September 3, 2020

GUEST ROOM | We’re Not Just Being Set Up to Fail, We’re Being Set Up to Blame Each Other

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On July 21 The Atlantic published an article indicating that colleges were readying themselves to blame students for failed campus re-openings. Inevitable parties and quarantine breaches would be registered as violations of some form of a Behavioral Compact, allowing universities to lay blame directly upon their students. Increasingly, however, Cornell has succeeded not only in creating metrics to blame students directly for the spread of COVID-19 but has leveraged the Compact so that students will blame one another, shielding administrators from much direct responsibility for the campus reopening.

Such internalization of responsibility and blame works in predictable ways if you understand the nature of power. The first step is an exertion of force — compelling students to sign the Compact — softened by the fallacy of choice. Cornell compels students to sign but insinuates that there is a degree of agency to promote acceptance of the terms offered. Students do technically have a choice: One could refuse to sign the Compact, but for many graduate workers this would mean a termination of employment, and for undergraduates termination or suspension of their education. Faced with this non-choice, students sign and formally, at least, accept the framing the university offers.

Step two encourages students to police one another. Students participate for a variety of reasons, not least because they become invested in these rules as a means through which to protect their own interests (the campus remaining open, their tuition money going towards the in-person instruction promised). It is also, however, easier to assign blame to concrete action than abstractions or omissions. That is to say, it is easier to blame a student for not physical distancing or for inappropriate quarantine adherence than to ask whether the university has unreasonable expectations of students or workers or is able to provide safe working conditions.

Thirdly, the often, though not uniformly, reasonable demands of the Compact work to further quash discussion of broader institutional responsibility. Physical distancing, mask wearing and limited social gatherings are all important means to keep us safe and healthy as a community. One cannot (and should not) refuse to wear a mask while on campus, but the Compact implicitly makes the claim that students are the potential source of the problem regardless of choices made by the university that otherwise leave us at risk. There’s little room to discuss the failures of, or hold the administration accountable for, poor decision-making or execution of COVID-19 safety plans because our acceptance of the general requirements to reduce community transmission are taken as an acceptance of the implications of the Compact. To be dubious of the work of the Compact can, in other words, be incorrectly read as a rebuttal of important public health measures.

That we are disregarding the university’s responsibility in favour of blaming students is clear. With the semester barely upon us, students have launched (and at least one faculty member co-signed) a petition to expel a single first-year student. Little serious discussion seems to have taken place about the nature of this petition, including the ethics of student policing, underlying xenophobia and cyber-bullying. Further, few questions have been raised about why the university has not condemned this petition outright which seemingly exists outside of formal complaint mechanisms. The university’s silence clarifies the Compact’s work: Not merely to influence behaviors but to divide the student body such that it won’t be the university who does the ‘disciplining,’ blaming students for a failed semester; it will be students themselves.

Despite the recent claims that the university has a ‘meticulous’ plan it seems fairer to say that many of the decisions made about the semester are unfolding in real time. Thousands of students have returned to campus from across the country in the midst of a pandemic, many of whom were forced to find quarantine accommodations other than those promised them initially. Student RAs were left without sufficient Personal Protective Equipment to facilitate move-in, resulting in a strike. The COVID-19 Dashboard that recently went live with a promise of daily updates seems incapable of providing up-to-the-minute data. Rather than questioning these structural problems, we have tacitly accepted the metrics of the Compact and the university administration has disappeared from view.

No city, state, country or organization has contained COVID-19. Even those quickest to act have found themselves unable to stamp out the virus entirely. While individual responsibility is important and many of the stipulations in the Behavioral Compact vital for the health and safety of our peers and community members, it is entirely possible that the semester will be cut short. We need to be wary of rhetoric that absolves administrators of total responsibility as we fixate on the (ir)responsibility of students. Despite all the warning the administration has received about how contagious this virus is, the clear limitations in their current plans and the significant demands that COVID-19 restrictions place upon all students (and staff and faculty), the university has opted for a residential experience this semester. The reason that you, or I or anyone else within Cornell’s community have become personally and palpably responsible for the survival of our peers is because Cornell’s administrators have chosen this path for us.

We need to hold the administration responsible for creating the conditions under which we exist as much as they will hold us responsible for individual breaches of conduct. I don’t doubt that our administrators are well meaning, and working hard to make this re-opening of the university successful. But I also don’t doubt that students are well-meaning, and working hard to make this re-opening of the university successful. The difference between these two groups, then, is that one is in charge and the other is being held accountable.

Sean Cosgrove is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.