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Returning home to a different Brandeis?

Published: January 23, 2009
Section: Opinions


the_hoot_1-23-09final_page_03_image_0002As I am writing, the London skyline looms over my head. In the few short weeks that I have been abroad, I have already had incredible cultural experiences that will impact my perception and understanding of the world. I have had a real English breakfast with a home stay family, gone pub-crawling and cruised the Thames at night. Yet, my excitement has significantly been hampered by the fact that due an illogical and possibly illegal change in study abroad policy others will not be able to have similarly transformative abroad experiences.

The administration—without prior announcement or any overt process of discovery or discussion—surreptitiously announced in an e-mail broad and sweeping changes to Study Abroad at Brandeis. This coupled with the staggering proposed academic changes first reported on by the Justice this week (“Long-term academic changes proposed,” January 20 issue) make it clear that Yehuda Reinharz was lying when he stated that he would do everything he could prevent the economic downturn from affecting students. It is also clear that Brandeis will be a completely different place once this transformation is completed and not necessarily one I would have chosen to attend. Yet, most of the more dramatic changes are tentative and redemptive change is still possible. The one policy change that stuck out most dramatically was the retraction of merit-based scholarships for studies abroad a change that might actually cost the university money and will give fewer students opportunities.

I am the recipient of a Dean’s scholarship, which is for around $8,000 per semester. It is clear to me that were I affected by this change, I would have had to instead pay that amount out of pocket or take out loans; I would have seriously reconsidered my decision to go abroad. Others with the Justice Brandeis scholarship currently receive full tuition coverage, and thus if they wanted to study abroad would have to go from paying no tuition to paying full Brandeis tuition for the term. It is clear that the difference of tens of thousands of dollars would mean that many would choose to remain in Waltham.

And the counter-intuitive nature of these changes is shocking. The University should be doing whatever it can, in fact, to encourage students to go abroad. The University makes a pretty profit when a student is abroad. We pay tuition directly to Brandeis, an amount, which is almost universally more expensive than the tuition for the schools, or programs we go to, and Brandeis keeps the difference. To give an example, the tuition at Queen Mary College, where I am studying, is around $6,500 with the current exchange rate—and it is on the more expensive end of the spectrum. There is also a couple hundred dollar holding fee which is used for who knows what. We also are not costing the university anything in terms of utilization of resources even while they cull and utilize our extra tuition. Thus, study abroad is already a racket, and a pretty sleazy one at that. Students shill thousands or possibly tens of thousands of dollars for the lovely “convenience” of having Brandeis take care of my program bills for me—I could hire a professional accountant for that much!

The extra attempt to eek out even more profit is deplorable. The current system is justified only in the sense that we are literally paying our Brandeis tuition directly to Brandeis for the semester no more and no less. By getting rid of merit scholarship aid, the University is essentially saying that they will charge you a pretty hefty premium for the privilege of being your middleman in the abroad process.

Moreover, it is likely that this decision is outright illegal. The scholarship letters that merit recipients received explicitly stated that “these awards may be used for approved study abroad programs.” These letters are signed by the dean of admissions and therefore could be viewed as a binding promissory note upon matriculation. Moreover, the letter then explicitly states the conditions for automatic renewal, which are purely based on academic standards. This letter gives no room for ambiguity. By accepting the invitation to come to Brandeis, you have entered into a contract with the University, whereby this money is by right yours unless you fail to meet explicitly stated standards.

Admittedly, the legal process does not tend to favor students at private universities. Yet, there have been cases where universities have been forced to follow stated procedures and policies. Promises made by the university must be “substantially observed” and cannot be merely discarded on a whim. Moreover, this change could step into the realm of “bait and switch” as many students may have made their decision to go to Brandeis rather than another school based on their explicit and justified understanding that they would be able to apply their scholarship to abroad programs. I know that the very reasonable study abroad policies were a big factor in my decision to come to Brandeis, and I may have chosen otherwise had this scholarship not been applicable. This may be especially applicable at Brandeis as we often take away students from other top schools in the Boston area through our competitive offering of scholarships and aid.

It is disgusting that Brandeis has chosen to so clearly violate its contractual obligation with students and to so illogically deny students such a vital nutritive experience. As I watch the enveloping and potentially destructive changes occurring at Brandeis, I am happy that I am an ocean apart and yet fear that the Brandeis I return to will not be the same one that I left but a shadow of itself.