This week, GSSC looked a little different, holding a town-hall-style meeting with students and senior Deans. Bwog gives you the question-by-question details.

After opening up the meeting, Student Body President Jane Jeong ran through attendance and adopted meeting notes quickly, segueing into introducing the week’s guests: the GS senior administrative Deans! Present at GSSC were Dean Rosen-Metsch, the Dean of GS; Dean Rodgers, the Vice Dean of GS; Dean Delva, the Dean of Students; Dean Rosner, the Dean of Academic Affairs; and Director Rodriguez, the Director of Education Financing. Remember these names, because they will come up quite a lot.

This week, the majority of the GSSC meeting was in the format of a town hall. GS students were invited to an open Zoom meeting where they had a chance to ask the Deans questions about…well, anything. Questions ranged from P/D/F policies to the allocation of Giving Day donations, and the majority focused on financial aid and the GS budget.

For convenience, this article will go question by question, summarizing the points made by each speaker. These are not direct quotations, but rather summaries of points made. If you are interested in hearing the full quotes, the video of the full meeting can be found here.

The first section of the town hall was a set of predetermined questions which can be found here. GSSC members read these questions aloud and occasionally posed follow-up questions.

Will students be able to P/D/F classes next semester?

Dean Rosner replied that GS recently approved the P/D/F option for this semester, and during that time, the committee talked about putting it in place for the full year. The committee wanted to see the impact on the Fall before setting the policy for Spring and Summer, and this question will likely come up immediately as soon as they reconvene in the spring.

CC and SEAS have access to free summer classes. Will GS? Why or why not? What other resources will be provided?

Dean Rosen-Metsch said she saw the petition that went around from GS students (Bwog’s note: she did not specify which one, but from the context, it seems like it was this one). She explained that in the Spring, Columbia moved to a three-semester calendar in efforts to reduce density on campus. The idea was that undergrad courses would be more spread across the three semesters so there would be fewer classes taken per semester. Because CC/SEAS pay a flat tuition fee, which is meant to cover an average of 15/16 credits per semester, it made sense to offer the summer semester as a time to make up for credits that wouldn’t be taken during the normal year. The reason why GS students cannot get these “free classes” is because GS students pay per credit. This policy exists to give GS students flexibility and allow them to take different course loads depending on their unique situations (unlike CC/SEAS, which has a 12 credit minimum). So, the three-semester stretch doesn’t really change anything for GS because they pay per credit regardless, and have always had the ability to reduce course load as needed. To balance the inequity for GS, financial aid was increased for the semester, per a letter sent out earlier in the semester. Director Rodriguez reiterated that Summer 2020 had a lot of increased financial aid, and looking towards summer 2021 a similar thing may also happen.

For students that pay a tuition amount similar to CC/SEAS students, wouldn’t being deprived of the extra 4 credits be unfair? – follow up question from International Students Representative Rhe-Anne Tan

Dean Rosen-Metsch responded that this could be a discussion in the future. She said that overall though, paying per credit benefits the majority of GS students, so it’s unlikely that it’ll change, especially this year. Dean Rodgers added that GS has had a per credit system for a long time and that the GS charge per credit is determined off of the CC/SEAS flat rate. He claimed it would be hard to construct a different billing system, which would have to be very case by case. Additionally, Dean Rodgers claimed a different billing system could possibly just create more inequity.

Will the health service and insurance fee be reduced for students outside of NYC, since we are mostly online?

Director Rodriguez reminded students that they can waive Columbia insurance. As for the healthcare fee, it’s a general university policy that is not within the power of GS alone to change. This year, the fee includes a lot of services, such as telehealth and ODS. Director Rodriguez reminded students that since they’re already paying for them, students should try to utilize the offered services.

GS students want more transparency about financial aid. What is being done about this?

Director Rodriguez replied that GS is striving towards being transparent, and is always willing to discuss individual package details with individual students privately. He explained that GS students often have very unique factors influencing financial aid so it’s hard to put out a “one size fits all” statement. Currently, GS uses the FAFSA to assess aid, but is planning to switch to a more comprehensive tool to assess financial aid, called the CSS Profile (which is currently used by CC/SEAS). All newly admitted students will fill this out, and the general student body will get it the year after so that in the 2022-23 school year all students will have a CSS Profile. Keep your eyes on your inboxes.

