Thousands of prospective students have answered this question as they vied for a coveted spot in the next class of Brunonians. Once the lucky ones were chosen, we all said “yes” for different reasons: the unmatched academic freedom of the Open Curriculum, the ability to connect with world-renowned professors, the incredible diversity and richness of the student body and many more. After having committed to Brown, we meet on College Hill and as we immerse ourselves in all that the University has to offer, we get to experience the reasons behind our original “why Brown” and discover many new reasons why Brown is the place for us. Regardless of what determined our decision, each Brown student wants to indulge in the environment that they agreed to be part of when they were admitted; however, with the COVID-19 pandemic knocking at the Van Wickle Gates, this dream is unfeasible.
From the moment most students evacuated campus on March 17, 2020, we all knew this year was going to be different. Finishing the rest of the semester online was not a good substitute for in-person classes, as students contended with technical issues, time zone differences and major resource inequities, among many other challenges.
When President Christina Paxson P’19 announced the trimester plan for the 2020-2021 academic year on July 7, it seemed somewhat reasonable to expect that that the COVID-19 pandemic would subside enough to allow for small, socially distant classes by September; however, it has become increasingly clear that the pandemic has not subsided, but has worsened. On March 17 when we evacuated campus, there were 11 new cases in Rhode Island, with a three-day average of 5 new cases. On July 7, there were 47 new cases, with a three-day average of 43 new cases. On Aug. 12, when the Brown administration communicated that students would not be welcome on campus for in-person classes until at least Oct. 5, there were 100 new cases and a three-day average of 100 new cases.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 102 private, nonprofit colleges and universities in the US are operating fully online for the fall 2020 semester, including peer institutions like Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. Some of these announcements have come only in the last few weeks as institutions have realigned their plans with the state of the pandemic. I support the University in providing a petition process for students who have extenuating circumstances to come to campus, whether for logistical (e.g. not being able to return home), financial (e.g. prohibitive living expenses) or personal (e.g. not having a safe learning environment) reasons. But in failing to declare a fully remote semester for the rest of the student body and instead holding out on its final decision regarding reopening until mid-September, Brown increases the anxiety that students already feel during these tumultuous times, shreds any ability for students to plan ahead and ultimately puts the lives of students, faculty and staff at risk in order to better serve the University’s ego and coffers.
As students, we have been left to wallow in a freakish purgatory, where we are asked time and time again to decide whether to operate virtually or risk our lives for the mere chance at returning to a shell of what once was the in-person Brown community. The moving goalpost of our return to College Hill forces students to make, undo and remake travel plans, which is both stressful and costly. So far, the University has offered no services for helping students plan their travel, which can be especially tricky for students from rural areas or foreign countries where flights to Providence are more difficult to book. There has also been no effort to ameliorate the cost of travel, which includes the base cost of tickets and luggage charges as well as change and cancellation fees.
Whether students choose to study remotely or attempt to return, we are being required to pay the same tuition price that we would for a standard semester, a price which increased by 3.75 percent this year to $59,254 (not including room, board, books and other fees). In her April 26 opinion column in The New York Times, Paxson stated that certain aspects of the college experience “just aren’t the same on Zoom,” and she was right. “[T]he fierce intellectual debates, ... research opportunities in university laboratories and libraries and the personal interactions among students,” don’t occur when we operate from home, so we shouldn’t be paying tuition as if we are still partaking in such activities.
The only justification the University could potentially have for charging such exorbitant prices for a lesser experience is the possibility that students will return in October. Without this unrealistic attempt at returning to in-person learning, there would most certainly be a (fully justified) student uprising to lower tuition. As it stands, the University has a precedent for not refunding tuition for a partially in-person semester since they did not give any tuition refunds after the evacuation in spring 2020. Instead, the University awarded $150 travel stipends and a small, prorated refund of room and board charges. Brown derives millions of dollars of funding from tuition and is quite literally protecting that income stream with student lives.
There is an obvious financial benefit to the University if administrators continue to dangle the shimmering but unattainable carrot of in-person learning in front of our noses. Beyond that, offering the possibility of reopening campus this fall also strokes the egoes of University administrators who have stated that they’re doing everything they can to ensure students can return to campus. Paxson in particular has been vocal about this goal, writing the aforementioned opinion column and even testifying in front of the Senate. If Brown conducts a fully remote semester when there is even a slim chance that students could return, both Paxson and the University have to accept that they were wrong. It appears that Paxson is more willing to risk student, faculty and staff lives than be caught with a bit of egg on her face.
In short, though I and everyone else connected to the University desperately want to return to our beloved Brunonia, an in-person semester is not worth the safety of those who have built the Brown community. The preservation of life supersedes all other concerns — financial, educational and personal. The Brown community will endure this pandemic even if we are scattered across the world, but we cannot return to education if we are not alive to participate.
Emilia Ruzicka ’21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.