Some COVID-19 changes should be here to stay
Ben Testani | Thursday, April 16, 2020
In the Notre Dame universe, there have been wide-ranging consequences from the global pandemic currently ravaging our healthcare system and requiring everyone to socially isolate. The University has largely done its best to respond rapidly and flexibly to the challenges presented by COVID-19 to the Notre Dame family. While some of the changes were necessary but unfortunate (pulling students studying abroad home, moving commencement for the class of 2020 to May 2021), I believe some of the new policies Notre Dame has adopted due to COVID-19 should be kept permanently or adapted slightly for the pandemic-free future.
Greater pass/fail leniency
On March 27, University Provost Thomas Burish announced changes to the grading policy for the spring 2020 semester. Students are now allowed to view their final grades before deciding if they would like to accept a traditional letter grade or change the class grade to either a “pass” or for “no-credit.” This change to the grading policy is necessary for this spring, as all students are now without the resources afforded to them on campus and may lack things like a reliable computer, Internet access or specialty software. Other classes, especially in subjects such as engineering, design, film or architecture, may simply not translate to an online format.
In “normal” times, Notre Dame allows each student to take one class pass/fail per semester, but only in their junior and senior years, and only provided that class is purely elective. I think the best solution is a compromise between the two policies. For the sake of academic integrity, in typical times it is not optimal to permit students to decide if they want to receive a grade for their work at the end of a class. But why are we limited to one class in the latter half of our undergraduate experience? A well-rounded liberal arts education is one of the primary reasons many students choose Notre Dame. Students will take a wider variety of classes if they could pursue their secondary interests without fearing for the well-being of their grade point average. More College of Science students could learn Arabic or Mandarin. More Arts and Letters students could learn Java or Python. I propose altering the pass/fail policy to remove the limit on the number of classes per semester and expand the option to sophomores as well. I also suggest allowing at least one pass/fail class per minor or secondary degree to further incentivize students diversifying their academic interests.
Zoomiversity of Notre Dame every year
Like many students around the world, I am not the biggest fan of Zoom. My professors are doing their best to keep our discussions focused and lectures invigorating, but a class that was designed to be taught in-person will never be perfect after being made digital midway through the semester. Notre Dame professors in particular have been challenged by the transition to online education because during regular spring and fall semesters there are no undergraduate courses taught entirely online. However, every summer, Notre Dame offers online classes ranging from robot ethics to free speech. These summer classes were available long before COVID-19 and will presumably be available long after the pandemic subsides. If the infrastructure is available, why not offer a sampling of digital classes online during the standard academic term as well?
Online classes allow for greater scheduling flexibility, especially for working students. They require no physical space on campus, and as such could presumably be offered at a cheaper credit cost than a traditional in-person course. By no means am I proposing turning Notre Dame into the type of for-profit, all-digital college you see advertised at 3 a.m. on Adult Swim. But if Notre Dame faculty can make online classes work with one week of warning, clearly some all-online classes could be offered each semester.
The rent is too high
On April 2, Notre Dame’s Director of the Office of Student Accounts announced prorated refunds for room and board. This was another commendable move by the University, especially as many universities are dragging their heels in refunding students for the dorms they no longer have access to and meals they will never eat. However, as I laid out in a previous column, our room and board charges are far too high when compared to other Midwestern universities. Notre Dame’s room and board is approximately $4,000 more expensive than other large schools in the area, such as Indiana University and the University of Michigan. The fact that the year before all Notre Dame students will become subject to the six-semester mandate, all on-campus students were expelled from accessing their residences for safety reasons seems like enough of a sign to me that this policy is a bad idea. Yet Notre Dame is determined to mandate first years, sophomores and juniors live on campus. If the University is dead set on forcing students to stay on campus, then it should permanently reduce the cost of room and board.
If Notre Dame can afford to provide nearly $4,000 refunds to every on-campus student, surely the University could afford to cut the cost of living on campus by a few thousand dollars forever. This would represent a compromise where administrators are satisfied by having more students in the residence halls and students and their families are not as burdened by room and board costs. A cost reduction seems even more prudent when considering the median rent for a two bedroom apartment in South Bend is only $5,190 annually as opposed to $15,640 in room and board for only around seven months of housing and meals.
If I had to summarize the theme of my columns throughout the year, I would say the focus has been on the glacial pace at which Notre Dame has modernized in relation to other major American universities. From institutionalized and outdated policies, like parietals and not allowing students to self-identify their gender, to the newer, yet somehow as outdated housing mandate, it has felt like Notre Dame is moving backward at times. The response to COVID-19 showed me and my fellow undergraduates that the University’s leadership is more than prepared to respond rapidly to modern challenges, and by and large, all of the University’s pandemic-inspired changes have been for the better.
Global crises like this one often give rise to rapid innovation and policy changes at all levels. The lessons we are learning from COVID-19 should be no different. Expanding pass/fail options would allow for greater academic enrichment for students and greater classroom diversity for faculty. Increased online instruction opportunities would give students and faculty greater scheduling flexibility while cutting down on costs for the administration. Reducing Notre Dame’s room and board charges would bring Notre Dame more in-line with our regional peers while making a Notre Dame education more accessible for all, while also allowing the administration to mandate six semesters on campus. It is my sincere hope that the University learns from its mostly excellent response to the COVID-19 pandemic and puts these lessons to use to further improve the University we all know and love.
Ben Testani is a senior studying international economics, Arabic and Spanish. He comes to Notre Dame via central New York and while currently residing off-campus, will always be a proud Alumni Dawg. He welcomes feedback at [email protected] or @BenTestani on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.