech that administration’s response to the petition encouraged him to join the graduate student union’s initiative. 

“When 500 people asked for a meeting and Vanderbilt’s administration said no, I had to get involved,” Moravec said.

Larson also stated that, while Vanderbilt provided only three KN95 masks to students, peer institutions like Brown University are giving their students and employees 10 masks per month. In her speech before the crowd, she said Vanderbilt could afford to give more KN95 masks to the student body if they could afford to send copies of “A Year Like No Other” to many community members.

Chancey Herbolsheimer added that many graduate students have not received their KN95 masks because some departments are waiting on mask shipments and due to a “lack of communication” regarding the process of obtaining masks for graduate students.

“Even if we did all get masks, three is not enough for the entire semester,” Herbolsheimer said. “We should not be forced to withdraw and risk our health.”

Jane Hussain, an alumna of Peabody College, emphasized the threat of COVID-19 for the immunocompromised in a speech at the protest, sharing her battle with lupus. She stated that, during her time at Vanderbilt, she would characterize the administration as “remote and authoritarian,” traits she expressed seem to have remained over 50 years later. 

“It sounds like it’s still the same and I’m very sorry to hear that,” Hussain said. “I think that the administration should want to be seen as an example, not only in Nashville, but throughout the country. It has all these distinguished doctors that are always on television and telling everybody what the safe practices are. The fact that they’re not practicing those same safe practices should be a great embarrassment to Vanderbilt.”

Alex Kosrunsky, an anthropology doctoral candidate, concluded the event by saying in a speech that those who signed the petition would receive information about a follow-up Zoom event on Feb. 3 at 6:30 p.m. CST.

“Vanderbilt also told News Channel 5 that ‘omicron is a significantly less severe illness.’ This kind of nonchalant attitude towards people’s health is insular, as their blanket approach disregards all individual circumstances,” the Vandy Grad Workers United Jan. 21 press release reads. “One current student is experiencing heart complications after being infected with COVID-19. Another experienced asthma complications. Still others are concerned with exposing immunocompromised loved ones at home. Vanderbilt’s policy strips faculty and students of autonomy and ability to protect themselves.”

A spokesperson for the university stated there was not anything to add beyond what was shared in response to the Jan. 18 demonstration.

“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.