Is it defensible that Bowdoin students must pay full tuition for a semester of online learning?
Let us consider President Clayton Rose’s defense of this decision.
In the June 23 town hall for returning students, President Rose reasoned, “As I worked through in my own head how to think about this challenge [pricing tuition], the essence of what we do at Bowdoin is provide our students with an outstanding education delivered by outstanding faculty…And I am certain that our faculty will deliver a great education to all of our students in the fall in this digital method. And because of that, it led me to the conclusion that we should have the tuition set where we have it and the comprehensive fee set where we have it” (12:16-13:17). This statement is the only publicly issued rationale for President Rose’s decision, so we can conclude that his reasoning lies solely in this argument.
And what a flawed argument it is.
In President Rose’s reasoning, he assumes that the essence of Bowdoin is “an outstanding education delivered by outstanding faculty.” He also assumes that the essence of Bowdoin is realizable in an online setting.
To evaluate President Rose’s first assumption, we must ask the question, what is Bowdoin’s essence? President Rose provides a preliminary yet incomplete definition. “An outstanding education delivered by outstanding faculty” brings us near the essence of Bowdoin. However, our education is not confined to the classroom, nor to our professors. It only begins there. The classroom is the heart of Bowdoin, but it needs other organs to serve its purpose. The true Bowdoin class pumps blood into the jovial conversation between two students walking across campus after a lecture. It pumps blood into the earnest discussion at a booth in Moulton Dark Room. It pumps blood into the comradery of Smith Union studying. It pumps blood into the late-night debate amongst students huddled in a dorm room.
These are the moments in which students grow as moral creatures and future leaders. And these moments rely on a continuity of experience in which classes and conversation and meals and study tie seamlessly together. It is common knowledge that many students forget a large portion of class content just a few weeks after a semester’s end. Without this content fueling the discussions, friendships and student organizations that sprout up outside the classroom, the content would matter very little. The Bowdoin class is not an isolated entity existing in a void. It is rooted in a body, where it can provide vitality to the Bowdoin experience. What is the heart without the body? It is without purpose. Indeed, the essence of Bowdoin is not simply “an outstanding education delivered by outstanding professors.” Rather, it is an “outstanding education delivered by outstanding professors” within a shared living space.
President Rose’s first assumption is wrong, and his second—that the essence of Bowdoin is realizable in an online setting—is untenable as well.
We pay tuition to learn in the body of Bowdoin: its campus. We do not just learn from our professors. We learn from each other. We build on each other. We form priceless friendships with each other. And we do these things best by living with one another. There is no length of Zoom session, no number of consultants and no amount of sophistry that can translate a shared living space into the digital universe. Online classes do not preserve Bowdoin’s essence. If we do not recognize and uphold this truth, Bowdoin’s essence will degrade and the Bowdoin we know and love will cease to exist.
Clayton, the following message is for you: based on your own logic, your decision that students must pay full tuition for online classes is indefensible. It is your duty to reconsider that decision. Can you say to yourself, sincerely, that you would not feel cheated if you were in our shoes? At the very least, Clayton, give students the rationale they deserve. Give students the better—perhaps the harder and truer—reason for paying tens of thousands of dollars to take four or five atomized, digitalized, and, in some cases, lobotomized classes from their parents’ houses, banished from the intellectual melting pot that is our pine-laden oasis, our beloved campus. Our home.
Max Freeman is a member of the Class of 2022.