March 21, 2020
Last week, Stanford University announced that it would begin its Winter quarter on January 3 “with two weeks of online instruction” due to concerns over the Omicron variant. The following letter was emailed to a leader of the school by Jacob Reses, a student at Stanford Law School, on December 17. We are publishing it here, with minor edits for clarity and privacy, with his permission.
Dear [a senior Stanford administrator],
Thank you for informing us about Stanford’s decision to delay in-person instruction and giving us time to process this information. I have become extremely cynical about most institutional decision-making in America over the last two years, but I am not cynical about your leadership. On the issues of greatest importance to me, you have consistently demonstrated appreciation of a broad range of concerns from a broad range of voices. For that I remain grateful.
For my part, I am now planning, if personal circumstances and University policy allow it, to avoid Stanford in January and live my life in ways that are more personally fulfilling to me than moping around in a dorm room. I hope to travel somewhere warm, spend time with my aging parents, and live a lifestyle unencumbered by COVID restrictions to the fullest extent allowed under the law of whatever jurisdiction I decide to travel to. This plan is based on my strong view that we are extremely unlikely to return to in-person instruction on the timeline the University has laid out and that any return will involve restrictions on daily life that make it less worth living. Life is too short to be miserable.
For what it is worth, I got a booster shortly after the FDA approved it for those in my age and health profile. This is not about the University booster mandate.
Institutions like Stanford have consistently demonstrated sclerosis in their decision-making over the course of the pandemic. Public pressure to appear consistent and steadfast in their determination to reduce any COVID spread, bizarre COVID competition between elite institutions comparing themselves to each other to make sure they are not out of step with the latest consensus, and private pressure from the most risk-averse internal constituencies repeatedly overwhelm even the most sincere institutional desires to be nimble, respond to new data with revised attitudes, and return to some semblance of normalcy. I believe that Stanford and the law school do sincerely want to return to normal, but I do not believe that administrators have a plan to overwhelm this consistent pattern of bureaucratic policy lock-in.
Stanford’s preemptive announcement is useful for planning purposes, and I greatly appreciate that the University did not hide the ball, but the policy’s timing creates a predictable problem for the return the University claims will occur. There is a very good chance that in the two weeks of online instruction we will be experiencing either a national Omicron case spike or a regional spike contributed to in part by the travel that will bring students back to campus. I accept the University’s ostensible rationale for this timing — addressing logistical challenges related to travel, boosters, and potential travel-related quarantine for sick students, rather than committing to elimination of all COVID spread — at face value. But I do not accept that this rationale would remain operative in the midst of a case spike. COVID bureaucratic logic will likely set in if a spike occurs, whether just before we return to in-person class or whether the spike has already subsided by the time of the planned return, and the policy will be revised to give administrators more time to reduce spread. I expect at least one extension of several more weeks of online instruction, and perhaps several more extensions. I won’t be surprised if the entire quarter is online regardless of health outcomes, which I expect to be mostly mild given age profiles and universal vaccination of those in our community.
I also expect that Stanford will adopt flawed metrics to systematize its decision-making, as many local governments have done for the last two years. After a case spike, I expect an announcement that we need to wait for test positivity to reduce to some arbitrarily selected level before we can return to normal. I do not trust the University to properly consider whether such a threshold is achievable or accurately reflects the trajectory of any surge we may experience. I also do not trust the University to revise its thinking if the health risks posed by Omicron turn out to be low despite high infectivity.
Finally, I fear that these measures will be accompanied by a variety of arbitrary NPIs [non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as closures and masking –Ed.] that will make my day-to-day life worse. Will I be able to access the gym, which is essential in providing structure to my daily schedule and maintaining the habits that keep me in good health? Will I be allowed to see friends at restaurants and bars? What of Shabbat dinner? And when will I be allowed to live, as I can in Washington, D.C. this month (for now), without wearing a mask whenever I am indoors? I am 31 years old, and I do not want to feel like I am being monitored and punished like a teenager for making my own decisions about how to live my life. I do not trust Stanford or county public health officials to protect my right to live my life as I see fit or respect me as an adult to make such choices.
So I do not want to move my life to California again with the knowledge of these uncertainties. I did not want to do it at the start of Fall Quarter because I had all these reservations about that return to in-person instruction. You and your colleagues surprised me by keeping to your word, and I am sincerely grateful for that. I fear you will not be able to do so this time in the face of a highly infectious, vaccine-piercing variant that appears to produce mostly mild illness and poses no significant threat to my health.
Thank you, truly, for your efforts to return us to normal. I hope that you receive this message in the spirit that it is intended, and I will pray for you and your colleagues to act with the wisdom that is needed to account for the dynamics I have described and commit the University to a course of action it can successfully execute, internal politics be damned.
Best wishes for a Happy New Year.
‘Life is too short to be miserable’