On Thursday, Columbia University and Pace University joined a growing number of colleges — including University of Miami, Drexel University and the University of Arizona — facing legal complaints aimed at their response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Thursday's suits were filed in federal court on behalf of Xaviera Marbury, a student at Pace, and an unnamed student at Columbia. Both complaints say students are owed reimbursement as well as damages for services that are no longer available now that campuses are closed. In both cases, those services include:
I. Face-to-face interaction with professors, mentors, and peers;
ii. Access to facilities such as computer labs, study rooms, laboratories, libraries, etc.;
iii. Student governance and student unions;
iv. Extra-curricular activities, groups, intramurals, etc.;
v. Student art, cultures, and other activities;
vi. Social development and independence;
vii. Hands-on learning and experimentation; and
viii. Networking and mentorship opportunities.
Marbury's complaint says her dorm rent costs $9,380 for the semester; she lost access to her dorm for approximately half the semester, the complaint says, but Pace is only offering to reimburse $2,000. Similarly, the Columbia complaint says that the student was refunded just 11% of their mandatory fees for the semester. The complaints also claim that though classes continue, their degree will eventually be worth less on the job market.
Marie Boster, a spokeswoman for Pace University, pointed out that the college is still offering services like tutoring and counseling along with classes remotely. "The faculty, staff and leaders of Pace continue to work tirelessly to support our students during this challenging time," she says. Columbia University had no comment on the suit.
The complaints, filed by a personal injury law firm in South Carolina, seek class action status on behalf of Columbia and Pace students. That same firm, Anastopoulo Law Firm, is also behind the suits against the University of Miami and Drexel.
"Universities are not delivering those services that students and their families have paid for," Anastopoulo attorney Roy T. Willey IV tells NPR. "It's not fair for the universities with multi-million dollar endowments to keep all of the money that students and their families have paid."
If the suits gain traction, the resulting damages would be a further blow to colleges already reeling from the financial impacts of the coronavirus. As NPR's Elissa Nadworny has reported, college endowments have taken a hit, some schools have begun to announce hiring freezes and others are looking at merging or closing their doors.