Cornell University is the only Ivy League school that is allowing all students to return to campus this fall. As part of its efforts to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, the University has mandated that every returning student abide by a behavioral compact and has invited students to report classmates who violate it. The University is surely well-meaning and simply trying to ensure compliance, but after only a few weeks it’s become apparent that asking students to inform on each other has fed into unhealthy social impulses and may even encourage students to socially organize themselves according to how seriously they take the compact’s restrictions.
In late August, a group of students calling themselves the Concerned Cornell Students Coalition started a petition demanding Cornell “[d]e-densify Cornell’s Ithaca Campus” by “rescinding the admission” of Jessica Zhang ’24. Zhang, a minor TikTok celebrity, flaunted that she was attending forbidden social gatherings and mocked those concerned with safety. She has since apologized and explained that she wrongly believed the gathering was safe because everyone present had tested negative. Her actions were against the compact and could have spread the coronavirus. There should be, and surely were, consequences.
But expulsion for this offense — committed by someone in her first week of college — is so overly punitive it is shocking that students themselves would call for it. Does anyone really believe that nothing short of expulsion could get Zhang to change her behavior? Suspension? Being banished from campus? What about being banned from school events when life returns to normal? In all probability just the threat of any of these things would be enough to ensure that she’d never do it again. Appearing at a disciplinary hearing within the first month of school is not on most freshmen’s bucket list. Demanding the harshest punishment may make some students feel virtuous, but there is certainly no virtue in trying to ruin an 18-year old’s life for one reckless act. (It makes one wonder whether the cruelty is the point, after all?) All of us remember our first weeks at Cornell and should feel sympathy for freshmen who are being deprived of that experience. They are going through a life transition under abnormal circumstances, and any disciplinary action should be tailored to encourage compliance — not make examples out of people.
I wish this were an isolated incident, but it seems more than a few students have taken it upon themselves to police their fellow students. There is now an Instagram account called “cornellaccountability.” The account describes itself as a “community-based accountability system” and solicits photos and videos of compact violations. One of its posts even encourages students to call the police on students who host illicit gatherings. Apparently, Tuesdays are for calling for the CUPD to be defunded and Wednesdays are for calling them on your classmates.
The account claims that it is not intended to “harm persons/groups/orgs,” but it is difficult to see what else its posts accomplish. It intends to shame, embarrass and sic the proverbial online mob on those who it believes are acting improperly. In deputizing the entire student body to enforce these restrictions, efforts like these create a culture of mistrust and suspicion. Far from encouraging compliance, these actions encourage students to go to increasingly extreme lengths to keep their gatherings secret.
Most unfortunately, even well-intentioned students are finding themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. As The Sun reported last week, a student anonymously reported that her housemates were violating the compact. The University, however, said it would not pursue the case unless she identified herself. Caught between enforcing the compact or causing a rift with her roommates, she chose to remain anonymous. This system inevitably puts students in a no win situation. They face three bad options: Report their friends, not hang out with their friends or remain silent in the face of behavior they know is dangerous. The University has no right to place such a burden on its students.
When Cornell decided to open, surely its “epidemiological modeling” contemplated that some students would break the rules. There are over 14,000 undergraduates and it runs against the nature of 20-year-olds to let things get in the way of having fun. If the actions of a few rule-breakers are enough to unravel Cornell’s reopening, perhaps it should have remained closed. It is irresponsible and unfair to reopen, knowing that some students will break the rules, and then place the responsibility for remaining open –– or the blame for having to shut down –– on the entire student body. Students should be appreciative of the work Cornell put in to reopen, given that most schools took the easy way out of a remote semester. But adherence to the behavioral compact must result from a genuine desire to follow it, not constant fear that your friends will report you.
Over the past few days, the number of new cases has been relatively low and there’s reason to think Cornell’s bold experiment might succeed. But in the event it doesn’t, resist the temptation to blame your classmates or even the University. Everyone went above and beyond to make this semester possible. Sometimes, that is simply not good enough.
Matthew Samilow is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Malott’s Front Steps runs every other Friday this semester.