Student activism during a crisis is justified

Illustration by Diana Ortega

NAU has an obligation to consider student petitions in the wake of the campus shutdown.

With the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, NAU has elected to adhere to the precedent of many other universities and cancel in-person classes. With all classes shifting to online instruction, students are left with a myriad of questions and concerns — namely financial worries.

Many online, student-made petitions have emerged in the past two weeks. Despite their lack of support, the NAU administration has an obligation to respond and consider many of these petitions.

So far, the administration has decided that commencement ceremonies will be virtual and a postponed commencement for the graduating class of spring 2020 will take place Dec. 12 after the fall 2020 class graduates the day prior, according to an email sent by President Rita Cheng's office on March 24.

One student who made a petition on the website Change was current ASNAU President Ronni Marks. The petition was created before the announcement from Cheng and was a call to have the spring 2020 commencement postponed instead of canceled. With well over 3,000 signatures from NAU students and family alike, the petition has demonstrated to be important to the student body.

Many other petitions exist online from NAU students: Justice Poole, who wants the spring semester to be pass/fail; Jizel Gomez, who wants refunds for students who will not be using their meal plans and housing they already paid for; and The Lumberjack editor-in-chief Bailey Helton, an NAU senior requesting refunds for graduation attire in light of the ceremony’s cancellation. An email was also sent out to seniors March 25 stating that only unworn graduation regalia could be returned for a refund.

With thousands of signatures in total, these petitions should not be ignored. In fact, the administration would be hypocritical to not respond directly to the students about their specific concerns. The news thus far has been grim regarding refunds, however, the situation at hand is changing daily. Perhaps in the near future, on-campus NAU students will see refunds for housing or meal plans that are going unused.

As of March 30, there is a pending class-action lawsuit filed against the Arizona Board of Regents after the three public universities it oversees — ASU, NAU and UA, —have refused to provide refunds to its students for room, board and fees, according to NPR news outlet KJZZ. The article stated that "Only UA has offered any money in the form of a 10% to 20% discount on future housing costs. Most students moved out in March, and the lawsuit is seeking refunds for the unused services."

The modern outlook of NAU as an institution is much like a business. Many decisions, including the response to the new coronavirus, have some founding in business ethics and practices. This business is funded in part by the student population through tuitions, fees, and other amenities like housing and meal plans. With the World Health Organization officially declaring the new coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, we saw NAU officially announce the closure of in-person classes the very next day. However, this announcement brought no answer to the question of returning unused fees.

If NAU is a business, we should hold it to the business ethical standards. A business does not accept money for services they did not render.

Fees for athletics should be partially refunded due to the remaining seasons being canceled. The Big Sky Conference officially canceled spring competitions, which obliterates the viability of students to attend games they helped fund.

Class fees should also be refunded en masse. Personally, I have lost access to crucial camera and recording equipment due to the campus closure. I have, therefore, paid for services unrendered. Many other students face this issue as well due to many courses requiring the use of specialized items for completion.

Now is not the time to rescind our activism. Now is a time, more crucial than all others, to have our voices heard.

Many might view demanding refunds as petty or opportunistic. NAU may not be able to operate effectively without the funding that students provide through these smaller fees. I, in turn, ask why NAU should be allowed to act as a business when beneficial, but a community when not.

Students are expected to pay thousands of dollars for their education and no pandemic or crisis changes that fact. We should not, however, be expected to financially stimulate a partially-closed university — students' thousands of dollars are tuition payments, not generous donations.

The response ASU President Michael Crow gave to similar requests by students is not hopeful.

“Are we going to give them a refund? Are you kidding me? I mean, that’s what you want to talk to us about is a refund?” Crow said in an interview with The Arizona Republic.

Despite Crow's incredulous reaction, people should be asking these questions. It is easy to disregard an issue once it has passed, but the university should be held accountable and even forced to respond in a crisis. To ignore that necessity is to become satisfied with mediocrity.

"When the smoke clears, we're going to come back in and take a very close look at what were our expenses,” Crow said in an interview with The State Press, later explaining his sentiments.

We are living in an uncertain time. Many questions have gone unanswered and probably will remain unanswered for a long while. This is the time for us to unify and strive for sincerity and accountability in many of the institutions we interact with on a daily basis. With many of us practicing social distancing, petitions online are our best option, for now.

However, as Crow said, we cannot wait for the smoke to clear. Now is the time to call for action.