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We should have a voice in the University’s COVID response

Demands for a democratic approach to University decision-making this semester

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion section, click here.

On Nov. 24, President Eisgruber ’83 unilaterally announced that students would be invited back to campus for the spring semester. While returning to campus might be a good solution to the isolation many students have reported feeling throughout this pandemic, the cost of this return could be very high for all.

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With New Jersey leading the nation in COVID-19 deaths per capita, everyone in town and on campus could feel the health and other impacts of the sudden physical return of thousands of undergraduates and graduates. Despite this risk, we — the workers, staff, faculty, students, and residents — were not adequately consulted on this decision or its implementation.

Let us be clear. We do not oppose the return of the students. What we want is an end to the unilateral manner in which the University makes decisions on matters concerning the entire community.

The decision to bring back the students is yet another measure the University has taken behind closed doors. The people who will be most affected by students’ return to campus — faculty, staff, townspeople, other students — had no seat at the table, much less a vote, even though it will be us who will endure the consequences. Most especially affected may be the under- or uninsured who will suffer without recourse the consequences of increased COVID-19 propagation risk.

This is nothing new: the select few on the University Board of Trustees and the top administrators of the University make decisions daily in the proverbial orange bubble. But Princeton University has a deep impact on municipal affairs by the sheer weight of its demographic and physical presence. The University is not at all insulated from the town, and its actions and decisions inevitably impact the well-being of community members and place a strain on municipal resources. And yet, the town still has no effective say in the decisions made by the University. This is fundamentally antidemocratic and, at this juncture, a grave health risk to the community. The fact that the University consults municipal authorities does not render its actions any less anti-democratic.

The University required students to quarantine upon arrival — a necessary step. But they did not need to test negative or isolate before coming to campus. While only 12 of the University’s first 3,300 asymptomatic tests for undergraduates came back positive, many students are still moving in, and a mass influx of people who might be COVID-19 positive puts everybody at risk, especially University workers tending to students’ needs. With $26 billion in its endowment, which does not include the value of its vast real estate and other holdings, the University is in an exceptional position to mobilize its extraordinary logistical, scientific, and financial resources to expand and extend COVID-19 testing and care to the residents of the town for free.

University officials note that its testing license only allows for on-campus testing. Municipal authorities do not seem inclined to challenge this excuse. But we are: with its vast legal and financial resources, we believe the University could very well apply for and obtain the necessary licenses to serve the broader community and take proper responsibility for the increased propagation of COVID-19 the return of its students could trigger.

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In order to set itself up as a testing site, Princeton needs to have their lab certified under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) and licensed by the state — they have met both requirements, neither of which require testing to be restricted to any particular demographic.

In an email to one of the authors of this piece, a University spokesperson Mike Hotchkiss stated that the institution elected to use saliva samples based on a recommendation from medical staff and went to “the only partner” that could provide the technology and know-how to quickly build and obtain government approval for the lab. The University’s license, or contract, with this company is what restricts their ability to provide testing in town, he added.

We do not accept the University’s rationale, and we believe they can and must sidestep this issue. Even after having signed a contract with this entity, the institution could still pay for convenient and free testing to the whole town through a different third party. This University prides itself on leadership. They should lead, then. Show the nation how a responsible institution extends its COVID-19 resources, including vaccines, to the working-class communities its decisions affect so much.

What the people of Princeton need from the University as it brings back its students cannot simply be compensated by “voluntary contributions,” the latest of which is $7 million to be spread out over two years and which the city government has gladly accepted. It is not enough, and we do not find it acceptable. Princeton University should be paying a full tax obligation commensurate with its total wealth and taking full fiscal and health responsibility for the presence of its students on campus and in town by extending all its COVID-19 capabilities and care to the town.

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Instead, on Dec. 14, the University mentioned the creation of a volunteer “community walk program” to help ensure its returning students living in town comply with COVID-19 social restrictions and sanitary measures. This is hardly a solution. On the contrary, it risks spreading unjust policing practices. Given the lack of details released surrounding the program since the Princeton Council meeting during which it was mentioned, we fear a scenario where anybody could be stopped and interrogated about their activities whether they are Princeton students or not. Stop-and-Frisk is already the norm across the board among the police and campus security firms. How will “community walk” be different? 

Princeton students also share in the responsibility toward the community that serves them every day. They should be mobilizing for the well-being of the staff, faculty, and the most vulnerable residents of this town. Students are uniquely protected from many of the punitive or retaliatory measures the University could inflict on other members of the campus community. As such, Princeton undergraduate and graduate students are especially well-placed to use their privilege to stick up for voices that are more easily silenced. Fighting with and for those who make their elevated statuses possible is what true public service would look like.

Thus, as the move-in period comes to an end and classes get underway, this mass arrival of thousands of people from all over the country and the world presents increased COVID-related risks for all who live, work, or study in Princeton. None of those affected have been asked for their vote in the matter. As a result, the Princeton Anti-Austerity Coalition (PAAC) has joined forces with Unidad Latina en Acción-New Jersey (ULA-NJ), Princeton Mutual Aid (PMA), and Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU) to demand that Princeton University execute the following immediately:

  • Expand the University’s COVID-19 testing and healthcare capacity and open it to all residents of the town of Princeton for free, regardless of legal status.
  • Make all major University COVID-19 health and safety decisions democratic, with an individual voice and vote for all University workers, staff, faculty, and students.
  • Convoke joint and public town and University assemblies of representatives democratically elected from both entities to discuss and decide all University COVID-19 health and safety measures affecting the residents of the town of Princeton.

The students are not the problem. The problem is the lack of true responsibility on the part of Princeton University for their and our well-being. By meeting these demands, President Eisgruber and the Trustees can resolve this situation.

Marc Schorin, on behalf of the Princeton Anti-Austerity Coalition (PAAC), which can be reached at PAAcoalition@gmail.com.

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