Verbum Ultimum: The Missing Voice

Dartmouth’s COVID-19 policy lacks student input.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 4/3/20 2:00am

The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly changing life across the world, and Dartmouth is no exception. The past month has brought sweeping changes to the College — campus facilities are  now all but closed, with coursework reduced to a credit/no credit, remote format. Some of these policies, like the decision to move spring term to remote learning, are generally recognized as necessary given the realities of the public health crisis. Others — like charging full tuition — have received much less support from the student body. But in all of Dartmouth’s policy changes in response to COVID-19, one thing stands out: the College’s failure to take students’ voices into account.

The College’s decision-making process has — at least publicly — given little to no room for student input. Apart from long emails that students must comb through in search of relevant updates, the College has proven generally unresponsive to student concerns. When students have pressed the College for more information on critical issues like financial aid and spring term tuition, the College has remained vague and roundabout in its communications.  

On March 23, Dartmouth students received an email from College provost Joseph Helble and a subsequent email from Dean of the College Kathryn Lively indicating that the College was moving to a mandatory credit/no credit grading scheme for spring term. The College had previously shared that decisions about the grading system were being informed by a faculty vote. The student body’s reaction to a mandatory credit/no credit term has varied, but support for the new system is far from unanimous. The College did not once ask for open student input on the grading policy. 

Dartmouth students have been left in the dark about the details of the process that led to the decision to implement the credit/no credit grading system. The policy’s mandatory nature means that it impacts every student at Dartmouth. But still, the College failed to implement a transparent or representative decision-making process for a policy that directly affects the student body.

Throughout Dartmouth’s response to COVID-19, the administration has remained out of sync with students. This much is evident from the College’s communications following its decision to charge full tuition for spring term, despite strong opposition from the student body. In the days leading up to the College’s announcement that academic tuition would remain unchanged, a petition to discount spring term tuition began circulating throughout the Dartmouth community. As of April 2, almost 3,000 people have signed in favor of lowering spring tuition. But whatever the College’s decision-making process looked like, it failed to seriously address student opinions in favor of reduced tuition.

In response to a Student Assembly inquiry on tuition, the College simply responded: “Our teaching is a point of pride and distinction. For spring term, our commitment to excellent instruction will be no different, even if the delivery is different. Our faculty have quickly and enthusiastically embraced the challenge of planning for virtual instruction for the spring term. We will charge regular tuition for spring term.”

Vague statements about the quality of teaching at Dartmouth have little to do with tuition policy and leave student concerns unaddressed. The administration could have at least made some effort to engage with the student body and respond to its arguments, instead of ignoring its students.

Not surprisingly, widespread frustration and disappointment with the College followed the tuition announcement. Once again, students were left asking: What did the decision-making process look like? Was any effort made to consider students’ requests? The College’s murky decision-making process and vague communications have created an increasingly deep divide between the student body and the administration.

This neglect of student opinion on the part of the Dartmouth administration has manifested itself in other areas, namely the College’s communications surrounding financial aid and student belongings. 

As The Dartmouth reported yesterday, many students have seen their financial aid packages reduced this spring. The College claims these reductions reflect the lower cost of attendance for the remote term. Despite financial aid reductions, the College continues to claim to donors and students that it will “increase” financial aid over spring term.

In an attempt to find support and clarity amid the confusion, students have resorted to forming groups on platforms such as GroupMe and organizing their own relief funds. Clearer communication, more accessible financial aid staff and explanations for its actions are three simple steps the College could take to relieve some of the uncertainty surrounding financial aid for spring term. 

Further, we are alarmed at the rapid and unsympathetic method by which the College has dealt with communicating what will happen to students’ belongings. The College has transformed the Lodge, Maxwell and Channing Cox — all undergraduate residences — into buildings that will “house students who are asked to self-quarantine or self-isolate by public health officials.” 

Residents of the Lodge received an email at 8:45 a.m. on the same morning that professional movers and College staff began packing up student’s belongings. Students had no chance to comment on or even process the College’s decision before it was carried out. 

We are not asking the College to be perfect, nor are we asking that it seek out the opinion of every single student for each COVID-19 policy decision. In a crisis like this, some concessions must be made in order to facilitate a rapid response, and we recognize that. It is important, however, that the College remembers the crucial role that the student body plays at this institution. Decisions that are to be made for students also need to be made by students. Policy on grading schemes, tuition, financial aid and possessions should not spark widespread disdain and confusion throughout the student body. The student body’s largely negative reaction to the College’s opaque decision-making and communications reflects the degree to which students are excluded from and alienated by the College’s decisions. 

We urge Dartmouth to give the student body a voice at the table, especially when it comes to such far-reaching decisions as the recent ones related to COVID-19. In addition, the administration needs to step back and think critically about the ways in which it communicates to its students. Times are already difficult enough — students don’t need unexplained decisions and unanswered questions making things even harder.

The editorial board consists of the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.