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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 — Houston, TX

Administration is prioritizing money and prestige over student well-being

Photo courtesy Cooper Bouton

By Cooper Bouton     9/28/21 10:23pm

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher editors.

As last summer neared its close and I began looking towards the fall semester, I was more excited than I had ever been to start a school year. After a difficult year of online classes and social isolation, I couldn’t wait to finally see all the friends that I had missed for the last 16 months, as well as meet the underclassmen that I had been unable to interact with throughout my junior year. Despite the rise of the Delta COVID-19 variant, with Chair of Crisis Management Advisory Committee Kevin Kirby’s email on Aug. 3 reassuring that, “We still intend to have as rich and vibrant a semester as possible and we want to avoid imposing the same level of constraints we had during the spring semester,” I was still filled with a strong sense of optimism about my final year at Rice. As a result, I had no qualms about paying my tuition. Unfortunately, it has since become clear that this optimism was misplaced, as was my trust in the Rice administration. By implementing policies that clearly contradict the expectation that administration had established for the semester, Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman has failed in her responsibilities to prioritize the needs of the undergraduate community and shown that administration is placing its finances and prestige over the wellbeing of its students.

It did not take long for the administration’s intentions to become clear, as a botched start to the semester saw no requirement for arrival testing of students travelling from all over the country and dozens of false positive test results during Orientation Week. At this point, it was understandable when all classes were moved online, alcohol was banned indoors and cross-college events were prohibited. However, once the false positives were discovered and classes eventually transitioned back to in person, the topic of reopening social life on campus was completely ignored without explanation. And while the COVID situation in Houston has worsened, Rice undergraduates are 96 percent vaccinated as of Aug. 22, which affords substantial protection from serious illness resulting from COVID-19 as well as vastly reduces the chance of transmission. The lack of communication around allowing social life on campus to resume begs the question of whether it was always the administration’s intention to hit the panic button at the slightest sign of trouble. However, it doesn’t seem a coincidence that they waited to do so until they had already secured an incoming class of freshman and the tuition money of all undergraduates who were left with few options after such a last minute policy change.

At most colleges, the steps that Rice administration has taken would not have a drastic effect on student life, as fraternities, sororities and clubs with houses off campus would still provide opportunities for social interaction. However, as everyone who chooses to attend Rice knows, fraternities and sororities are prohibited, and the residential college system makes campus the center of social life. Normally this fosters social interactions between people of different colleges, years and backgrounds, which is one of the best parts of Rice. However, under the strict rules currently, social life has been drastically stifled with no publics being allowed, Willy’s Pub being forced to remain closed, and private events including people of multiple colleges being prohibited. The sadly ironic result of this is that students who crave a normal college social life are being pushed off campus into the Houston community, which as of Sept. 27 was just under 53 percent vaccinated and had a 15.5 percent COVID-19 positivity rate over the past 14 days. This compares to the Rice community’s positivity rate of 0.22 percent over the past seven days, showing how driving students off campus does nothing but increase the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak among undergraduate students.

All of these draconian measures come at a time when mental health among college students has been negatively affected due to the conditions caused by the pandemic. Recent research has found that 71 percent of college students report increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic, and that 86 percent of these respondents identified a decrease in social interaction as a contributor to this problem. For administration to so callously disregard the mental health needs of its students after accepting our tuition money is a blatantly self-serving attempt to bolster the endowment while avoiding further national embarrassments such as the New York Times article covering the batch of false positive tests and the resulting online classes. 

Adding to this anxiety has been the lack of honest communication from administration about the social restrictions that have negatively impacted undergraduate mental health. To see the desire of students to return to some semblance of social normalcy, look no further than the rates at which we received the COVID-19 vaccination and filled out the Rice health form to report doing so. By Aug. 22, not only had 96 percent of undergraduates received the vaccine, but 99 percent had filled out the health form. Both of these results easily surpassed all other groups of the campus community, including faculty, staff and graduate students. It is not a surprise that undergraduates were the most motivated out of any of these groups considering the direct relationship that administration established between high rates of vaccinations and relaxed social restrictions such as to, “hold all classes in-person, to remove size limits on gatherings, drop our face mask requirements, and fully utilize our residential colleges.” This was all laid out in the “Planning for the Fall Semester”  communication which set a 90 percent vaccination goal to allow for these changes, a mark which we have long ago surpassed.

With all of this being said, the simple answer to this problem is to continue weekly COVID testing efforts while beginning to reopen social life on campus, including allowing limited capacity indoor public and private events, as well for Willy’s Pub to reopen. It is past time that Rice administration prioritizes the needs of its students over profits and prestige. We as undergraduates should accept nothing less.

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