Universities Are Still Gambling With Students’ Lives

Across the country, institutions have made it clear they value tuition dollars over public safety.

I was on spring break when news of the coronavirus in the United States began. How strange to think of the ways I was once allowed to exist in public spaces. Speculation and anxiety quickly mounted; with the quick rise of cases, would I have to return to school? Some schools shut down quickly and told their students to not return from spring break. The concept of returning to school was horrifying to me. I was with my girlfriend in a different state, and we are both disabled. I knew from my social media feed that a slew of people had spent their vacation in Europe, and many had been in places like Spain where the virus had already taken hold. 

With so many other top schools shutting down I assumed that my school, Vanderbilt University, would follow suit. I was wrong. Instead we returned to campus, only to be told to go home days later. Students were given five days to vacate campus, and those that couldn’t had to figure out how to advocate for their right to stay. What followed the order to return home was a litany of confusion. Would we get refunds? (Sort of.) How would classes look? (Quickly thrown together.) Would tuition be lowered? (No, and in the summer it increased!) Students were begging for information, crafting petitions and emails to administrators in order to get some understanding of what was going to happen with our $52,070-per-year education. We got few answers. The editorial board of Vanderbilt’s student newspaper, The Hustler, even published an article—“Vanderbilt, talk to us. Please.”—detailing their failed attempts to get answers from administrators. The months of confusion continued into the fall semester, and then on to the spring. 

Each passing week brings new decisions from the administration. Recently they have: shut down a student-run meal donation group; denied a pass/fail option for the fall semester, and then extended pass/fail for the spring only because of teaching staff’s insistence; created extra in-class study days instead of giving days off; charged students for winter housing for the first time ever; and have routinely ignored different student initiatives such as graduate student unionizing and divestment from fossil fuels. With so many changes being announced, every day is spent wondering what the future holds for my undergraduate education.

As a current college student at one of the top 20 universities in America, I have seen the ramifications of COVID on secondary education first hand. For college students, this was exacerbated by the mixed messages they received from their respective schools. While dealing with loss of income, family illness and death, and other life-changing events, students were also left to advocate for their education. Students were displaced, forced to quickly leave their college residences and inadvertently bring the virus home. The quality of education lowered significantly as classes that weren’t designed to be online were hastily modified to meet virtual learning requirements. Disabled students were and continue to be left behind with requested accommodations ignored. Regardless of how poorly things are going in the world, colleges are still prioritizing the bottom line. 

In his 2011 book The Fall of Faculty, Johns Hopkins University political science professor Benjamin Ginsberg argues that universities today are becoming increasingly controlled by administrators and staffers, many of whom “do very little besides collecting checks and engaging in make-work activities that siphon off resources from potentially more productive uses.” Make-work activities are essentially just busywork, or tasks that only exist to keep someone busy. Ginsberg goes on to explain how the shift occurred in higher education: before the 1980s and 1990s people understood the management model of higher education, whether public or private, as something that operated differently than the management of business. “As recently as the 1960s and 1970s,” says Gingberg “America’s universities were heavily influenced, if not completely driven, by faculty ideas and concerns,” but as time went on, administrators transferred more power to themselves by increasing their numbers. With a faculty-guided staff, even top administrators (usually drawn from faculty) would require support from teachers for management decisions. With more administrators than professors, administrators can afford to ignore the faculty’s opinions.

While you might expect to see this trend of increasing administration at private universities, state-funded institutions are also increasing their numbers of executive staff while only marginally increasing faculty numbers. The line between public and private is increasingly blurred as public universities often only have partial funding coming from the state, relying on greater percentages of tuition and fees to complete their budgets. While administrative staff can receive six-figure salaries, teaching staff often don’t receive a living wage. Those who can be considered faculty at all are relatively lucky in the world of academia. Adjunct professors only carry the name professor as a courtesy; they don’t receive the benefits that full-time, tenure track professors do. Adjunct professors may earn less than $2,000 per course, and a 2020 survey found that 1/3 of adjuncts earn less than $25,000 per year, without benefits—which is itself a fraction of the average tenured professor’s salary.

