The 1974 television drama “Houston, We’ve Got a Problem” misquoted the real-life correspondence between Commander Jim Lovell of Apollo 13 and Mission Control. In response to an oxygen tank explosion, Lovell actually stated “Houston, we’ve ?had? a problem here.”
Bowdoin administration has failed students in the past; combating the efforts of Bowdoin Labor Alliance (BLA) or giving lukewarm responses after the murder of George Floyd unless prodded by BIPOC. Now, students are left floating between a lose-lose scenario: paying “reduced” tuition for a remote fall or taking a Personal Leave of Absence (PLOA) with no knowledge of when they will return. Students must meet with faculty advisors, their deans and student aid; talk with their families; line up fall internships or jobs and find other housing options so they can make a decision based on their personal needs—all within the time frame of two weeks.
The proper title for this piece should be “Bowdoin admin, we’ve had a problem.” It’s been here even before the explosion of a global pandemic. It is important to distinguish between the 1974 appropriated title and Lovell’s phrase as “got,” which implies a possessive relationship; the subject bears mutual ownership of the issue. In contrast, the present perfect “have had” implies that an action occurred at an unspecified time. It began in the past and continues into the present, yet the specific time is not important.
We cannot only define Bowdoin’s “problem” in Lovell’s terms. It would be insensitive and foolish to diminish the impact of COVID-19; it has had life-threatening and altering effects for the Bowdoin community and beyond. While the Bowdoin administration has no control over the trajectory of COVID-19—and is in a way, understandably, playing it safe to protect vulnerable students, staff and the Brunswick community—it would be foolish to think that all these policy changes are purely driven by the pandemic and its consequences.
The administration remains focused on its financial status and continues to reassure us that its endowment is in a soft landing, yet families received erroneous and delayed financial aid awards. Classes will be released by July 8 at the earliest. We have no information as to whether class descriptions will include syllabi or the delivery platform. We are left with two days to decide whether to take a PLOA. This means students must contact faculty and advisors for details, select courses that will be delivered via platforms that fit our individual learning needs and timezones as well as juggle every other responsibility including jobs, summer internships and familial responsibility before making their decision. If a fall alternative cannot be arranged within this timeframe, students will have no choice but to front the cost of a remote semester that does not deliver. In addition, they would face the same constraints of digital learning that directly disadvantaged them in the spring, which now carries the consequences of a normal grading system.
Where is the transparency in the July 12 date? Factors such as housing, dining services, student activities, coordinating move-in dates/orientation, assigning classrooms for fall courses and prepping or completing facilities for the return of students do not apply to students who are most affected by PLOA policy: rising sophomores, juniors and seniors. We are not allowed on campus this fall, negating the need to run the housing lottery or completing facilities to “accommodate” overflow. Classes will be taught remotely in empty classrooms that do not have enrollment constraints due to space. As first years, we did not even register for classes until we were on campus. More than two months were taken to arrange all these factors pre-coronavirus. How can students be expected to make this decision amid a pandemic-ridden world in less than two weeks? Bowdoin does not have control over internship notifications or transfer timelines, but it does have the power to make accommodations to the PLOA deadline.
President Rose wrote in his decision letter: “Our faculty, staff, students, parents, the Committee of Governance and Faculty Affairs], the senior staff, and the board all devoted extensive time and shared considerable wisdom in service of developing this plan.” Yet the administration explicitly states that faculty had no vote in deciding the final semester plan. The onus is on them to craft a digital experience that President Rose promised “provid[es] an excellent Bowdoin education to every student.” The Academic Affairs FAQ page reveals how this will be done: “For the fall, all courses will be offered through Blackboard … [Microsoft] Teams and Zoom, as well as different specialty software, where appropriate, will be used.” Houston, I think we’ve reached the outer limits of technology!
I don’t want to discredit the faculty, as they have been a steadfast source of compassion, insight, humour and generosity throughout this time. Thank you, and a continued thank-you for this upcoming fall. However, the expectation that current technology will deliver a promised Bowdoin education is unrealistic. And to expect faculty to have all the answers by July 8? Fictitious.
If we were living out our own version of the Apollo 13 drama, Bowdoin administration would act as Mission Control: listening to the concerns of astronauts (faculty) who are still learning to operate their specialty space suits and then pushing the launch button while they’re sleeping inside the shuttle. In all honesty, one probably shouldn’t be sleeping in a loaded vessel controlled by a Zoom-thumbnail sized commander, but everyone deserves a self-care nap after being told they need to GoPro an acid-base titration.
Coronavirus is here to stay for the foreseeable future. That is the reality. We all wish we lived in a fictitious film and could transform dire phrases into more positive, accountable ones like “Bowdoin admin, ?we’ve got? a problem. Let’s fix it together.” Regardless of whether it’s “we’ve got” or “we’ve had,” the problem still remains: a big fat looming July 12 deadline.
Apollo 13’s oxygen tank explosion led to 88 hours of crisis and an emergency evacuation of the astronauts. Thankfully, they returned to Earth safely. The 1974 film dramatized the crisis in poor taste and later added warnings informing audience members that the scenarios were fictitious. Unfortunately for us, we neither live in a fictitious world nor have received any forewarning. We cannot prevent crises from happening, but we can prevent an explosion. Extend the PLOA deadline. Together we hope we can land safely.
Lily Poppen is a member of the Class of 2022.