UC Berkeley’s COVID-19 relief program was inadequate in protecting endangered students

Illustration of a student trapped behind Sather Gate, unable to reach stacks of money representing student aid
Lucy Yang/Staff

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By the time UC Berkeley launched its COVID-19 Relief Funds platform, six weeks after Alameda County announced a shelter-in-place ordinance, it was already apparent that the pandemic’s economic impact on students and staff was severe.

Now that this program has closed, it is also clear, as UC Berkeley’s Director of Strategic Equity Initiatives Ruben Canedo recently suggested, that there is much more work to be done.

The gravity of this issue cannot be overstated. As the organizer of two community mutual aid programs, including one run under the aegis of the COLA4ALL movement, I’ve been working with hundreds of students who continue to suffer from the economic fallout of the coronavirus. They report food insecurity, months of unpaid rents and loans, the inability to return home for the summer and other serious burdens caused by the crisis.

Further, dozens of these students indicated that they were ineligible for UC Berkeley’s relief funds program, exposing holes in the school’s safety net.

Students with access to loans were deprioritized. Those who withdrew due to the pandemic were also locked out. And everyone unable to file a FAFSA — including about a third of all undergraduates, all unenrolled students, all international students, all staff members, many graduate students and all undocumented, non-DREAM Act immigrants — were ineligible for the largest pool of the program’s resources: the $15 million earmarked for student aid by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

The financial limitations of UC Berkeley’s COVID-19 response were known to its organizers from the outset, which is why the platform was not initially advertised via an all-campus email. Instead, delegates from the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office, or FASO, and its campus partners — including me in my capacity as a mutual aid organizer — targeted specific student communities known to be experiencing economic precarity.

Further, in mid-April, FASO had begun discussing ways to slow the pace of awards to ensure funds would be available to future applicants who are homeless, victims of violence or faced with emergency medical procedures.

The grim necessity of triaging applications to meet only the most plaintive requests underscores a stark reality. As our administrative leaders would contend, there is simply not enough money, amid state budget cuts and unprecedented economic pressures in higher education, to expand the program with further institutional funding.

A closer look at the campus’s financial situation, however, does not support this contention. In fact, it seems to imply gross negligence is unfolding on campus, endangering the lives of many in the process.

UC Berkeley’s endowment is $4.79 billion, and it has nearly doubled in the past decade. The campus raised $1.2 billion over the last two years and, even amid COVID-19, its projected 2021 deficit of $130 million to $160 million is equivalent to the shortfall experienced in 2016 before the school made a swift recovery.

Administrative leadership depicts the institution as constrained by the same economic challenges facing schools without such resources. Yet the truth is that UC Berkeley possesses the financial means to protect students in need. That the campus has not expanded the COVID-19 Relief Funds — even though FASO recognized the limitations of the program several months ago — is symptomatic of a larger problem: UC Berkeley appears to protect its endowment to the point of self-destructive idolatry.

UC Berkeley’s Endowment Payout Policy is 4% per year. Raising this percentage by one point would conceivably generate $50 million — 20 times the amount the school raised for COVID-19 assistance and more than triple the CARES Act grant. Likewise, as my colleagues in the COLA4ALL movement recently noted, a May financial review indicated that the UC system possesses $5 billion to $6 billion in excess liquidity, revealing that spending cuts are not necessary to meet the deficit or to supplement COVID-19 relief.

This kind of reallocation of funds would seem only logical given the unique challenges we face. Yet, no UC statement about the crisis even mentions the endowment or reserve liquidity. It’s as if our leaders share a collective delusion that such resources are unavailable for actual use.

When my colleagues and I started our mutual aid program, we were inundated with hundreds of still-ongoing requests from students seeking help with their basic costs of survival. Since then, we’ve raised and redistributed $40,000, and our cohort of 150 volunteers has provided countless forms of nonmonetary assistance.

We’ve run errands for people who are self-quarantining, tutored those facing newfound academic challenges, cooked and delivered meals for those who lack access to food pantries and linked students with counselors, therapists and peer groups. For all these efforts, it’s been clear that the stopgap work of volunteers is no substitute for an institutional intervention.

One day after the UC Berkeley COVID-19 Relief Funds launched, a different initiative was advertised via an all-campus blast: the mutual aid program’s GoFundMe. Stephen Sutton, vice chancellor of the student affairs division, sent out an email with the subject line, “More ways to give back, get engaged during COVID-19.” He invited the community to contribute to a grassroots fundraiser meant “to help students purchase food, medication and other essential supplies.” Noting the total amount raised so far, he concluded with a rallying cry: “Way to go Bears!”

The implication that students at UC Berkeley would be guaranteed “food, medication and other essential supplies” by crowdsourcing within that same population is disquieting. The ad hoc safety nets of mutual aid programs are neither sustainable nor ultimately just. Believing them to be so would take for granted that UC Berkeley simply cannot provide financial support sufficient to address the crisis in a more expansive, sustained and meaningful way.

We must reject this premise, as UC Berkeley’s financial assets belie its integrity. If COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge, then there is all the more reason to make building a robust, long-term infrastructure of emergency aid a mission-critical priority. And, to meet this call, we should begin sensibly — not with further austerity measures, but by drawing on the massive reserves of liquid and nonliquid assets our school seemingly covets at the expense of its community’s collective well-being.

Rumur Dowling is a graduate student in the English department and the organizer of two UC Berkeley community mutual aid programs.