The Actions of Your Peers Indict You, President Schapiro

Northwestern for Fair Tuition, Op-Ed Contributor

Dear President Schapiro,

Six months after the initial shutdown and just a week away from classes starting, tuition bills opened today for Northwestern undergraduates, yet you and your administration seem no closer to providing a COVID response that adequately addresses the needs of the community. Despite ample resources, you have avoided taking responsibility for the well-being of the most vulnerable community members. It is made clear by the actions of peer institutions that the University can and should be doing far more in response to this pandemic and recession. Let’s take a look at exactly how.

Failure one: The delayed closure of campus.
The announcement that campus would be closed to first- and second-year students came at 6 p.m. on Friday, August 28th, a mere nine days before many were set to move in. With its world-class medical program and team of experts, and the advantage of a mid-September start due to the quarter system, NU had some of the best information of any university in the nation with which to decide whether to return to campus. Given these advantages, how could you not have foreseen the inevitability of a closed campus?

Here’s just a few examples you could have drawn from: UNC-Chapel Hill shut down campus in mid-August, within a week of classes starting; Notre Dame shut down the very next day; Princeton cancelled a week into August; Even earlier than that, at the end of July, both Georgetown University and George Washington University announced that Fall semester would begin online; Harvard went fully online and barred over half its students from returning at the beginning of July.

How could you believe NU could safely reopen when numerous peer institutions had already shut down? How can you claim it took a local spike in COVID cases to wake you up to the nationwide trend? This, President Schapiro, speaks to either incompetence or intentional delay, neither of which are very reassuring.

Failure two: The inadequate and unfair reduction to tuition.
Wrapped in the August 28th email was the announcement of a 10 percent reduction in undergraduate Fall tuition. This measly reduction is diminished by the 3.5 percent raise in tuition implemented in June — this reduces that 10 percent cut to a mere 6.85 percent. No matter what efforts are made by NU or other universities, the value of remote learning will never be able to match the value of in-person instruction, or the value of the college campus experience. It is disingenuous to expect struggling families to settle for a cut as small as this. UChicago, as well as a number of public universities, have implemented a tuition freeze — there is no reason you can’t as well, while cutting tuition even deeper in light of the struggles your community is facing.

But even this small cut is denied to the 61 percent of your students who receive need-based financial aid. You claim you are unable to reduce the Expected Family Contributions of those receiving aid due to the disruptions it would cause to federal aid. But instead of finding any kind of workaround or solution, you decided instead that need-based packages would be cut commensurate to the tuition reduction. This is a deeply classist and regressive way of distributing “aid,” and represents an abject failure by you to even attempt to help a majority of your students.

Such a lack of imagination is even more pathetic given the slew of examples your peers have provided in reducing EFCs anyway: Princeton is offering a 10 percent cut to all students; Harvard is providing students studying remotely with a $5,000 “Remote Room and Board Allowance;” MIT has cut off-campus expenses and is offering a $5,000 grant to all undergraduate students; and Williams College, where you served as president for 10 years, has cut tuition by 15 percent and will be explicitly lowering students’ EFCs by 15%.

We suggest taking notes from these peers if you’re out of ideas.

Failure three: Radio silence for work-study recipients.
With campus closed to half of the undergraduate student body, any information at all for the approximate quarter of students who receive Federal Work Study allotments would be welcome. Your silence on the matter suggests that no adjustments will be made, leaving an impossibly small job market for students to compete over for essential aid. As of today, September 11th, just under 200 jobs are listed on the work study website across on-campus, off-campus, and remote categories. You hold a Ph.D. in Economics, President Schapiro, so tell us this: How are 2,000 students supposed to all receive their full allotments when there’s enough jobs for only about a tenth of them?

In the meantime, Harvard has turned students’ term-time work expectations into direct scholarships, so perhaps they’ve figured out something you haven’t. Or maybe not, since the University already paid students out for work study in the spring. Why are you so quiet on it now? Your students are waiting, and are depending on your answer.

Failure four: Abandoning NU’s dining staff.
Beyond failing your students, you have severely failed the staff that keeps this university running, and in particular your dining workers. Your administration and Compass Group have put them through the wringer: permanently laying off about 230 of them in July, remaining silent on payment that was promised to them in March, laying off roughly another 100 workers after your delayed decision to cancel, and are now denying them an extension of health and safety protections in the middle of a pandemic.

The apathy you display towards your staff’s well-being is evident. Georgetown and American University both paid their workers and extended their health benefits, while UPenn spent millions to cover pay for laid off workers in the spring. Your administration’s inaction seems quite unique, President Schapiro.

All too often, university finances are treated like a zero-sum game, such that for any one of these failures to be fixed, another one must be made worse by the redistribution of resources. We wholeheartedly reject this. We stand in solidarity with all of our community, including undergraduates, graduates, staff and faculty, and we demand that every single one receives the COVID relief they need. NU is more than capable, with all its wealth and infrastructure, to provide this. And you, President Schapiro, are fully capable of finally taking responsibility in ensuring that in your role as University President. We hope this exploration of peer institutions’ actions was as enlightening for you as it was for us.

There is one thing NU has that most other universities in this country do not: a $10 billion+ endowment, of which about $3.34 billion is unrestricted and not already designated for any use. Despite this huge resource, you said in May that there was “no way in hell” you would recommend endowment spending rise above 6%, and later argued that “The endowment was not established to fix budget shortfalls or manage crises, but rather to provide key resources needed to preserve our mission of academic excellence and research eminence far into the future.”

Are we not the future that your past investment decisions were meant to benefit, President Schapiro? What is the point of having all this academic excellence if you refuse to help your poorest students actually afford it, all while stripping away essential staff? The very idea of providing “academic excellence” is useless if you insist on financially gatekeeping over half the undergraduate body.

We hope to hear back soon, President Schapiro. If we don’t, we’re going on strike.

And to any students, staff, faculty, or other members of the Northwestern community reading this: We encourage you to sign our petition and join the tuition strike. You can follow us on Instagram and Twitter for future updates. Never forget: when we stand together, we will win.

Sincerely yours,

Northwestern for Fair Tuition

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