NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On March 17, Rutgers University President Robert Barchi cancelled all in-person classes and events for the remainder of the school year, including the long-awaited commencement ceremonies.
It’s part of the latest drastic measures taken to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19–measures that have been met with frustration and heartbreak by students, faculty and staff.
“Fostering a healthy community in New Jersey is core to the mission of our University,” President Barchi wrote in the announcement initially closing the school’s campuses across the state, one of the first high-profile signals that the virus could have a major impact on life in New Brunswick.
“We have an imperative to do what we can to slow the spread of this serious virus and protect those who are most vulnerable,” Barchi said.
The Rutgers response to COVID-19 has impacted its nearly 70,000 students immeasurably by uprooting them from their campus residences, and inspiring unforeseen financial expenses which stress their resources.
The school has also moved to replace their agreed-upon education based on in-class learning with remote methods and disappointed students who were expecting a celebration of their academic achievements at commencement.
Many students are frustrated with the University’s lack of transparency about if and how they might issue refunds due to the dorm evacuations or to compensate for the switch from in-person to remote learning.
“Our primary focus at this point is on the health and safety of our students followed closely by the completion of their academic requirements in a timely fashion,” Rutgers Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Antonio Calcado replied when asked about housing refunds on March 11.
“We understand the concern about housing and will at the appropriate time revisit and address this issue. We ask for patience until we get there.”
Meanwhile, the university has also come under fire from its staff and faculty for its handling of the crisis.
Adjunct faculty and other members of the Rutgers community oppose Rutgers’ “negligence towards the health of staff” and criticize the plans outlined by the University to combat the virus as “incomplete or incoherent,” as these plans “do not address many of the concerns” that unionized employees of the University have during the COVID-19 outbreak.
On March 17, Rutgers President Robert Barchi updated the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ending any hopes that there might still be a May graduation ceremony, or the annual Rutgers Day celebration.
“With a heavy heart, today I am announcing that Rutgers University is suspending all in-person instruction, with the exception of clinical instruction, for the remainder of the spring semester,” President Barchi wrote in the March 17 announcement.
“All events scheduled at the University through the month of May are suspended. This will include some of our most wonderful celebrations, including Rutgers Day and commencements at all campuses.”
“These are the right actions to take for the health of our community,” Barchi said.
“I know I speak for all faculty and staff when I say how deeply we will miss the vibrancy that students bring to our campuses each spring, and how incomplete this year will feel without our commencement ceremonies.”
But there’s still hope that a commencement could be held later than usual.
“A final determination on whether or not commencements can be rescheduled to a later date will be made in the coming weeks,” Barchi said.
“Closing the campus has greatly changed my senior year,” Spencer Chan, a senior Rutgers University student and the treasurer of the Rutgers student organization First Light, said.
“There’s a lot I would want to enjoy my senior year. I want to be able to be in my clubs, yet because of the coronavirus we had to first cancel our trip to Boston, and now it seems likely we will have to cancel our concert.”
“I’ve spent a good amount of time with my friends, and it would be quite unceremonious if last Monday was the last time I would see them as a member of the group.
“I wanted to be able to physically walk at commencement. But now, it is seeming much more unlikely.
“My grandparents from Hong Kong were supposed to attend, but it sure seems like that won’t happen.”
Many seniors, such as Alexander Kal, a Rutgers student majoring in Political Science, were saddened by the latest news.
Kal told New Brunswick Today that he feels “empty, confused, but hopeful–hopeful that this unique experience will set me and others like me to weather any national crisis or event.”
“How we act now, with humanity and kindness at the forefront, will allow for us to get through anything together.”
“I’ve went from thinking I knew everything about anything straight out of high school to learning that I don’t actually know a single thing,” Kal said.
“Rutgers taught me that it’s okay to not have answers and to discover them as you progress through life.”
“I think refunds are necessary because students are paying for services they are not able to receive,” said Sophie Pastore a dedicated member of the Rutgers Endowment Justice Collective (EJC), a group “fighting to divest the endowment from immoral institutions, and to reinvest in the local community.”
“Not every request to stay on campus was accepted, I’m sure, so students deserve their money back for a place they are literally not allowed to live in.
“Meal plan refunds are necessary as well,” Pastore added.
“If students aren’t on campus they aren’t able to use their meal swipes, and they are already very overpriced as is.”
Pastore said the EJC consists of more than a dozen community and student organizations that calls the University to stop investing their funds in “immoral” industries.
According to the Rutgers University Treasury, university endowment assets approximately totaled $1.476 billion as of June 30, 2019.
“The endowment has become an increasingly important element in the university’s funding of more student aid, pioneering research, innovative teaching programs, and new technologies,” according to the University Treasury.
“The endowment is also essential to the university’s ability to attract and retain senior faculty and to maintain a vast physical infrastructure, including classrooms, libraries, laboratories, and health care facilities.”
The EJC and its members, according to Pastore, are “fighting to divest the endowment from immoral institutions, and to reinvest in the local community.”
