University propaganda departments have for years nurtured the myth that they can at once be hard headed businesses and at the same time the champions and protectors of some sort of ideal non-commercial Elysian space in which students and faculty might romp in the glorious fields of knowledge creaiton and dissemination undisturbed by the machinery that keeps that enterprise running.
It was both a grand illusion and one increasingly belied by the ways in which university administrators from middle mangers (deans and the equivalent) to high level central administration officials began, like cannibal mice, to gnaw away at the foundations of an institution that for a time held that dual vision together. In the name of hard headedness a generation of administrators (many though not all of them once academics (though to call them that after a few years in administration is to stretch the concept beyond recognition, especially as they began to see themselves as a distinct social element in the ecology of the university, see, e.g., here) have engaged, among other things, (1) in the deprofessionalization of the faculty and the substitution of technology enhanced (cheaper and higher profit) learning for increasingly creaky traditional methods of delivery and engagement, (2) in the expansion of the business of the university to include a number of different profit centers (dorms, parking, summer camps, etc,); (3) move from a learning centered to a compliance and risk mitigating fundamental operating mode in which administrators became more valuable (and less fungible) than faculty; and (4) like banks and airlines (two other hard headed businesses in their retail operations) in the fracturing of pricing models so that students were faced a number of fees beyond tuition, room and board for "value added" services.
The university was at its best in its rationalization of these revolutionary transformations. Most successful was their ability to convince everyone that there was no transformation at all--the university was no different than it was in the 1960s, except perhaps that its appointments were more luxurious and its techniques more "up to date." Yet these transformations were not inexpensive (except of course for faculty whose existence constantly depressed the ability to use university income for other, and perhaps, higher, purposes.
Faculty has been particularly slow in learning the lessons of the modern university and obtuse about the way in which it has transformed their position within this business.
Customers, especially students, however, have learned these lessons much better. Now COVID-19 has made that lesson learning much more visible. While the university can shift the "cost" of operations to its faculty and staff, it will find it harder to do so with its students.
Students filed class-action lawsuits against the University of California and California State University systems Monday, demanding refunds of student fees in light of campus closures. The students are suing for a reduction of on-campus services because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but will not sue for the cost of tuition or housing. “University of California’s decision to transition to online classes and to instruct students to leave campus were responsible decisions to make, but it is unfair and unlawful for University of California to retain fees and costs and to pass the losses on to the students and/or their families,” the lawsuit states. The suit was filed on behalf of Claire Brandmeyer, a UC Davis student who left campus in mid-March. The students are suing for refunds of student fees such as the $1,128 UC-wide Student Services Fee paid by UC students, as well as other campus-specific fees. (Students sue UC and CSU systems, demand refunds amid COVID-19 campus closures).
Universities had been more willing to prorate dorm and related costs; but not activities fees. "The universities have been more receptive to refunding or discounting campus dorms, residences and dining plans. UC System President Janet Napolitano outlined in a letter to the legislature, that, “UC is providing students prorated refunds on their housing and dining services agreements in the event they choose to leave on-campus housing" (Students sue California universities over fees lost amid pandemic).
The Complaint in Brandmeyer v. Regents follows below. This is not the only action filed. "To date, higher education institutions the likes of Drexel, the University of Miami, Cornell, Pace, Columbia, Liberty University, Arizona’s state colleges, Vanderbilt and Fordham University have been hit with potential class action litigation over their apparent failure to issue refunds for the COVID-19-shortened Spring 2020 semester." (California Universities Owe Fee Refunds for Pandemic-Shortened Semester, Class Action Suits Say [UPDATE]).