Janet Lohmann, dean for student affairs, announced updates to the College’s “Personal Leave of Absence” policy on May 21 in an email addressed to all returning students. The changes reflected the College’s concern that a possible remote or semi-remote fall semester would dramatically increase requests for personal leaves of absences, and it aimed to address the logistical issues this rise would present.
The most notable update to the policy is that students on a voluntary leave of absence will now be required to go through a readmission process in order to resume their studies at the College. Previously, students opting to take a personal leave of absence would simply be expected to return to their studies at Bowdoin on the completion of their leave, but students who took medical or disciplinary leave, as well as academic probation were expected to reapply. This is a marked shift from past policy regarding voluntary leave, with previous iterations guaranteeing students a spot at Bowdoin immediately upon completion of their leave.
In an email to the Orient, Lohmann confirmed that students taking time off are not at risk of losing their place at Bowdoin. Rather, the policy changes are meant to prepare for the potential challenges that a large number of students taking time off would create for the College.
“A large influx of students coming back to campus would impact our ability to maintain our enrollment and residency model for several years to come,” she wrote.
“For example: if 300 sophomores took a leave of absence for the 2020-2021 academic year and the 500 first-year students chose to stay enrolled, in 2021-2022 we would have 800 sophomores. Due to limited space in housing and in courses, the College would not be able to enroll 800 sophomores,” she added.
As noted in Dean Lohmann’s email, as well as in the Student Handbook, a student’s financial aid grants can be affected by their decision to take a leave of absence. However, the policy guarantees that, as long as the student remains in good standing, they will retain their aid eligibility.
For Finn Bergquist ’22, a remote semester simply can’t replicate the educational experience he has had so far at Bowdoin.
“I think I probably would take the semester off. To me, it seems like [a remote semester] would be a wasted semester,” he said in a phone call with the Orient. “I mean, whatever they do, the professors aren’t going to have experience with that style of learning … and that experience over years of teaching [in-person classes] is why the quality of education is so good.”
In addition to concerns about future enrollment, the College would also be facing a greater financial impact if it lost the tuition payments of hundreds of students. With the College weathering a global recession, President Rose announced in a campus-wide email on April 4 that Bowdoin will have to re-examine its budget and potentially reduce or eliminate some programs or services. He later wrote on May 15, in an email to students and employees, “our loss in the 2020–2021 academic year may very well exceed $20 million, or 15 percent of revenue. And it could be significantly larger.” However, the administration hopes to reassure students that it is prepared for any financial eventuality, even if some students do take time off this fall.
“In any scenario, the College has ample liquid reserves at our disposal which precludes us from dipping into the endowment to help cover deficits,” wrote Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Matt Orlando in an email to the Orient.
Orlando also explained that some of the College’s costs are relatively fixed regardless of how many students take time off, but that others are more flexible.
“Some costs, like food and utilities, are correlated to the number of students on campus,” he wrote in an email to the Orient.“But most of our expenses are tied up in personnel, and even low enrollment levels require significant staff support.”
With many juniors and seniors having already signed leases for off-campus housing, some students have their decisions already made. Aida Muratoglu ’21 plans to return to Maine for her senior fall, no matter the circumstances.
“As a rising senior, I am planning on living in Brunswick off-campus in the fall, regardless of Bowdoin’s decision, because I want to have a senior year with my friends,” said Muratoglu. “I am still sad and disappointed that I am not guaranteed to have the senior fall and spring that I have been looking forward to for all my years at Bowdoin.”
While acknowledging the difficult situation the College is facing, Blaine Stevens ’22 found herself frustrated with the revised leave of absence policy.
“[The] email makes complete sense, however, it is demoralizing to have your college tell you that they are unsure if they will ‘have space’ for you if you choose to take a leave,” she wrote in an email to the Orient.
“As someone who has a learning disability, I’m leaning towards taking time off regardless because any sort of online experience (even semi-remote) really isn’t conducive to learning for me,” she added.
In a phone call with the Orient, Ray George ’23 argued that a remote semester would undermine the college experience.
“Look, college is only eight semesters. As much as it is something academic, it has a real social value as well. All aspects of life on a college campus, whether that be grabbing a meal with someone in the dining hall or going to a party … it is the communal space that makes Bowdoin what it is,” he said.