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The case for a summer quarter

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If I were forced to choose one of my grandmother’s overused cliches to best summarize April, it would undoubtedly be: The only thing for certain is uncertainty. And it seems that the few lifeboats we have in navigating this sea of unknown may have a puncture or two or three. The quantity of COVID-19 tests available still falls abysmally short, antibody tests may or may not be accurate and the presence of antibodies may or may not guarantee immunity. In fact, we still don’t understand why the virus symptoms span the entirety of the known range: from non-existent to utterly deadly. Despite this overwhelming uncertainty, two truths remain abundantly clear: Ingesting bleach is still a bad idea, and Zoom University is no substitute for the Stanford experience.  

I would be remiss if I did not first acknowledge the tremendous efforts our professors and administrators have made to salvage our spring quarter. There have certainly been successes. I still cannot believe online LAIR works as well as it does (unlike my recursive loop, the wait is not eternal).  And I’ve been so impressed by how many of my professors have been incredibly intentional with their content delivery, despite having a mere two weeks to plan: Shortened lessons with bite-sized pre-lecture modules have noticeably increased my ability to fully retain material. But even with successes, Zoom is merely momentarily sufficient at best. I won’t waste time or space convincing you of the inadequacies of an online education — we all know them far too intimately.  But I refuse to leave you with as negative of a sentiment as was conveyed in my first paragraph. Instead, I wish to argue for a solution that has already been discussed: Stanford should offer the choice of an in-person summer quarter in 2021 with equivalent course offerings, priced at the tuition of a fall quarter, to fully substitute an online or radically regulated fall. 

Even if these were not completely unprecedented times — they are — a summer quarter would not be an insane suggestion. In fact, it’s already been successfully executed for many years. Dartmouth offers a “distinctive year-round system … [in which] you customize your own academic calendar.” The school’s website boasts that all students can “take full advantage of all Dartmouth has to offer, no matter the season.” In practice, Dartmouth’s summer quarter is so popular because it is a welcome reprieve from the frigid cold that is a Hanover winter. If Dartmouth students were granted shelter due to weather, a global pandemic seems sufficient enough reason for an unprecedented switch.

Undeniably, the most pressing reason to offer the option of a summer quarter with equivalent course offerings is to end the inequality that has occurred as a result of the switch to an online format.  A stable internet connection, access to necessary technology and a safe, private place to work are resources that are not available to every student. As this pandemic drags on, this resource gap will only continue to grow. If fall is online again, students without a stable living or working environment may be forced to delay completing their degrees if they still don’t have the necessary tools to succeed. Moreover, even if Stanford can manage to execute a highly regulated in-person fall, that still may not be the most equitable in practice. 

The imminent health concerns cannot be ignored: Even if only a small percentage of the student body violates the administration’s regulations, with a disease that spreads exponentially, these few would pose a tremendous danger to the entire community. As a result, those who can may take the fall entirely off to avoid either regulations or simply prioritize their health. Those without the luxury to wait a full year, on the other hand, will be forced to settle for a lower quality — and more dangerous — quarter. If summer is an option, however, more students will have the ability to choose a less regulated, safer quarter by offering a chance to finish their degrees at least within this calendar year. After all, in all likelihood, by summer 2021 we will have more tools at our disposal to combat this disease; even if not, we will have at least learned to coexist more effectively. In a time in which the virus has taken almost all of our autonomy, Stanford should grant students the freedom to choose.  

On the University’s part, there are economic reasons to consider a summer quarter option as well. As discussed, students who can afford to take the fall off may do so to spare themselves the loss of their Stanford experience.  That means Stanford won’t recoup tuition within that fiscal year. If summer quarter is an option, Stanford can still collect that revenue, and students can still receive their money’s worth for their education.

The precedent set by spring’s online format poses other hurdles for an online fall as well. Now that Stanford has formally admitted that this environment is not conducive to a standard letter grade format, it would be near impossible to stray from the mandatory Satisfactory/No Credit (S/NC) system if fall were online again. However, many students cannot afford to take another quarter in which they receive no letter grades. Although graduate institutions have claimed that they will accept S/NC grades as equivalent, other universities are still granting their students the opportunity to earn normal grades. In order to compete for admission to some of the most competitive graduate institutions, many students need the opportunity to raise their GPAs or simply demonstrate mastery of courses relevant in their proposed area of future study. An in-person summer quarter would solve this problem entirely.

Some critics of a winter/spring/summer option rightly worry the delay would affect student job prospects, especially as we enter one of the worst recessions in history.  First and foremost, a lot of this concern can be mitigated by making the summer quarter a choice.  After all, some students — juniors especially — may decide that they are unable to give up a summer internship and work off-cycle instead; they should have the freedom to make that choice. However, for some, being on campus actually improves job potential: Some students rely on their relationship with faculty to secure a job or research position, and these relationships simply cannot be replicated over Zoom.   

More relevant, however, is that Stanford has at least some power as an institution to help lessen some of the adverse effects students may face. First, it has the financial means to offset part of the issues of delayed work through more robust financial aid packages that take this into consideration. Additionally, most firms would likely allow for a delayed start to allow students to finish their educations. After all, a global pandemic and truly unprecedented circumstances require a higher degree of leniency.  Even if some firms do not agree initially, Stanford can assist. Many firms recruit on Stanford’s campus and value their ability to do so tremendously. If Stanford clearly sets the expectation that a later start date ought to be acceptable to allow for the completion of a university degree, firms are likely to respect that in order to be able to continue on-campus recruitment. Additionally, Stanford’s choice to offer a summer quarter option would likely start a waterfall effect across the nation as other institutions move to offer summer quarters as well. Stanford, as one of the most respected institutions in the world, wields tremendous power to start this domino effect. And if universities across the country are all making this switch, job loss as a result of a start date delay will be limited.

Perhaps the most imminent benefit of a robust summer quarter option would be to give students something tangible to look forward to. One of the hardest parts of this continued uncertainty has been the loss of hope. It becomes increasingly difficult to remain optimistic when there is not yet meaningful progress in testing capacity, therapeutics or a vaccine. And as President Marc Tessier-Lavigne acknowledged in his latest email, this lack of progress may persist for far longer than we’d like: “we need to consider the very real possibility that the winter could be much like the fall in terms of our progress against COVID-19 and the precautions necessary as a result.” This makes a robust summer quarter option all the more important: If winter is affected as well, an unaffected summer becomes an even more desirable option. After all, a regulated winter becomes more tolerable when the loss of fall is mitigated. The Stanford administration has the power to restore some hope for a brighter future. We already lost our beloved spring quarter, but there’s a chance for redemption. Give us the meaningful exchanges with vibrant individuals. Give us the joy of experiencing learning firsthand. That is, give us Camp Stanford Summer 2021.  

If you agree — or even if you don’t — make your voice heard: Fill out the vice provost for Student Affairs’ survey here.  

Contact Caroline Spertus at cspertus ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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