Will more financial aid be offered based on the increase in Giving Day donations?

Director Rodriguez and Dean Rodgers both noted that the budget is set at the beginning of the year, so Giving Day donations will be used for the next fiscal year. The office projects how many Giving Day funds GS will receive and factors that into the budget, and any surplus is moved to the next year. So the surplus from this Giving Day will trickle into the next fiscal year’s budget. Additionally, Director Rodriguez noted that Giving Day is just one of many fundraising efforts that happens year-long, so increased Giving Day donations are only one part of the story.

Will GS get additional financial aid to make up for free CC/SEAS summer classes?

Dean Rodgers answered that summer financial aid is hard because the summer hits two fiscal years. So the complete summer budget is still unknown, but the budget calculations for the next fiscal year are starting in the coming weeks. Director Rodriguez added that GS already increased some funds, especially for students taking over 9 credits.

The conversation was then interjected by Josh Kobusinski, creator of the aforementioned petition.

Kobusinski brought up the (as he called it) naïveté in assuming CC and SEAS students would be spreading their credits and taking fewer classes. He claimed that students likely took a normal course load of 15 credits per semester, so CC would get 10 free credits, whereas GS only got a 1.5 million dollar financial aid increase, which panned out to a few hundred dollars per student.

Dean Rosen-Metsch responded that they’ve raised these questions with the university. While they were deliberating this decision, the strong consensus was that students would in fact take fewer credits per semester. Dean Rodgers added that this was not solely GS’s decision, it was the university’s as a whole. He adds that if a student used all 40 credits, there would be a discrepancy. But the administration does not think many students actually will.

At this point, University Senator Jeremy Wahl stepped in to make a statement.

Noting that it’s a difficult time for everyone, Wahl said he wanted to applaud the efforts of the Deans and admin who took time to come and answer questions. He said he appreciated the tough questions and advocacy from students, but also drew attention to the fact that these administrators have dedicated their professional careers to advancing GS life. Wahl claimed that he had personally only ever seen the fiercest of advocacy from the Deans, and added that GS doesn’t have the resources CC has, and that now was not time for volatility. He ended by reminding the room that they can’t solve every problem, but should be working together and trying to make the situation better.

Would GS be willing to implement a cap at 16 credits, after which GS would pay a flat fee, so that there is more equity with CC and SEAS? So that below 15 credits, you pay credit by credit, and above that, you have a flat rate. How hard would something like that be to implement?   – follow up from Vice President of Policy Serengeti Timungwa

Dean Rosen-Metsch responded that when this was getting decided, there were a lot of ideas, including this exact one. This model was not supported, and in fact has historically come up even before COVID. She reiterated that the current model best serves all GS students. Dean Rodgers added some historical context, saying that GS used to have a flat rate system so that if a student took 12-14 credits, they paid a flat fee, and then per credit above and below that. Flat rate students ended up paying much more than non-flat rate ones, which was unfair, so the system was changed. He added that GS is trying to improve financial aid, but doesn’t have many resources, and they are trying their best to support as many students as possible on a pretty small budget.

Student Body President Jane Jeong also stepped in with a word.

Jeong reminded the room, if they don’t already know, that the GS endowment really is GS’s biggest hindrance. She said that hearing about the summer course disparity hurts personally, but she thanked the Deans for being open to listening to students. She added a question: Is there anything GSSC could do, people we could talk to, ways we could go beyond this town hall to help level this inequity? 

Dean Rosen-Metsch replied that she applauds GSSC and their great advocacy work. She encouraged members to keep advocating and talking to the administration.

It sounds like the administration does a lot of behind the scenes work, but sometimes it feels like nobody is doing anything since we don’t actually see it happen. Is it possible to get a little more transparency? – follow up from Vice President of Finance Josh Brown

Dean Rosen-Metsch reiterated that GS was committed to transparency and working with students to meet their needs. She asked Brown if he could be more specific in terms of what kind of transparency students want? Brown clarified that it would have been nice to see an email response to the petition and generally more communication like that. Dean Rosen-Metsch replied that she only saw the petition on Reddit, and it was never actually formally presented to her. Additionally, the petition argued a decision made back in May. Now, six months later, there was not much to say. She also called attention to the fact that Barnard students can take 45 credits, while CC/SEAS get 40. 