Rutgers University “has holdings in a cross section of corporations that are destroying environments across the world, exploiting workers around the world by utilizing sweatshop labor, contributing to a violent and racist prison industrial complex,” according to an EJC report submitted to the Joint Committee on Investments (JCOI) in February.
The Collective’s fight for University divestment, says Pastore, “aligns with our goals of community reinvestment and using the endowment to uplift our community.
“We think the endowment can and should be used for good at this critical time,” says Pastore.
“Some of the endowment investments, particularly investments in the prison industrial complex, are exacerbating the COVID-19 crisis and making people more vulnerable.”
“Losing all of the dining and board revenue is a substantial change in the budget,” said Clayton Zdroik, a sophomore student at Rutgers Business School.
Zdroik paid for both an on-campus dorm and dining fees, but does not necessarily think that students should request refunds from Rutgers.
“The thing about demanding a refund is that when you ask for your money back, the school has nothing to pay its full time hourly workers with,” Zdroik said about recent demands from students for full or partial refunds.
“An endowment is not a rainy day fund,” Zdroik said in response to the NBT author’s inquiry about the size of the University’s endowment.
“Tapping the endowment would undercut the University in the long term and only cost its students — down the line— more.
“Rutgers is a non-profit university. It is not designed to operate on a profit margin for the scale we are talking about.”
The issue of potential refunds for the students who paid thousands for the semester is one that could have a major impact on the school’s budget.
According to the Rutgers Office of University Finance and Administration, tuition and fees account for 29% of the school’s annual revenue.
“Rutgers doesn’t have a money issue,” said Spencer Chan, the graduating student whose grandparents are unlikely to be able to see him finish school.
“Best example is how they won’t stop burning money in our football program.”
Chan sympathizes with students who are greatly affected financially.
“If Rutgers cancels classes for the rest of the semester, they should definitely refund students in some way, especially for those who lived on campus,” Chan said.
“Half a semester of housing costs is about $3,500, and that’s a substantial amount of money.”
Samantha Waldron, a Rutgers University student studying Environmental Sciences, struggles with Rutgers’ approach to communicating their plans to students during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Rutgers has declined to make a proper statement about tuition, room and board and dining hall plan reimbursements,” Waldron said.
“They declined to make refunds easily accessible. I am technically approved to stay at Rutgers, but they were very recalcitrant and they took forever to send emails.
“When they sent emails, they were very confusing.”
Waldron’s inability to definitively get a reimbursement, among other factors, has influenced her decision to remain in the Newell Apartments on Rutgers’ Cook Campus amid the outbreak.
Many students have criticized the practicality of the remote classes, especially when compared to the in-person experience the students paid for.
“Remote lectures are hard because I can’t comfortably ask questions,” Waldron said.
“In science classes, we have complicated questions that can be hard to explain virtually.
“If they’re going to teach remotely, they might as well pay my tuition back.”
Rutgers’ response to the coronavirus outbreak has also prevented Waldron from being able to attend her internship.
“They’re interrupting work, internships, research projects and graduate students who need to fulfill a certain amount of time on the clock,” according to Waldron.
“I’m not too worried about online classes,” said Zdroik, the student who questioned whether refunds were necessary. “I’ve done it before and Rutgers has experience.”
However, Zdroik also admitted that the switch to remote class sessions could be more complicated for students with different courses and studies.
One of his friends, he said, is enrolled in an Exercise Science course where “they’re supposed to teach you the moves in person and test you on your performance physically.
“I’m sure Rutgers faculty will figure out a different angle to test,” said Zdroik.
“I feel bad for everyone because everyone is struggling,” Waldron said.
“I feel like a sensible solution is almost impossible for me to think of. I’m having a battle in my head, and I don’t blame anyone for feeling the same way.”
“I understand some people need money now to pay for substitute housing, so I understand their urgency in getting refunds resolved,” Zdroik said.
“I also understand that the administration is working on a hundred other things now. Hopefully, the administration will offer a fair measure of who deserves what.”
Preventing the Spread of COVID-19
“I want people to know that they should take care of themselves, maintain good hygiene, and not be racist,” Rutgers student Waldron said for NBT readers.
There is no vaccine designed to prevent the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The best way to survive the virus is to prevent infection and there are steps you can take to protect yourself and others from the virus:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Do not touch your nose, eyes or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact by maintaining a distance of at least three feet from others.
- Self-quarantine by staying home, especially if you are feeling sick or showing signs of illness.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
- Facemasks may be in short supply, and thus should be saved for caregivers and victims of the illness. If you are not sick, you do not need a facemask.
Guidance, information and updates to the status of Rutgers University can be found at coronavirus.rutgers.edu.
Other recommendations and advice can be found on the CDC website or the World Health Organization (WHO) website.
Kristin is a New Brunswick Today contributor who focuses on community welfare and individuals' stories. She is a graduate of Rutgers, New Brunswick where she studied journalism, English, and Animal Science.