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Editorials, Opinions

Editorial: If Brown cares, where are the CARES Act funds?

By
Friday, February 19, 2021

Brown undergraduates have long opined on the costs associated with attending this institution, rightfully raising concerns over where tuition dollars go, how University funds are leveraged and the experience students receive in return. Perhaps never before in Brown’s recent history have such concerns been so cogent. Under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic, financial hardship has touched every corner of the country. Millions have struggled to provide for their families — let alone foot multi-thousand dollar tuition bills. 

But low-income families were consistently hit hardest by the virus’ dire economic effects and continue to suffer staggering and persistent economic devastation. These losses have undoubtedly impacted the lives and college experiences of scores of our peers. 

In April, Congress adopted legislation seeking to address this very concern. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act allocated emergency funds to universities, with the mandate that at least half of the dollars received be used for emergency financial relief for students, as The Herald previously reported. It wasn’t until late January that the University notified the campus community of its receipt of $2.4 million earmarked for the express purpose of supporting students facing exigent financial need — though the University received the emergency funding in late April. This fact alone is remarkable: At a time when low-income students have been disproportionately likely to experience food and housing insecurity, the University has been withholding federal funds intended for their benefit for nearly 10 months. 

Vice President for Communications Cass Cliatt told The Herald that the University was using this time to ensure a distribution strategy that was both equitable and compliant with federal restrictions requiring that institutions avoid unnecessary layoffs. But after nearly 10 months, this justification seems inadequate in the face of student needs. 

It is striking that many of our peer institutions have been able to successfully overcome these hurdles, distributing the vast majority of their funds in a timeline that more adequately acknowledges the “emergency” nature of the circumstances. Cornell has distributed nearly 90 percent of its earmarked $6.4 million for student emergency funds as of Dec. 31, supporting more than 3,800 students with grants ranging from $300 to $2,500. Similarly, Dartmouth disbursed nearly 90 percent of the $1.7 million it received as of August 2020; Rice University awarded more than 100 percent of the $1.7 million it was required to allocate to students as of June 2020; and Wesleyan University disbursed nearly 95 percent of $1.1 million as of Sept. 30. 

Even if the University’s administration felt that Brown faced unique constraints in allocating our portion of the CARES Act’s funds, necessitating extra time, they should have communicated that to students potentially eligible for the award long ago. According to Adela Herce ’22, eligible students have yet to receive any formal communication from the University regarding the distribution of funds. Herce, along with Sibeles Torres ’22 and Georgeara Castañeda ’21.5, wrote a widely-shared recent op-ed in The Herald sharing their perspective that Brown has failed to support Undocumented, First-Generation and Low-Income students during this time. And while the University promised to release a more formal statement and timeline for distributing the funding in the “coming weeks” after The Herald’s Feb. 1 reporting on the existence of the funds, the authors and the nearly 3,000 other students eligible for the funds are still waiting for this announcement to come. The University has also yet to issue an acknowledgement or apology for the impact that this decision has had on students in need. 

Given the immense stress and financial instability induced by the pandemic, particularly in its early months, the University should have been more transparent about potential distribution plans and timelines. It’s irresponsible for the University to have left students in the dark for this long. 

And while we commend the University for spending nearly $7.3 million of its own money to specifically support students with financial need, this is no justification for delaying the disbursement of other available funds. In our view, the decision to delay distributing available money intended to help students ride out the most calamitous months of this severe economic crisis — even if the University used its own funding as a stopgap measure — constitutes negligence worthy of further conversation. 

Now, perhaps more than ever, the University must commit itself to financial transparency. The administration cannot shroud itself behind closed doors, offering explanations only retroactively, not proactively. Brown must look for ways to actively engage in a conversation with all of its community members, not just those in the boardroom. Students, too, are stakeholders in the financial health of the University. They deserve to know where their money is going, particularly when that money has been allocated for their benefit.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board. This editorial was written by its editor and assistant editor, Krista Stapleford ’21 and Johnny Ren ’23, and members Olivia Burdette ’22, Devan Paul ’24 and Kate Waisel ’24.  

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