Dean Rodgers also stepped in with some context: GS was having all these discussions in the Spring, during the most turbulent parts of the pandemic. He called attention to the fact that they did not know how COVID would evolve, how the US economic recession would evolve, how Columbia’s budget cuts on GS would evolve, and so on. There were a huge amount of factors and uncertainty about many of them. He added that although everyone wishes they could, there can’t actually be a level playing field right now, as GS does not have the budget to meet full need as a school. He said they are working towards it, and doing everything they can in the meantime, but the GS situation is fundamentally different from CC/SEAS, which have enough money to meet full need.

Jeremy Wahl once again stepped in to comment.

Wahl called attention to the fact that there isn’t enough to go around in this world, and GS admin can’t right every wrong, but just needs to take what’s practical and move us forward, especially in a year like this.

We have a budget in GSSC, we have a few hundred dollars. Could we directly funnel GSSC money into financial aid? – follow-up from Jeremy Wahl

Dean Rodgers replied that redirecting student fees is hard because they are billed on students. So theoretically, all students need to have access to those benefits, but not all students are on financial aid. Also, he noted that GS gives out 32 million dollars in financial aid, so the scale is a little larger than a few hundred dollars. He encouraged GSSC to redistribute money to students in some sort of relief program of their own, outside of financial aid.

Over the summer, students had the COVID relief scholarships. Will they be offered next semester?

Dean Rodgers explained that those were offered through the main university, not through GS. Additionally, they were made available for students who were displaced due to COVID suddenly and needed help with unanticipated things like moving and storage costs. Because we won’t have this emergency evacuation this Spring and because the scholarships were funded mainly by alumni donations, he said he was not sure what would happen.

If Columbia accepts the 12.8 million in CARES act funding, how would it be distributed? Would GS be prioritized?

Dean Rosen-Metsch responded that the university has not yet accepted the funds. If they are accepted, by law, half would go towards emergency financial aid grants, and GS students would certainly receive some of those funds. Dean Rosen-Metsch added that there can’t be a clear answer like “X% will go to GS” until Columbia accepts that money, and saying anything right now would just be speculation.

There is a broad call in the Columbia community to reduce tuition. Are there any efforts to appease this, especially going into another online semester?

Dean Rosen-Metsch replied that there are incredible financial strains from this year, due to healthcare costs, loss of student tuition, loss of housing fees, increasing COVID testing, increasing distancing measures and cleaning, and more. She said she has seen this school-wide campaign to lower tuition but does not know what will happen.

What are the university’s plans in terms of commencement?

Dean Delva assured GSSC that they are working to make sure there will be a celebration for every class in a significant way. Dean Rosen-Metsch added that it’s being planned right now based on public health guidelines. She reminded students that Commencement is earlier than usual this year, in the last week of April.

As of today, 70% should be vaccinated by June, but a thought: could we possibly push commencement into the summer?follow-up from Serengeti Timungwa

Dean Rosen-Metsch replied that changing Commencement is above her power as a GS Dean, and that the President deals with it, but noted that the calendar has already been set. She reiterated that they will try to the best of our abilities to make class day and commencement special, and added that vaccine distribution has never been easy in the past, and it will not be easy this Spring.

An idea from Health and Wellness Representative Savannah Melcher (voiced by Jane Jeong):

Melcher asked if it would be possible to set up a mock Commencement stage, just so people can get pictures if they’re in the area?

Dean Rosen-Metsch and Dean Delva both liked the idea, and encouraged Melcher to bring it to UGSL.

How does GS plan to support COVID-19 alumni (people graduating during this time)?

Dean Rosen-Metsch replied that they are aware of how much employment has been affected because of COVID, and advertised the alumni center and our career center as resources for recent alumni. Dean Delva added that they are including alumni in things like student life and panel discussions.

For the next section, the floor was then opened to GSSC members to ask any follow-up or extra questions.

