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Editorial: Reflecting on Brown's financial responsibilities to students, employees and Providence

In response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the University has closed down for an indefinite period of time and sent most of its students home. As students and professors alike learn to navigate the complications of “virtual learning,” the pandemic also has introduced a multitude of financial concerns — for both students and the broader Providence community — that are compounded by the University’s necessary closure. Beginning on April 3rd, the University sent out two community-wide emails, detailing its efforts to alleviate the financial concerns of the Providence community as well as outlining the long-term financial consequences the University will face in the coming months. 

Undoubtedly, the University has been forced to move rapidly to juggle a myriad of planning and logistical concerns — from student travel home, to faculty digital transitions, to grade option policies — in the wake of our departure from campus, that arguably take precedent over somewhat more long-term financial considerations. We can and do appreciate the care and attention required in this effort. But as we began to settle into our new world of digital learning, we as a page board began to wonder about the greater financial implications of coronavirus for Brown as a whole — and specifically, what financial responsibilities its institutional and employment ties to both its students and the Providence community entail under these challenging circumstances. 

As a major institution with deep ties to the Providence community, as an entity whose financial stability directly affects the lives of students, campus workers and many others and as an institution we care about deeply, Brown’s financial health matters. This is why we greatly appreciated the University’s recent community-wide announcements acknowledging — and detailing — the financial impact of the crisis while re-affirming its continued commitment to the values it espouses as it plans to respond to the crisis and mitigate its negative impact. In particular, we commend the University for promising to keep the community informed as plans develop and for choosing plans that prioritize the health and livelihood of Brown community members, even if at great cost. 

We recognize that Brown administrators will likely have to make choices to prioritize the long term financial health of the University that may at times feel unsatisfying to us students or our fellow community members. But as plans are made and the long term needs of students and community members become clearer and more pressing, we hope the University can consider other ways that it can alleviate student financial burdens and mitigate the financial impacts of COVID-19 for the Providence community while working within the constraints of its own financial concerns.

For students

Universities, by their very nature, play a vital role in multiple aspects of students' lives. Not just a source of education and community, the Brown campus allows hundreds if not thousands of students to earn the money necessary to support themselves — and their families — during their time in college. We are grateful that the University has responded to concerns about student employment by clarifying in a March 25 email that students who have “campus employment expectations and/or federal work study” will continue to receive pay regardless of their ability to telework (or their job’s suitability to translate to a remote format). Given the critical role that campus employment plays in ensuring Brown students can finish their degrees and the commitment Brown has made to keeping “a Brown education affordable for talented students from all economic backgrounds,” we are gratified to hear that the University plans to do this and hope that all students with demonstrated need are accommodated under this policy. 

Beyond this, we urge the University to consider addressing the frustration many students feel about paying the full price for a discounted education and campus experience. The University already promised to refund students a portion of the cost of room and board — a decision we commend. However, in a recent email to the student body, the University confirmed that students and their families would only receive the refund in their bursar accounts for the fall payment period. 

In addition, the University should at least consider refunding, directly if possible, a similar portion of the student activity fee, recreation fee and Health Services fee. Students no longer get the benefit of complete access and use of these services and amenities, which are unique to being on campus. Although these fees comprise only a few hundred dollars, a reimbursement of this scale could make a big difference to students looking to make ends meet; it would also solidify Brown’s commitment to students by enacting equitable policies in the wake of our departure from campus. 

For the Providence community

Just as students have been confronted with heighted financial burdens in the wake of this pandemic, so has the greater Providence community. As a University that prides itself in being in partnership with the city it resides in, a crisis such as this one is the perfect time for Brown to show its commitment to this mission. Undoubtedly, Brown researchers, medical doctors, public health experts, economists and others will play a vital role in crisis response, planning and recovery in the coming months. But moreover, as a significant local employer with extensive resources, the University must not overlook its potential financial impact and consequent duty to the city of Providence.

As one of the largest employers in Rhode Island, Brown is responsible for the livelihood of thousands of employees. We hope the University has fully addressed the needs of its temporary and hourly workers, such as dining and custodial workers — without whom Brown would not function. Many dining employees are employed by Bon Appétit, a food service management company that recently announced it would lay off 140 of its dining workers at Penn. We urge the University to respond to widespread student concern on this issue and clarify how it will continue to support its workers during this time, who are the fulcrum of campus operations and well-loved by our immediate community. 

University employees are far from the only Providence community members who will suffer in the midst of the pandemic, nor are they the only ones the University has the capacity to support. That is why we were immensely gratified to learn from President Christina Paxson, in an April 3 email to the Brown community, of the University's efforts to utilize resources to support local businesses and contribute to the food security needs of those heavily impacted by the pandemic. 

As one of the wealthiest institutions in Rhode Island and the place of work for some of the nation’s best strategizers and problem solvers, Brown has more resources than most with which to tackle these problems. Within its efforts to contribute to the greater Providence community, we hope the University can also specifically look for ways to build upon its repeatedly affirmed commitment to assisting the Providence Public School District, which receives University funds, support from Brown student tutors and other assistance routinely. As a district that serves over 24,000 students — 85 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and who may not have the tools to participate in distance learning — it will continue to face heightened strain in the coming months. 

While the University cannot be expected to solve all of the financial concerns others in the community are facing, we believe Brown is obligated to continue supporting members of its immediate community as well as the broader Providence community in whatever ways it can in the coming months. We understand Brown is currently working to navigate new and uncertain territory and that it must ensure its own financial well-being before it can assist others. But we hope the University continues to look for ways to balance these concerns with the needs of students, employees and community members who are among the most vulnerable and heavily impacted during this global health crisis. 

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board. This editorial was written by its editor, Krista Stapleford ’21, and members Amanda Brynn ’21, Vicky Phan ’21 and Dylan Tian ’21.


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