It seems that colleges care more about their academic prestige and the profit gained from donors, investments, and the student body than anything else. That is why in the face of a pandemic, universities across the country decided to make their students return to campus. Financial concerns were a deciding factor in reopening and offering in-person classes. Reporting for the Chronicle of Higher Education after speaking to different college finance employees, senior writer Scott Carlson concluded: “Knowing the financial details of programs — what drives revenue and expenses, and how those factors might be tweaked to maximize net revenue, will be a key step toward a fall opening.” The focus on finance is no surprise, considering those who have monetary interest in higher education. There are a multitude of billionaires and millionaires who control the way campuses operate, via administrative groups like regents or Boards of Trustees that have no accountability to students. 

For example, consider Vanderbilt. Some of the titles held by Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust include: owner of the Minnesota Vikings, CEO of American Airlines, CEO of NASDAQ, CEO of UFC, President of Ithaca College, founding engineer of Facebook. With these titles comes wealth up to the billions, so one might think that the trustees and their money would have a notable presence on campus. They do not. If I were to ask my peers to name a single board member, I don’t think most could. Even for those who are aware of the board members’ identities, there is no way for students to have a dialogue with them. Even the student government, the student group with the most power, does not have a direct dialogue with the board. In order to enact change, they must draft and pass resolutions, and even after that the administration gets to decide what happens overall. When tuition is increased, or the school budget is being decided, or say a new Chancellor/President/Divine Leader is being chosen, it is the board who decides it, with little to no input from students.

Again, consider Vanderbilt. When our previous chancellor stepped down, a search committee of Vanderbilt board members was formed, and Vanderbilt community members (e.g. students and their parents) were allowed to offer their opinion. The number one trait Vanderbilt community members desired was diversity. The person chosen for the job? A white business and management academic named Daniel Diermeier, whose CV includes fun tidbits such as a research interest in “reputation management” and a presentation given to America’s Health Insurance Plans executives entitled “Winning Back Public Trust.” Notably, before he came to Vanderbilt, Dieremeier was the Provost of the University of Chicago who earned the hatred of community members after he refused to recognize its graduate student union.

Universities attempt to convey that they care deeply about their students’ opinions, even if many of their actions say the opposite. They form committees on student issues, increase focus on diversity and inclusion initiatives and attempt to bolster unity through school spirit. However, these efforts should be taken with a grain of salt as they hide other, less appealing, actions by administrators. 

Many schools, including Vanderbilt, showed their true colors in spring 2020 when they forced students to leave campus on short notice, then refused to distribute fair and full refunds for unused housing and meal plan costs. Some schools, like NYU, gave prorated refunds—I didn’t know what this meant either, until I didn’t get one. Merriam-Webster defines prorated refunds as those that are distributed proportionately “to reflect the amount of time that is less than the full amount included in an initial agreement.” My own school, and others like Cornell and Auburn, decided against issuing prorated refunds for school costs such as housing and tuition, citing remaining overhead costs and the need to scale refunds based on financial aid status. Students like myself who receive need-based financial aid (which is determined at Vanderbilt by factors like income, family size, and family assets) then received a much smaller housing refund—so those who needed it most received less. Vanderbilt students were told repeatedly that funds were available, but only one additional $350 need-based payment was offered for the spring 2020 semester. $350 is not even half the price of a typical international plane ticket. Without fast and full refunds, students without extra money to cover a last-minute flight and groceries for a few weeks were left to find their own ride home and pay for all of their food themselves. 

The choices colleges made in the spring had greatly affected student’s decisions whether or not to return to campus in the fall, but many students had little choice. For many students, university-provided housing and meal plans provide the cheapest (or only) shelter and food they can get. International students at my school were required to quarantine for 14 days in the U.S. prior to arriving on campus. Most international students don’t have families they can crash with in their college’s city.

International students aren’t the only students facing housing insecurity. According to a 2018 survey from Temple University and Wisconsin HOPE Lab, over 36 percent of all college students and 46 percent of community college students were housing insecure. With homelessness skyrocketing nationwide, more students than ever depend on universities for reliable housing. Students without homes and those with food insecurity rely on in-person learning to have their basic needs met, and are forced to return to campus at the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Another issue is access to on-campus resources. Students need computers for online school, and many students use computers on campus, as not all students can afford their own computer. 