The payment system for students who are not in the US has been a little messy, are there any ways to make that smoother? – Student Services & Academic Affairs Representative Bernadette Gostelow

Director Rodriguez assured that this is a major problem that they are working towards fixing. He explained that you need a US bank account for direct deposit and you can’t mail checks internationally, so it’s a bad situation. To circumvent this, the university started a program with Western Union that will pay out students their financial aid stipends at no additional cost. Unfortunately, this solution does not apply to work payments. Dean Rodgers clarified that there are many difficulties in paying students who live abroad, such as complying with tax, law, and other regulations. Both Deans assured GSSC that they are actively working towards a solution.

Finally, the floor was opened to the general audience.

Will spring semester be hybrid? What is going to happen to first year international students in the spring semester?  Neta Elyahu, first-year international student

Dean Rosner confirmed that in the Spring, faculty are free to choose how they teach their classes. She added that they are working with faculty to help with hybrid courses, and expect the number of hybrid courses to rise. Dean Rodgers addressed the visa question, explaining that if first-years have even one in-person class, they are eligible for an F1 visa, so Elyahu should be eligible. He encouraged students to check out the ISSO website and contact an ISSO officer, as they are very willing to help you out with specifics.

Will we be online past COVID? It’s been beneficial for GS students who work. Romy Malu, first-year

Dean Rosen-Metsch responded that an integral part of GS is the fact that it’s a full Columbia experience for nontraditional students, and that no other Ivy has anything close to this system. She added that the future of online learning is a huge question. Dean Rosner added that in-person instruction works, and it works best, but now that we’ve been thrown into online learning, it will be worth exploring what could be taken from the online experience to improve in-person instruction. Dean Delva added that this goes beyond the classroom – programming, events, and advising have also faced changes. All the Deans assured Malu that the conversations are ongoing but nothing is known yet.

How are the funds from the Displaced Persons Program being used? – anonymous student

Dean Rodgers explained that GS funds two students every year, and can’t afford more, so when one graduates GS can absorb another, but for now, they can’t accept any more.

And with that, no other questions were heard, and the Deans all said their cordial goodbyes, applauding GSSC for their advocacy work and their willingness to have open conversations. The town hall ended.

At this point, it was 10pm EST, and there was still an entire GSSC meeting on the agenda. After a five minute break, Student Body President Jane Jeong decided that the tuition strike, which was the evening’s biggest agenda item, would be discussed virtually over email, as it was late and the room was clearly exhausted from that two-hour-long ordeal.

The meeting proceeded as a quick summary of GSSC goings-on.

Jeong and Timungwa will be meeting with Dean Rosen-Metsch this week to discuss the tuition strike, in addition to following up on things brought up during the town hall. Timungwa informed the room that she is pushing for CARES funding, and working with CCSC to get that done. Beyond that, she gave the go-ahead for GSSC to work with external app-based mental health companies and to reach out for discount/free membership for students. She added this topic is pretty large, and will be covered in more depth in the future.

Alumni Affairs Representative Cole Wagner mentioned that his panel on consulting was confirmed for Dec 10th at 7pm, but would be more formally announced next week.

VP of Communications Pao Duran gave an update on virtual tree lighting and said that the virtual student lounges have been a success. VP of Student Life Liam McGrane chimed in, saying that virtual tree lighting will include pre-recorded speeches from the deans, acapella group performances, and a video of the trees lighting up. Additionally, there will be $100 cash prizes for students who submit photos of their own holiday lights. The link to the event can be found here.

Finally, the only order of business left was to hear Sophia Trujillo’s application to be VP of Campus Life. In her three-minute speech, Trujillo explained her interest in the position. She highlighted the importance of campus life and finding connections in this time, and said she wants to bring energy and passion to the team. When asked about past experience, she brought up leadership positions at her old college’s Honors and Women in STEM clubs. She recalled her times organizing events and fundraisers but admitted the necessary adjustment from a small community college to Columbia. When asked about adaptation to the online environment, she mentioned the universal difficulty of creating an online community. But with some creativity, and a focus on making events as interactive as possible, along with a lot of hard work, she assured the room that it’s possible.

Jeong thanked Trujillo for her application and for her time, saying that GSSC would vote on this position tonight and notify Trujillo of the decision the next day. And with that, the public meeting was wrapped up, with the tuition strike agenda pushed to email.

Bwog is trying to get a hold of the details of that email exchange, which will be added as an update to this post if acquired. Until next week, that’s all for GSSC.

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