June 04, 2020

At HELP Hearing, Senator Warren Questions University Presidents on How to Safely Reopen Campuses & Address Risks to Low Wage & Hourly Workers

Senator Warren Urges University Leaders to Commit to Include Both Faculty & Staff in Campus Decision-Making

Senator Warren Also Criticizes the American Council on Education's  Call for COVID-19 Liability Protections -- Says Universities are Already Protected When They Appropriately Prioritize the Health & Safety of Students & Staff 

Video of Hearing Exchange (YouTube)

Washington, D.C. - In a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing today, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned the presidents of higher education institutions on how to safely reopen colleges and universities this fall. Senator Warren urged the witnesses to consider the health and safety of faculty and staff in any decisions to reopen campuses, and pushed back on proposals to enact temporary COVID-19-related liability protections for higher education institutions and systems.

The full transcript and video of her exchange with the hearing witnesses is available below.

Transcript: Senator Warren Questions University Presidents on How to Safely Reopen Campuses & Address Risks to Low Wage & Hourly Workers
Thursday, June 4, 2020
U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Video (YouTube)

SENATOR WARREN: Thank you Mr. Chairman. I want to start if I can by quickly thanking Ranking Member Murray for her comments acknowledging what's happening in our country. We can't ignore the racist violence that has killed George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and so many, many others. We must commit ourselves to change and using this committee as well as others to advance anti-racist policies in health, in education, and for workers, including today's hearing about re-opening colleges. You know, millions of families, millions of students across this country are wondering when and how colleges are gonna safely re-open and I know this is a hard question that's going to vary from campus to campus. But President Daniels, you wrote a recent op-ed entitled, "Why Failing to Re-open Purdue University This Fall Would Be An Unacceptable Breach of Duty." So your op-ed makes it sound like you have already decided that you're going to re-open no matter what comes this fall. And in that op-ed, you discuss how you're going to mitigate risks to undergraduate students but I noticed that there's almost no discussion of addressing risks to workers or faculty who tend to be older and more at risk. Nothing about the risks to low wage workers or hourly workers, workers who are often Black or brown. These workers are responsible for serving the food in the dining halls and cleaning the dorms and classrooms and keeping your campus running. They are particularly vulnerable and they have the least power and they are getting sick at disproportionate rates. So President Daniels, Purdue has nearly 17,000 employees, nearly half are staff who won't be able to work normally this fall. They might get sick; they might need to take care for a loved one; they might have small children that need care. Or because of their age or pre-existing health conditions, they may not feel safe coming onto a college campus during a pandemic. So I just want to know, have you laid out publicly a plan for these workers?

MITCH DANIELS: Well thank you Senator.

SENATOR WARREN: Actually, just to ask specifically, do you agree to continue paying them if they can't come to work or if they decide it's too risky to show up for work?

MR. DANIELS: Well thank you for -- I'm so glad you asked the question cause -- first of all, you could not have better expressed our entire philosophy and strategy. I don't know if you were here for the opening presentation but I enunciated it then and our entire strategy is built around the protection of the vulnerable and that starts with faculty and staff. Starting next week, we will have one to one visits with our faculty to try to figure out what they're -- we have a grid that attempts to estimate their degree of vulnerability. There's some that we don't want near campus at all. We will make an accommodation for but --

SENATOR WARREN: So if I could just understand -- I'm sorry, I'm just gonna be limited on time here. If I can just understand, you haven't put out a plan publicly and it sounds like you haven't worked one out but you're planning to work it out one on one with your employees? Is that right?

MR. DANIELS: Our plan is entirely based on the protection of the vulnerable and that will include trying to make individual accommodations for those about whom we have the most concern---

SENATOR WARREN: Let me just stay on this. I was asking about whether or not you have already laid out a plan and I take the answer on that as no because --

MR. DANIELS: No, the answer of course is yes. It's very comprehensive and I ---

(cross talk)

SENATOR WARREN: I just hadn't seen it publicly. I just hadn't seen this plan laid out, because my question is really about who has power and who has a voice in these decisions. You know, best practices are best practices only if everyone is at the table who's going to be affected when those plans are being laid out. So, I just want to move on for the time being, but I'll follow up in writing to try to get public commitments that going forward you're going to include both faculty and staff at the table and that you're going to explain about how this is going to intersect with their pay and how you safely reopen this campus. 

Dr. Paxson, I want to stay on the topic of power and accountability. In addition to being the president of Brown University, you're also the Vice Chair of the Board for the Association of American Universities, which signed a letter last week from the American Council on Education--which is the very powerful college lobby--urging Congress to "quickly enact temporary COVID-19-related liability protections for higher education institutions and systems." 

Now, Dr. Paxson, as you know, current law imposes liability only when the college has behaved unreasonably under all the circumstances. The law does not impose automatic liability when somebody gets sick or even when somebody dies. Instead, it's liability only when, for example, in a pandemic, a college doesn't take reasonable efforts to clean up common spaces or to separate desperately sick students. So, when colleges lobby to change that standard and to take away from it, even if they are extraordinarily careless with the lives of their students, even if these colleges take completely unreasonable risks, even if someone dies, what message does it send to our families and our students? You know, would it make you more comfortable or less comfortable as the parent of an incoming student? 

CHAIRMAN ALEXANDER: Dr. Paxson, we're well over time, but you take whatever time you need to answer that question. 

DR. PAXSON: Thank you very much. I do not want protection from being careless. That is not what we're about, and if we are careless, if we don't follow guidelines, that's something that should not be protected in any way, shape, or form. The fact is, though, we are in a brand new pandemic. We've never seen this before. We're in uncharted territory. I think many institutions are very nervous that even if they play by the rules scrupulously, that they will still be subject to class-action lawsuits, lawsuits--they'll probably prevail, if they've done them right--but the cost of defending those lawsuits will take money away from tuition, financial aid--not from tuition, from financial aid--and all of the support that we provide for our students. So, I am in favor of very carefully crafted liability protection that in no way, shape, or form, permits us to be careless with people's lives. 

CHAIRMAN ALEXANDER: Thank you, thank you, Senator Warren. 

(cross talk)

SENATOR WARREN: If I can, I just want to ask unanimous consent, Mr. Chairman, to enter statements for the record on this issue from Americans for Financial Reform, the Student Borrower Protection Center, Public Citizen, American Association for Justice, and Georgetown Law Professor David Vladeck. The public should know that a college, just like any institution, has to behave reasonably. That's what the law requires. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.