Though it may seem that the world could greatly benefit from some good news these days, USC’s optimism about resuming in-person operations in the fall, albeit recently abandoned, was always dicey. Now, the time has come for the University to pay the piper for this unbridled positivity. By waiting until July 1 to officially announce that the fall semester would be held almost entirely online, USC has played a major role in locking students into now-obsolete leases with various off-campus housing agencies for the entirety of Fall 2020, perhaps the entirety of the academic year for some.
In the spirit of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed enthusiasm, USC decided to remain optimistic about in-person instruction continuing throughout the fall despite the growing threat of the pandemic. Although they made no direct promises, on June 2 President Carol Folt sent an email to the USC community stating, “We are planning for an in-person fall semester for students beginning on August 17, 2020.”
Almost exactly one month after this announcement was made, on July 1, as the number of coronavirus cases in California intensified, Provost Charles Zukoski sent out a very different email that read, “While not what we hoped, we are now recommending all undergraduates take their courses online, and reconsider living on or close to campus this semester.” He prefaced this statement by mentioning the problems that this late news poses to those living in off-campus housing: “We know some of you have July 1 deadlines for leases off campus — so we wanted to get this information to you to help with your decision-making.”
Now, many of the 70% of students who live off campus are faced with the challenge of deciding whether or not to terminate their leases due to this switch. The issue with holding onto the positive mindset for so long is that many of those who now wish to cancel their leases are already stuck in them.
The positive approach touted in Folt’s June 2 announcement may have momentarily quelled the anxieties of many students and families about coming back to campus, but this was at the expense of creating delayed financial concerns. Though she urged all those concerned to “remain nimble,” the confidence she showed in the school’s reopening via this announcement, heightened by its juxtaposition with the utter uncertainty and chaos of this pandemic, may have prompted even the most reasonable students to cling on to their off-campus housing leases.
After all, it is plausible that when an established and even well-reputed institution offers people any degree of certainty and light in a time when both of those things are especially scarce, some people become more inclined to accept them as valid. If the school was willing to effectively bet on the best possible academic outcome of the coronavirus with student and faculty Fall 2020 rent money, then they should also be ready to settle that bet if they lost — and they did lose.
In response to the new issue posed by off-campus housing, the school has very generously offered an FAQ webpage for non-university housing with one paragraph of legal advice for those students who are now stuck in their leases. As though this were not already more than enough help for the students wondering how they are going to make ends meet in the fall, the bottom of the drop-down bar with the single paragraph of comprehensive legal advice comically reads, “We strongly recommend contacting an attorney before taking steps to terminate any lease.”
USC really is the gift that keeps on giving. If the school really wanted to help these students in any tangible way, they would offer them some individualized legal help or at least help to cover some of those costs. It is likely that the students most financially harmed by the school’s delayed decision to close in-person operations are also the ones who cannot so easily afford the legal fees involved in getting out of a tough lease agreement.
Ultimately, the University bet on itself in the fight against the coronavirus, which is a commendable move. However, as is the case with any wager, they ought to be ready to assume the costs of their loss. As far as off-campus housing is concerned, this looks like personalized legal advice, compensation and, of course, a very thorough FAQ page — the latter of which is thankfully the only one of the posited solutions covered to date. As far as moral action is concerned, it is more important to remain realistic than optimistic and most important to remain just. Hopefully, the school moves to make things right.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Lauren Schatzman’s name. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.