A Word In Edgewise: When Your Alma Mater Isn’t

Photo courtesy of BigStock/R.Babakin

On March 10, according to the Harvard Crimson, the University warned its 6,000 undergraduates that it would be shutting down, that students and their possessions must be out by March 15, to work thenceforward “at a distance.” In “The Shortest Notice Possible,” Crimson staff writers Juiet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su argue that this edict particularly affects first-generation and low-income (FGLI) students. They stress that for many of these students, their only stability is at college, which provides a safe environment, food, and the term-time employment essential to cover other living costs. One student states, “Harvard prides itself on having a massive student body that is a large percentage on financial aid…they forget those are the same students who often come from home situations that are uncomfortable.” 

Not only are the added costs of storage and unexpected travel beyond the reach of many of the FGLI students, but not all have home computers, or, in rural areas, reliable Internet connections. “The Harvard community itself is the only equalizer,” felt another, “If you take away campus living and residential life then you take away that equalizer.” What exactly does a college or university owe its charges, especially during a time of crisis? An educational institution is not a babysitter, but it does stand in loco parentis. Alma mater means, “nurturing mother,” and this particular mother went to great lengths to be inclusive, admitting bright students whose family finances and situations were known to be fragile. 

The University’s endowment currently exceeds 38 billion, with each of its schools owning a share of that total; could not the college provide some protection? Cover storage fees; assist in costly travel fees? Keep one (or more) of the dorms open to qualifying students to maintain stability through meals, shelter, and ready access to their online courses? How are other alma maters handling this crisis? 

Here, UMN is suspending in-person classes on all campuses, although resident halls, dining services and other student services will remain open for now, said University President Joan Gabel. She added, “For classes that cannot be taught online, the instructor will contact students with further information…While we do not have all of the answers at this moment, please know that we are working around the clock to find answers and solutions.” 

New York’s governor announced that all SUNY and CUNY schools across New York will start “distance learning” March 19, although the campuses will not be closed. “They’re not evicting anyone,” Cuomo stated. “They are not closing the dorm or kicking you out…If students have hardships with nowhere to go, there will be consideration.” 

Each institution must find its solution. One less draconian than Fair Harvard’s? Time will tell.

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