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The Duke Difference: Saving their money before your life

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina will provide insurance plans to over 230,000 clients of the 470,000 North Carolinians who have had plans dropped.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina will provide insurance plans to over 230,000 clients of the 470,000 North Carolinians who have had plans dropped.

The theologian Augustine observed that his teachers, “being beaten in some trifling question by another teacher, would seethe with more bile and envy” than the most rambunctious child. Those in positions of stewardship are often more puerile and irrational as those whose best interests they pretend to steward.

Such irrationality has been displayed in rare form by our alma mater dear. This past week in a world that no longer makes sense, a university with an $8.5 billion endowment won’t cover student healthcare. For students whose calculated parent contribution is more than $0, the $3,535 cost of required health insurance will no longer be included in their financial aid package.

Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of the Karsh Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid told The Chronicle that the good people in the administration hope that “the cost will not be something that the families can’t manage reasonably.” Because hope pays the bills. These good people even sent “letters home as early as possible” so that those barely able to afford to attend Duke have time to pull $3,535 out of thin air. Rabil’s office, in all its magnanimity, will allow families to appeal for funding. The only problem? The appeals process has yet to be established.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs and governmental relations, touts this move as “consistent with our peer universities.” Did Schoenfeld leak our newest recruitment campaign? “Duke University: Don’t be a leader. Follow the herd.” If our peer universities jumped off a cliff, would we jump, too? If our peer universities decided to bring racism back into the admissions process, would we join them? Duke could be a leader. Duke could stand alone among our “peer universities” and guarantee a real commitment to the welfare of its at-risk students. Instead, in the best Duke tradition of free thinking, we’ll save a few bucks and follow the crowd.

Given the idiocy of this announcement, one half expects the University’s next policy to be something about letting students eat cake. It may not have occurred to the Louises and Antoinettes in the administration that students who are would not be here but for financial support may not have $3,535 lying around.

Note the common thread in Rabil’s and Schoenfeld’s bureaucratese: money. This decision wasn’t made for us. This decision wasn’t made to safeguard our best interests. This decision was made for money. Rabil’s illogic claims that “This is an effort to steward the university’s funds in the best possible way.” Is there a better investment for university funds than the health of its students? Schoenfeld believes that this move will “ensure that our financial aid funds are used in the most efficient and effective way.” Where is the inefficiency in funding the health of financially at-risk students? What is ineffective about paying for essential health services?

Someone at Duke University was told to go over the books and cut something. The line item they chose to cut was “Students’ Health.” What a shame that Duke seems to care more about its lucre than our lives.

And since one of Duke’s offices looks first to its support for financially at-risk students when cutting costs, who can trust that the University will not kick them to the curb as well? Graduate students, untenured faculty, departmental assistants and instructors should all wonder whose head is next on the block when Dear Old Duke looks to its $8.5 billion and finds something wanting.

But how much can we do to fix this, beyond talk and petition? This problem was created by, and can only be fixed by, those good people whom it will never affect. Did anyone working in the Karsh Office or in the Allen Building or anywhere in Duke’s administration have their healthcare cut and their futures jeopardized? Anyone nominally in charge could at any time step in and look far and wide in our $8.5 billion of funding and find funding for the basic health costs of students who have nothing left to give. Of course, those in charge could likely point to some funding bylaw or chart, some regulation about what funding can and can’t go where, before telling students with nothing left to give, “Sorry.”

But until the university with $8.5 billion pays for the healthcare of financially at-risk students, any answer is the wrong answer. I ask that any of our leaders step up and provide the moral leadership for which they are so richly compensated. Your moral leadership is conspicuous by its absence. How does the callousness and cowardice of this quiet announcement uphold your sacred Community Standard?

And of all the donors who pay handsomely to have their name on a new pile of stones or the next big glass box, could not even one be found to provide funding for students’ healthcare? Duke is not great because of its empty buildings. Duke is great because of the people who fill them. Please fund full lives before investing in dead stone.

I close with the words of one Jesus of Nazareth, a man not unremarked for his commitment to human welfare. “I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Until Duke stands with its at-risk students and offers them a full and feasible life here so that they might enjoy a similar future hereafter, Duke’s commitments to service and bettering humankind will remain hollow hypocrisies. If you will not support those in need on your campus, what example do you set or impetus provide for making a difference out in the world?

These are sad days for our community, and they will remain sad until those with the power to fix this problem do so. So, you good people, choose: do you care more about Duke’s money, or Duke’s students? A child’s moral compass would point you to the right answer. 

Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity senior. His column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.

Tim Kowalczyk | the academy matters

Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "the academy matters," runs on alternate Thursdays.


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