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OPINION: Where is Bowdoin’s intellectual fearlessness?

July 9, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

When Bowdoin announced its plans for the fall semester on June 22, I was not surprised or particularly upset. COVID-19 is far from under control, and a vaccine is still many months away. The usual residential college model, with its tight learning, living and dining quarters, seems nearly impossible in an era of social distancing. So, reading through the announcement that Monday morning, I resigned myself to another semester—maybe even an entire senior year—conducted via Zoom.

Now, as other small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast release their plans for the fall, my apathy is wearing off. Bates and Colby will bring students back to campus, as will Williams and Middlebury. It remains to be seen whether these schools and other similar institutions will succeed in implementing their plans, but their creativity and flexibility reflect a sense of compassion for their students and an acknowledgement of the difficulties presented by this pandemic. Moreover, they recognize the importance of a semester in residence, even one fundamentally different from others before it, to the college experience and the community it nurtures.

Why, then, is Bowdoin any different? Compared to these schools’ responses, ours seems unimaginative, unnecessarily rigid and unjust. Re-reading President Rose’s announcement, I can’t help but think of his frequent appeals to intellectual fearlessness. What Bowdoin’s plans demonstrate instead is intellectual cowardice.

Take the academic plan which Bowdoin will follow. Many schools have revised their academic expectations, instituting new models which may be more appropriate for a semester in a pandemic. But Bowdoin has instead chosen a more traditional four-course model, with no reductions in its credit requirements. To make matters worse, the College has also eliminated the universal Credit/No Credit policy which it applied this spring. Both of these policies fail to recognize the difficulties presented by COVID-19. Many students, whether exhausted by online interaction or distracted by real socioeconomic and medical concerns, will likely find considerably less value in their education. Why not provide Credit/No Credit as an option for all courses or reduce course loads, as others have done? By continuing to adhere to more traditional academic expectations, Bowdoin is refusing to acknowledge the realities of its students’ experiences during a global pandemic. The still-hefty price tag certainly doesn’t help either.

Then there are students’ living arrangements. Bowdoin has decided to bring first years, transfer students and a limited number of others back to campus in the fall, citing health concerns and the importance of residency to the first-year experience. Yet there are many more students who rely on living at Bowdoin for their financial security, mental health and more, particularly students with unstable home situations and international students whose visas are dependent on in-person instruction. I doubt that Bowdoin could have responsibly invited all students back to campus, especially considering the density of the residential community and the vulnerability of Brunswick residents to an outbreak. Nonetheless, its current policy still seems unfair, both to those students who will be disadvantaged by staying home and to the first years who will start college as participants in an epidemiological experiment. Bowdoin seems to have given little consideration to how its residential policies will exacerbate inequality and negatively impact students.

With these circumstances in mind, many students may wish to request a leave of absence. This has its own risks; there are no guarantees that COVID-19 will subside in time for students to re-enroll in 2021. But as several of our peer institutions have recognized, it is important to allow students to take time off from college without penalty, especially if they feel that their education and well-being will be impacted negatively by an online semester. Once again, Bowdoin has taken the opposite tack. Though applications for a leave of absence still have most of the same requirements as they have had before, students are now being told that they may not be readmitted for the semester they intend to return, a threat which seems to be absent at other NESCAC institutions. With courses now set to be released on July 8, students considering a leave will have four days to make a fully-informed decision. Why the administration has not revised the leave deadline accordingly is unclear, but it seems that Bowdoin is afraid of the loss of revenue posed by students taking time off, and is making this option as inconvenient as it can. These restrictions are an insult to students, who are more than just the College’s customers. We must be allowed to chart our own educational course if we feel the need to do so, and this means we should not be all but denied the chance to take a leave of absence.

The sum of these policies, though perhaps well-intended, is an abandonment of Bowdoin’s responsibilities to its students. It would be naïve to demand that all students should be able to return to campus this fall, or to assume that life on campus would be anything close to what we may be used to. These are extraordinary times, and we must adapt accordingly. But the ways in which our institution has chosen to adapt are rather unremarkable, even as our administrators continue to emphasize the excellence of a Bowdoin education.

Maybe that’s not out of character, though. I agree that Bowdoin provides high-quality instruction, and I’m certain professors will do everything they can to make the best of this situation. But if there’s anything this school has taught me so far, it is that Bowdoin—and its administration, in particular—is far from remarkable. From its mistreatment of housekeeping staff, to its dismantling of the Bowdoin Labor Alliance’s COVID-19 relief fund and to its tepid response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the College has failed to live up to its own high standards in recent years. Revising its plans for the fall, especially after so many other colleges have provided fairer and more imaginative solutions, would be a good start if Bowdoin truly wishes to strive for intellectual fearlessness.

Lowell Ruck is a member of the Class of 2021.

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