At an open Q&A with Dean of the College Jill Dolan and Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun hosted by the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), uncertainty was a frequent response to students’ questions and concerns.
While the University community waits until early July for President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 to announce whether the fall semester will be held on campus, Dolan and Calhoun indicated that administrators are brainstorming solutions to the many problems the COVID-19 pandemic has raised — such as the drawbacks of online learning, the dangers of a “second wave” of infections, and the limitations placed on social gatherings.
In their responses, Dolan and Calhoun suggested that a return to campus in the fall would more likely end early than start late. “We would not shift in the middle and bring people back,” Calhoun said.
In response to concerns about coursework, Dolan brought up the idea of a “summer session,” which could allow students and faculty to return to campus in the summer to focus on “experiential” or lab-based work.
Finally, the administrators suggested that the University is exploring the possibility of opening “its own lab” to conduct COVID-19 tests, thus enabling quick and accurate testing for students and staff.
Most of the issues discussed — ranging from gap years and student life to academics and financial aid — will ultimately depend on Eisgruber’s anticipated early-July announcement, but both administrators were careful to stress the importance of equity in decisions regarding the fall.
Dolan and Calhoun reiterated earlier statements about gap years, stating that it would be difficult to accommodate large numbers of returning students in future academic years and expressing the hope that few students opt to take a gap year. A recent USG survey showed that 63.4 percent of student respondents “would seriously consider” a leave of absence if the fall semester was conducted online.
In the event more students opt to take gap years than can be accommodated in the 2021–2022 academic year, the University is exploring a variety of scenarios, Dolan explained, adding that the decision would depend on the number of students who defer in each class.
“We want to have a process that is legal and equitable,” she said. “We will likely think about making cohort decisions rather than individual decisions ... It might be something like a lottery if that is the fairest way to go about it.”
In a follow-up, one student asked what these “cohort” decisions might mean, inquiring which graduating classes would be prioritized.
“We’re at the very beginning of thinking about this,” Dolan replied. “Class years might work if we were having partial students in the fall — perhaps having seniors and first-years come on campus. Frankly, I would love student input on this question.”
One student asked if students taking a gap year or leave of absence would be permitted to stay on the University’s Student Health Plan (SHP). While the SHP allows students to maintain coverage during a medical leave of up to 90 days, the plan as currently written depends on enrollment.
“I don’t think we can extend the plan if you’re not a currently enrolled student,” Calhoun said. “One would hope in that instance there is a parent or family plan available, though I know that may be complicated as well.”
According to Dolan and Calhoun, grading policies, including the pass/D/fail policy, have not yet been determined for the fall.
“The hope is that we’re able to return to something that resembles normal in the Fall, but we want to make these decisions when President Eisgruber decides where we will be,” Dolan said. “We will prepare for different possibilities, so our P/D/F grading policy is released when there is a decision in July.”
One student asked about how the University would ensure grading equity across its many academic departments. The policies of universal and optional P/D/F grading sparked widespread debate in the spring term. More recently, controversy has erupted over academic integrity violations in MAT 202: Linear Algebra with Applications.
Dolan said that while “there’s little we do centrally to determine how departments and faculty do their grading,” the administration wants departments to “work together to determine the fairest grading standards.”
Calhoun added that if the fall semester is online, a “working group” will seek to address disparities of experience, and will likely continue initiatives from this semester, such as the internet access emergency fund.
One student asked about laboratory and other hands-on courses, which pose unique challenges for a virtual fall.
“One solution is that students are sent various kits for hands-on learning with some screen-based input from faculty and assistant instructors,” Dolan said. “If we are hybrid in the fall … we may be able to do lab-based classes.”
Dolan also cited the possible summer session.
Calhoun and Dolan explained that course formats may be altered. Some courses may be “held off until the spring,” while others may receive additional precept times or similar alterations to accommodate virtual learning. These alterations would accommodate international students, whose academic challenges in a virtual fall semester would be compounded by time zones.
“We don’t want anyone to have to get up at 2 in the morning or 4 in the morning to take a class at Princeton time,” Dolan said.
If necessary, the University will add an additional Add/Drop period to allow students to “potentially revise their schedules depending on the new course formats.”
However, even if lectures are pre-recorded, the University will not allow students to concurrently enroll in courses that occur at the same time. Dolan said this is due to the “overlapping demands of time and responsibilities” that such a policy would permit.
Several students asked how research opportunities will be affected by an online fall.
Dolan explained that there will likely not be changes to student research opportunities. For students who need certain campus resources for senior thesis research, Dolan said that University librarians are working to digitize resources.
“Ultimately, each department will have to look into what is possible, and maybe possibly change the thesis’ expectations,” she said. “Our goal is for you to graduate in four years, so maybe each department will have to adjust their expectations for the undergraduate thesis due to these circumstances.”
