Harvard University: Stop Lobbying Congress for Corporate Immunity

Lawrence Bacow, President of Harvard University

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We demand that Harvard University agree to not lobby Congress for corporate immunity, oppose such lobbying, and refrain from requiring students to waive liability upon return to campus.

Some members of Congress have called for sweeping corporate immunity legislation that would make it nearly impossible for workers and consumers to sue corporations for COVID-19-related legal claims. [1] Two groups lobbying for this legislation are the American Council on Education (ACE) and the American Association of Universities (AAU), both of which Harvard University is a member. These industry groups are demanding that big employers, including colleges and universities, be alleviated of any liability for COVID-19-related harms suffered upon reopening.

AAU and ACE are lobbying for corporate immunity in Harvard's name—and, possibly, with Harvard's support. Harvard must state clearly and forcefully that it rejects, and will oppose, the abdication of responsibility sought by these lobbying groups.

The blanket immunity sought by these groups puts students’ and workers’ lives at risk by allowing Harvard to implement an unsafe reopening without being held responsible for doing so. [2] It would eradicate any legal incentive for Harvard to incorporate basic safety precautions, such as access to personal protective equipment or a self-quarantine protocol, for workers who will be on campus this fall. Such a shift will disproportionately impact Black and Brown workers, as Black and Brown residents of Massachusetts are 3 times more likely to be affected by the virus than white residents. [3] Additionally, while Harvard took an important step in supporting international students put in danger by recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidelines, those guidelines in combination with corporate immunity would make it legally and financially easier for Harvard to provide an unsafe campus option and place those students back in harm’s way. Any efforts to preempt liability with corporate immunity will destroy our trust in the University’s safety protocols.

Corporate lobbyists claim immunity is necessary to shield schools as they begin to reopen, but Harvard already enjoys favorable legal footing when being scrutinized for its actions. State tort law requires only that “reasonable care” be exercised in protecting students and workers from foreseeable harm, and successful suits require showing the school was more likely than not responsible for any harm suffered. [4] Blanket corporate immunity would bolster this already generous legal posture for Harvard, allowing it to:

  • Unreasonably fail to provide students and campus workers with PPE;

  • Create unreasonably dangerous social distancing policies on campus;

  • Unreasonably fail to trace and test campus community members after exposures

  • Impose unreasonable reentry policies for those recovering from COVID; and

  • Ignore clear, reasonable guidance from state or federal public health officials.

We call on Harvard University to:

  1. Not lobby for corporate immunity

  2. Demand the American Council on Education and American Association of Universities stop lobbying for corporate immunity, and

  3. Pledge to not require students to sign liability waivers in order to return to campus.

[1] Letter to Congress Opposing Business Immunity from COVID-19 Liability, Public Citizen (May 6, 2020), available at https://www.citizen.org/article/letter-to-congress-opposing-business-immunity/.

[2] Sejal Singh, Students Oppose Corporate Immunity for Universities and Employers During the COVID-19 Pandemic, People’s Parity Project (June 3, 2020), available at https://www.peoplesparity.org/opposecorporateimmunityforschools/.

[3] Kay Lazar and Christina Prignano, New data on state’s coronavirus cases, deaths show stark racial divide, Boston Globe (June 19, 2020), available at https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/06/19/nation/new-data-states-coronavirus-cases-deaths-show-stark-racial-divide/.

[4] See, e.g., Mullins v. Pine Manor Coll., 389 Mass. 47, 52 (Mass. 1983).



To: Lawrence Bacow, President of Harvard University
From: [Your Name]

Dear President Bacow,

We demand that Harvard University agree to not lobby Congress for corporate immunity, oppose such lobbying, and refrain from requiring students to waive liability upon return to campus.

Some members of Congress have called for sweeping corporate immunity legislation that would make it nearly impossible for workers and consumers to sue corporations for COVID-19-related legal claims. [1] Two groups lobbying for this legislation are the American Council on Education (ACE) and the American Association of Universities (AAU), both of which Harvard University is a member. These industry groups are demanding that big employers, including colleges and universities, be alleviated of any liability for COVID-19-related harms suffered upon reopening.

AAU and ACE are lobbying for corporate immunity in Harvard's name—and, possibly, with Harvard's support. Harvard must state clearly and forcefully that it rejects, and will oppose, the abdication of responsibility sought by these lobbying groups.

The blanket immunity sought by these groups puts students’ and workers’ lives at risk by allowing Harvard to implement an unsafe reopening without being held responsible for doing so. [2] It would eradicate any legal incentive for Harvard to incorporate basic safety precautions, such as access to personal protective equipment or a self-quarantine protocol, for workers who will be on campus this fall. Such a shift will disproportionately impact Black and Brown workers, as Black and Brown residents of Massachusetts are 3 times more likely to be affected by the virus than white residents. [3] Additionally, while Harvard took an important step in supporting international students put in danger by recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidelines, those guidelines in combination with corporate immunity would make it legally and financially easier for Harvard to provide an unsafe campus option and place those students back in harm’s way. Any efforts to preempt liability with corporate immunity will destroy our trust in the University’s safety protocols​.​​

Corporate lobbyists claim immunity is necessary to shield schools as they begin to reopen, but Harvard already enjoys favorable legal footing when being scrutinized for its actions. State tort law requires only that “reasonable care” be exercised in protecting students and workers from foreseeable harm, and successful suits require showing the school was more likely than not responsible for any harm suffered. [4] Blanket corporate immunity would bolster this already generous legal posture for Harvard, allowing it to:

- Unreasonably fail to provide students and campus workers with PPE;
- Create unreasonably dangerous social distancing policies on campus;
- Unreasonably fail to trace and test campus community members after exposures
- Impose unreasonable reentry policies for those recovering from COVID; and
- Ignore clear, reasonable guidance from state or federal public health officials.

We call on Harvard University to:
a) Not lobby for corporate immunity
b) Demand the American Council on Education and American Association of Universities stop lobbying for corporate immunity, and
c) Pledge to not require students to sign liability waivers in order to return to campus.

[1] Letter to Congress Opposing Business Immunity from COVID-19 Liability, Public Citizen (May 6, 2020), available at https://www.citizen.org/article/letter-to-congress-opposing-business-immunity/.
[2] Sejal Singh, Students Oppose Corporate Immunity for Universities and Employers During the COVID-19 Pandemic, People’s Parity Project (June 3, 2020), available at https://www.peoplesparity.org/opposecorporateimmunityforschools/.
[3] Kay Lazar and Christina Prignano, New data on state’s coronavirus cases, deaths show stark racial divide, Boston Globe (June 19, 2020), available at https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/06/19/nation/new-data-states-coronavirus-cases-deaths-show-stark-racial-divide/.
[4] See, e.g., Mullins v. Pine Manor Coll., 389 Mass. 47, 52 (Mass. 1983).