Letter to the editor: Refund student tuition

OU Special Lecturer Chris Dingwall.

Photo courtesy of Chris Dingwall

OU Special Lecturer Chris Dingwall.

Chris Dingwall, Contributor

On Friday afternoon, the Detroit News reported that Oakland University had mistakenly informed 5500 students that they received Platinum Presidential Scholar Awards. This is just the university’s most recent blunder. In addition to belatedly notifying students about canceling in-person classes in December, threatening to cut their professors’ pay in August, and hiking tuition rates by 4.2% in June, the university appears dead set on alienating its student body. To make amends, Oakland should not only give full scholarships to the students it misinformed; it should refund tuition for every student this semester.

Refunding tuition would immediately benefit student pocketbooks and morale. I am a nontenured lecturer who teaches in the Sociology Department and in the Honors College. Although I can only speak for the roughly 250 students I have taught since the pandemic began, it is obvious to faculty and students alike that students are overworked and overstressed. In order to support their education most of my students work part time and many work full time while taking full course loads; others have lost work during the pandemic or have taken on unpaid caregiving work to support ailing family members. Under these conditions, even the most dedicated students will fall behind.

Faculty can only do so much to address our students’ financial burden in our classes. We are generous with the only material gifts we have to give: time and grades. We have waived our attendance policies and reduced our reading loads; we have simplified our assignments and granted extensions weeks or months after dues dates. Make no mistake: Oakland faculty have been teaching to the highest standards of our disciplines throughout the pandemic. We want our students to learn and to succeed. But students’ legitimate requests for accommodations are proliferating; we can only stretch our syllabuses so far before the intellectual substance of our courses disappear. This is a disservice to the intellectual work faculty perform to say nothing of the mission of the university itself. But it is also an insult to students who must work to pay for our courses.

So far, the university’s response to students’ economic hardship has been lackluster. While the university froze tuition and canceled in-person classes for the 2020-2021 school year, it has followed those wise and generous measures with blunder after blunder. Its tuition hike in June appears to have had no relation to the university’s financial needs. Its bad faith negotiations with faculty in August set the beginning of the school year into turmoil and frayed trust among students and the administration. Its vaccine mandate was belated and remains confusing. The president’s Thanksgiving message from her opulent mansion was tone deaf. While the university offers provisions for student mental health–four free sessions of counseling at the Graham Health Center–it seems blithely indifferent to the economic origins of student stress.

To be sure, Oakland’s student emergency fund provides some limited relief for students in desperate economic circumstances; but it is not enough to address the scale of the problem. Refunding tuition would allow students to take fewer shifts and focus more on their courses; it would allow them to reduce their loans and thus their postgraduation debt; it would allow them— heaven forbid–to have some fun during the prime of their lives. Classes will continue. Professors will teach. And students will learn with less worry about making ends meet.

One objection is obvious: How will Oakland pay for operations without student tuition? It’s a real question. But so far Oakland’s favorite answers–capping faculty compensation and increasing student tuition–are unsustainable and perplexing, particularly given our location in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. Rather than lay the burden of fiscal discipline on the shoulders of underpaid faculty and indebted students, the administration should work harder to raise money among alumni and businesses who have stakes in seeing Oakland become an elite public university. It could also lead efforts among Michigan universities to lobby the state to restore public funding of higher education back to its 1970 levels–the true source of our budget woes. 

Refunding tuition is an immediate need for this semester; our collective goal should be to make tuition free forever.