Blame shifting on campuses over Coronavirus


Recent coronavirus outbreaks have forced many colleges and universities to send students home and return to remote instruction, sometimes within a week of starting classes. Critics have declared this outcome “predictable and even preventable,” and accused college administrators of placing their institutions’ financial interests ahead of student health and community safety. Colleges, we are told, have “forfeited the moral authority” to blame students who ignore physical distancing rules, refuse to wear masks, and party as if it were 2019; they know that many students will not abandon the social life that is so much a part of the college experience. We’re told, as one Harvard University epidemiologist put it, “it’s unconscionable for these administrators to be shaming and blaming and punishing their students for what we all knew would happen.”

In fact, administrators and students share responsibility for what happens this fall, and the allocation of that responsibility depends on the circumstances. Colleges should be held accountable for implementing a plan for in-person instruction that includes adequate testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine capacity; modifying classrooms, dining halls, and other facilities to permit physical distancing — and developing an exit strategy. Plans should also include working with students to foster a culture of mask-wearing and social distancing, but must also account for the fact that some noncompliance is inevitable.

Students should be held accountable for their actions, especially when they have been provided with the institutions’ expectations — and mandates — for appropriate behavior during the pandemic.

In making their plans, colleges and universities must strike a reasonable balance between risks and rewards. We learned last spring that most students (and parents) believe students make much greater progress on their personal, academic and social development in person than they do online. This difference helps explain why so many students choose to come back to campus.

Against these benefits, institutions must weigh the risks of a coronavirus outbreak to everyone on their campus and in the surrounding community. Those risks vary widely from one institution to another. Large universities with many students living off campus in densely populated areas that already have a high prevalence of the virus face a heightened risk, especially if their plans do not include frequent and widespread testing. In such settings, outbreaks are likely even if students follow rules on physical distancing, masks, and parties, and virtually certain if they do not.

Smaller institutions with students living largely or entirely on campus and situated in thinly populated areas with low levels of viral transmission have a better chance of avoiding a campus outbreak, especially if they test frequently and their students follow the rules.

As a condition of returning to campus, most institutions require students to accept, as Cornell University’s Student Behavioral Compact puts it, “a culture of shared responsibility” for safety and well-being, and to abide by a specific list of restrictions, including prohibitions on “organizing, hosting, or attending events, parties, or other social gatherings on or off-campus that may cause safety risks to [the student] and other members of the community.”

It’s true that students in their late teens and early twenties are developmentally driven to socialize and more inclined to prioritize immediate over long-term goals than older adults. But most students are not only capable of changing their behavior in the face of a public health crisis, they in fact are changing their behavior. 

Those who don’t should be subject to disciplinary processes. After all, we don’t exempt teenagers who speed, or drive while under the influence, from responsibility for disobeying the rules because they’re more likely than older drivers to do so. And, codes of conduct, team projects, and the ethos of academic and social life are designed to remind students that colleges expect them to act responsibly and will impose sanctions if they don’t.

Students who choose to return know the risks, the behavioral requirements of their college, and the consequences of violating those requirements.

Although the pandemic permits no guarantees, many institutions offering in-person learning this fall have followed the science and developed plans that are appropriate and reasonable for their specific situations and changing circumstances. It is reasonable, fair, and necessary to expect all individuals on college campuses to accept responsibility and the accountability that comes with it for their actions.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.

David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.


Tags College health Coronavirus COVID-19 return to school school openings

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