The unprecedented times are even more complicated for students with underlying health conditions who are more at risk for coronavirus. These students had to choose to either risk illness for in-person learning or attend classes remotely. Disabled students have long been fighting for schools to give more comprehensive accommodations and policies, yet it took a pandemic and the needs of able-bodied people for those accommodations to materialize. Online learning fulfilled one of the requests that many disabled students have had for years: offer asynchronous options. Mandatory attendance is an ableist part of so many college courses, but with students all over the globe, many professors were forced to record lectures so they could be viewed at different times—some still decided not to, though.   

It is great that schools are now being forced to focus on accessibility, but what makes something accessible is different for everyone. Aspects of online learning are beneficial for disabled people, such as the ability to attend class from home. However, online learning cannot provide students with the same resources as in-person learning and offers other, new challenges for disabled people. For the many people in our fast-paced world who have attention issues, learning from a screen can be nearly impossible with the amount of distractions present in remote settings. My issue with Zoom University has to do with my generalized anxiety disorder. Talking to people over video calls makes me ridiculously anxious, so doing that for upwards of five hours a day was a feat. It seems as if these sorts of problems weren’t considered when switching to online schools. Instead, students must advocate for themselves and hope that their professor will be supportive and provide them with adequate resources. 

One might think professors automatically oblige with accommodation requests, but alas, many simply do not. Though schools say they abide by Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines, it is ultimately up to professors to offer these accommodations so ableism falls through the cracks. Yes, students can report these professors, but students who are already facing lockdown burnout and a weakening economy do not have the energy to go through the arduous process of filing a report. I have personally been denied university approved accommodations by professors many times. My girlfriend, who recently graduated from Vanderbilt, was told by one of her professors that she would not be provided with accommodations as “it wasn’t fair to the students who didn’t need accomodations.” When she got a Dean’s note and protested, the professor suggested she drop the class, or accept that lack of accommodation. This was a commonplace occurrence for a disabled student before the pandemic, and it’s gotten much worse. 

This type of behavior and inability to adapt to student’s needs begins to affect more of the student body when students fall ill and are unable to complete their assignments. Due to lack of captioning offered in Zoom meetings, online class meetings are usually inaccessible to deaf/hard of hearing students. Apparently at Vanderbilt, we do have the software to caption video calls but most professors either don’t care or don’t think to use it. Online test proctoring has many requirements which can be inaccessible to students with disabilities—or really any student who moves their eyeballs like the college student who went viral on TikTok after sharing about how her test proctoring AI falsely flagged her as cheating for reading test questions aloud. Disabled students are used to having to advocate for themselves to be properly accommodated in the classroom, and online learning, while helpful for disabled people in many ways, ultimately provides additional barriers to connecting and effectively communicating with professors. 

In light of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, students like myself were hoping to see a decrease in tuition in subsequent academic years. That tended not to be the case, with many Top 20 schools increasing tuition rates. At my school, even if choosing to be a fully remote student, there was no discounted tuition rate. Institutions offer a variety of different reasons for this, citing government mandates and cost of online learning, but they can still afford to pay their executives the big bucks.

Coming to school this year was a terrible, life-altering decision that I was forced to make. I’m barely a full adult-person—I have five more years for my brain to fully develop. Yet I, along with countless other young adults, was told it was our responsibility to stop the spread of COVID. In fact, most of the correspondence I am receiving from my university’s administration are emails emphasizing the personal responsibility of students. Students are not the only people on a college campus, and even with best health practices mistakes are bound to happen. In a September 5 interview with The Hustler,  Chancellor Daniel Diermier summed up administrators’ opinions best: “So, what I would say is, number one, that we have asked, we have put a lot of trust in our students. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, this plan will succeed or fail based on the choices that our students are making.” Shifting the blame elsewhere is a great move if you’re expecting to fuck up a bit. It just so happens that in this circumstance, fucking up means enabling the spread of a possibly fatal illness. Colleges are fine with students dying so long as we keep the money flowing. But hey! At least if they do kill me, I might be able to get my degree posthumously.

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