Penn Students Seething after Loss of Housing, Jobs

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THE UNIVERSITY of Pennsylvania’s historic Quadrangle, along with all its other dormitories,, stands dark and empty as most of its 25,000 students have been expelled from their residence – and many from their livelihood as well.

On Mar. 19, the unofficial grad student union at Penn, Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP) posted a petition demanding better treatment for students after the University evicted all residents of campus dormitories in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The issues raised in the petition are nationwide and endemic to academe. 17% of U.S. students have faced a lack of safe and reliable housing due to COVID-19-related closures, according to a survey conducted by RISE, a group that advocates for free college.

Although the University did approve several hundred requests to stay on campus and other requests for financial assistance for travel, it is unclear how many requests were denied. “We feel like no one cares for us just because we don’t have the money and are somehow less important,” Hussein Khambhalia told the Inquirer last week. Khambhalia is from Tanzania, where he does not have reliable internet and shares a room with two siblings. He is just one of hundreds of Penn undergraduates whose application to remain on campus was denied.

The University is acting in concert with many other schools nationwide and feels justified in its actions.

“Human contact (…) is a fact of life in a university environment, whether in classrooms, dining halls or at University events,” an official statement reads. “Eliminating large gatherings and creating social distancing are important steps to help prevent the spread of the virus. To achieve this, we want as few people on campus as possible. The risk of keeping people on campus in close quarters is far greater than sending them home.”

However, the students behind the GET-UP petition feel differently. They claim that “these are not reasonable responses to prevent the transmission of COVID-19,” and they may have a point. Forcing students to travel from a high-density campus, through airport crowds, and back to their older adult parents is a recipe for viral spread and is even in direct opposition to a citywide initiative to cease all evictions.

City Councilmember Helen Gym (at Large) criticized Penn’s evictions, calling them “a violation of the spirit of what we are trying to accomplish.” Gym is referring to her recently proposed resolution calling for a moratorium on all evictions in Philadelphia. “We need to be able to keep people in their homes in the event that they fall ill or have a required quarantine,” Gym said. “We don’t want people to end up on the street.”

Gym’s use of the term “home” is interesting. Perhaps the University just sees the dorms as housing, but many campus residents feel differently. “A university is not just a place you go and learn, it’s a community, it’s a place where people live,” Penn undergraduate Maher Abdel Samad told the Daily Pennsylvanian last week.

The word “home” came up several times in the testimonials of evicted Graduate Assistants. Despite contracts that promise secure and safe housing until June 1, 2020, the Penn administration made it clear that GAs should leave.

“All in [College Houses and Academic Services] cannot understate how much we appreciate you and your contribution to the College House system. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” the director of four-year houses and residential programs wrote in an email on Mar. 12. Days later, the university terminated GA contracts.

One GA, Hector Kilgoe, writes that Penn has “fired all of the graduate associates who still remain in the college houses in order to break our contracts and attempt to evict us all.” This seems to contradict Penn’s official statement that “all University paid employees will continue to be paid.”

Contradictory reports are inherent in any story about Penn, given its administration’s skill at spinning. Perhaps the nuance here is that Penn, with the backing of the Trump Administration’s National Labor Relations Board, does not consider its graduate students to be employees. Or perhaps it is because GAs work for free housing and meal swipes rather than direct payment. Whatever the reasoning, the result is hardship as evidenced by the petition’s many testimonials.

According to Samuel Samore, one of the authors of the GET-UP petition, it is not just the GAs that are hurting. “Other graduate students living in campus housing have been forced to leave that housing. Also, a significant number of external funding sources have [been] pulled … leaving many graduate students vulnerable to loss of income this summer and beyond.… Compounding this issue is the fact that, for many graduate students, the crisis has made it impossible to make progress on essential dissertation research …, so that these students will need more time to complete their degrees, and they will run out of years of guaranteed funding that much sooner unless Penn acts.”

It’s hard to feel too sorry for the undergrads at elite institutions like Penn, though. At this school, which graduated the likes of Donald, Ivanka, and Tiffany, for every struggling Highly-Aided student there is a handful of others who are the children of the economically privileged 1%. Hence the student body comprises a paradoxical mix of victims and victimizers. One trending article written by Dominic Gregorio, Penn ’’, laments that “Penn stole our senior year” and calls the pandemic “the common cold” and an “overreaction from the hippie-millennial coalition.”

Although GET-UP has not yet officially presented university administrators with its petition, it has been widely circulating for over a week now, even receiving a mention on Bloomberg. In summary, Bloomberg identifies a dichotomy “between two visions of a university” as either “a community devoted to the well-being of its members, or an elitist institution dedicated to learning above all else.” Bloomberg captures the essence of the COVID-19 evictions, which is teaching a generation of scholars that, in America, institutions of higher education are market actors. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the business of online degrees.

With liberal-arts colleges, state universities and the Ivy League temporarily transitioning to online courses, some students, particularly those in masters programs, want a refund for what is widely considered an inferior educational experience.

It is understandable that master’s-degree students are the most unsettled by the move to online courses. In a candid exposé of the scandal behind American higher education, author Kevin Carey explains that unlike colleges, masters programs are a “black box—there is no requirement to publish any admissions data. This means universities can dramatically lower their admissions standards and enroll thousands of highly profitable students without sullying their brand.” It also explains why online degrees with inflated price tags is now a billion-dollar industry and a significant contributor to the nation’s $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. And things are only getting worse under the Trump Administration with Diane Jones leading Betsy DeVos’s higher education agenda.

Perhaps Penn graduate student Hector Kilgoe sums up the situation best. Administrators “seem to have this drive to make sure everyone gets out no matter what. They’re definitely putting the institution first. This is all about risk management. It has nothing to do with taking care of us.”

At present, the university has made no announcement regarding tuition refunds, nor refunds for room and board fees, and the substantial problems the petition raises have not been addressed or resolved.

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