Following the University’s Oct. 15 announcement that the spring semester will remain mostly virtual, Oxford College sophomores are voicing frustration and confusion about on-campus housing prioritization, academic adjustments and tuition payments.
Housing capacity at Oxford will expand by 75 rooms, which are prioritized for first-year and international students, according to an Oct. 15 email sent to the student body. That decision means most of Oxford’s graduating class, who were sent home halfway through their second semester as first-years, will not return to the campus.
Oxford College Dean Douglas Hicks said that a third of the first-year class is remote; out of roughly 170 international students enrolled at Oxford, only 17 are currently on campus, largely due to travel restrictions.
“From what I’ve seen, sophomores are largely, most of them are very upset,” Oxford Student Government Association (SGA) President Eleanor Liu (21Ox) told the Wheel. “Many of them chose Oxford specifically for that small in-person experience that you really can’t trade.”
Oxford SGA hosted a sophomore-specific town hall Oct. 16, with Hicks and other administrators fielding student questions over Zoom. Attendance peaked at 118 participants.
Hicks said spring plans were the product of “collaboration with our friends and colleagues in Atlanta,” emphasizing that he and other Oxford representatives were involved throughout the decision-making process.
“Probably the biggest thing [is] that we had to limit our population on campus to the number of residence hall rooms we have,” Hicks said.
With that in mind, administration decided that “being consistent across the University and helping those first-year students to keep their momentum was the way to go.”
Sophomores living on campus in the spring will include Resident Advisors, “Healthy Eagles” who work to promote public health on campus and sophomores with “academic reasons” to be on campus, including experiential needs and research scholars.
Additionally, sophomores “who otherwise would not have a suitable learning environment” can apply to live on campus.
The 75 additional rooms was the result of “guesstimating,” according to Director of Residential Education and Services Michele Hempfling, assuming students currently on campus will stay and accounting for early graduates. Hicks said the College will offer more spots if they become available.
Hicks said the current ratio of 30% in-person to 70% online classes would be similar in the spring. Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Valerie Molyneaux said Course Atlas will be finalized Nov. 2 and cross-registration would again be available during the Add/Drop/Swap period starting Dec. 7.
Addressing tuition, Hicks said “it’s the same education that we’re delivering online and in person.” He cited the continuing decision to hold tuition at last year’s rates in addition to a broader increase in financial aid for the year.
Acknowledging prolonged student stress without breaks, Hicks implored students to reach out to professors about workloads, adding that the administration is considering the creation of reading days and other days off from classes during the semester. Dean of Campus Life Joseph Moon added “physical health is our number one concern with COVID, but mental health is right there.”
In an Oct. 16 email to the Wheel, Oxford Director of Communications Cathy Wooten said that isolation locations are currently in residential floors away from other residents. Since the start of the semester, four students tested positive for COVID-19 and 12 were quarantined.
“We set aside certain residential floors, away from students who are well, where students in isolation … can stay and receive all the services they need,” the email read. “Students are quarantined in a block of rooms set aside in a local hotel. We will keep these rooms for spring semester.”
To house sophomores in Oxford with the single occupancy requirement, the College “would’ve had to rent every hotel” in the nearby city of Covington and some in Conyers, according to Hicks. That option, Wooten said, would not offer “the full Oxford experience.”
During the latter part of the town hall, student questions centered on sophomores’ issues with current online experiences, although Hicks attempted at several points to reorient the conversation around spring plans.
“Sometimes I want to close my computer and just break down,” Phillip Lee (21Ox) said at the town hall. “I can’t look at my computer anymore, I can’t look at a screen anymore, but I have to.”
Regarding student requests to offer pass-fail options for classes, similar to the Spring 2020 semester, Dean of Academic Affairs Kenneth Anderson said last year’s “unique” situation warranted a pass-fail policy change. Anderson said administration was “in conversation” about extending the policy, but “the way this semester has unfolded would argue against changing the policy.”
Molyneaux added that grading policies will not change, citing decisions made by peer institutions in saying that a pass-fail system would make students less competitive for graduate and professional schools.
“Why can’t we just get one thing to take the burden off our shoulders when our shoulders are so heavily burdened right now,” Lee asked about the pass-fail decision.
Hicks responded that he “heard the challenge that [Lee] was facing in this crappy COVID situation,” continuing that “we care as faculty much more about what you’re learning than what your grades are.”
Pooja Addala (21Ox) cited difficult home situations as one reason why tuition should be lowered, stating her school year thus far has been “blatantly not the same experience.”
“My experience at Oxford is being with my friends, going to classes together, studying in the Student Center and having fun,” Addala explained. “Versus my experience at home is living with and taking care of an autistic sister, my two-year-old cousin, my dad is out of the country dealing with his dying dad … so many students are dealing with similar-esque situations.”
Moon responded that while there is “no comparison” between the remote and on-campus experiences, he underscored that “what you may be thinking is happening on campus is really different too this semester.”
“We’re aware of the financial challenges that all are facing. I will say that all the staff on this call have faced a salary reduction when they are working harder than they’ve ever worked before,” Hicks added.
Hicks said he was scheduling a meeting with SGA for next week at which Liu said SGA would advocate for one pass-fail class “at the minimum.”
Liu emphasized that “the institutional history of Oxford is so short,” with traditions around social clubs especially becoming lost as sophomores are absent on campus.
SGA Oxford-Atlanta Liaison Alyssa Stegall (21Ox), one of 60 sophomores currently on campus, was frustrated with the administration’s decision. Even without a majority of sophomores back on campus, she said bringing back even 50 to 60 “would make it a lot less lonely.”
During the town hall, Hicks said the College would hold an in-person graduation ceremony in the spring in addition to a “giant Oxford day on campus and celebrate with you all sometime next year.”
“I know that’s precious little solace for missing another semester,” Hicks acknowledged.