University Finances & Financial Aid
Many students inquired about the University’s financial aid policy for the fall, asking if the cost of tuition would change in a virtual semester, if financial aid would be affected, and how the University would deal with student and staff employment.
Dolan and Calhoun emphasized that the University will continue to meet students’ full demonstrated financial need. They acknowledged, too, that in light of the economic crisis the nation now faces, it is possible that a greater number of students than usual will qualify for financial aid.
The administrators did not comment definitively on whether tuition, room, and board costs would change in a virtual semester.
The University has previously stated that the pandemic will pose financial challenges to the institution and require a higher-than-average draw from its endowment.
According to Dolan and Calhoun, some of the alterations made to University finances are raise deferrals, changes to “vacancy savings,” and other efforts to balance the year’s budget.
“There are going to be some administrative, non-personnel cuts,” Calhoun said, “but they’re at a degree at this point that most departments are not experiencing dramatic cuts to service.”
One student asked about Residential College Adviser compensation in a virtual fall semester. Calhoun replied that the University is planning to utilize student RCAs “more than ever,” and has been “talking” about “fairly compensating students who do remote work.”
Another student asked whether dining hall workers and other staff members would face pay cuts. Calhoun explained that the University highly prioritizes keeping its “regular, continuing staff” of workers “as whole as possible for as long as possible.”
Raise deferments, however, she explained, will apply to everyone at the institution.
“This is so that we don’t have to lay off [or] furlough individuals who have ongoing employment,” she said. “We don’t want to have heavier penalties for any group; we’ve tried to do everything we can to secure everyone.”
Students inquired about what social distancing procedures may look like in the case of an in-person semester.
Calhoun explained the University is “likely to follow state policy” and use “robust testing” to identify hotspots to isolate and quarantine community members appropriately.
“Of course, our expectations are that students will be compliant with social distancing guidelines, and we already have measures in case those expectations are not met,” she said.
“Our individual expectations and desires may be suppressed by the community health, and we hope and expect that students come back with this mentality,” she added.
For Dolan, the essence of a return to a residential fall semester is that “nothing will be the same.”
“We’ll have to wear masks for certain, if we come back, and all of the ways we’re accustomed to interacting with one another will have to change,” she said. “Whatever it’s going to be, it’s not going to be the same culture or environment that it was last December and January.”
As a recent USG report found, students struggled more than usual with mental health in the remote spring semester. According to Calhoun, the University’s new telehealth and counseling services were “quite robust,” and additional adjustments will be made in the fall.
In order to permit residential life on campus, Calhoun said, “the first major hurdle is developing adequate, robust, and regular testing.” She indicated that there is “work being done to see if we can stand up our own lab and how quickly/accurately can we get results.”
Calhoun also said the University is preparing for “quick and adequate” contact tracing and allocating sufficient space for sick students to self-isolate. The University is looking to partner with local hotels, if necessary, to provide additional space for self-isolation, she added.
For immunocompromised or otherwise at-risk students, faculty, or staff, Dolan said there would need to be “some mechanism” in place to help these individuals participate in academic and campus life.
“We wouldn’t want to coerce anyone who doesn’t feel safe to come back to campus, so knowing that, we would make accommodations,” Dolan said.
In the event of a virtual semester, one student pointed out, continued storage of student belongings, left behind in March, might present an unsustainable cost. Calhoun answered that the University is considering whether to transfer belongings into those students’ selected dorm rooms.
A larger context
Students asked about how government decisions, as well as the actions of other universities, will affect the University’s decisions.
“Obviously, geography matters, and the Governor determines what happens in the state,” Dolan said. “That said, our campus experience is so different from, say Rutgers’ experience, because we have a deeply residential experience ... Even though schools like NYU are making decisions, their world is so different from ours that we have to make an individual decision.”
Dolan also pointed out that the University may not immediately decide to move students back on-campus even if New Jersey eases restrictions.
“There will still be questions about testing, how to get students back to campus, availability of testing, how to get access to non-invasive testing,” she said. “The state is one issue, but the campus is another issue, and many of these decisions have to be considered at the same time.”
Finally, the administrators commented on how a possible vaccine might influence the decision to open or shutter campus to students in the 2020–2021 school year.
“My understanding is that if we made a shift in timing of the first semester, it would not be to delay arriving; it would be to end early,” Calhoun said. “We would not shift in the middle and decide to bring people back.”
“By delaying, we push ourselves into a typical flu season that we think will be complicated by the coronavirus,” she added.
Calhoun and Dolan both emphasized throughout the event the importance of student input in the University decision-making process, with USG survey results and feedback already circulating among the administration.
They also encouraged students to relay their specific concerns and creative ideas to faculty members and administrators who may find them useful.
“It is important for us to include all mediums for students to get involved in planning streams,” Calhoun said.
Over 120 people attended the event, which was held at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, May 26.
The next USG-sponsored Q&A with University administrators is scheduled to take place in July.