LTE: Thoughts as we approach campus move-in

Kenny Allen, Op-Ed Contributor

On the day President Schapiro announced that first- and second year students wouldn’t be allowed on campus for fall quarter, Illinois reported 2,454 new coronavirus cases (with a 7-day average of 1,992). On the day before winter quarter move-in started, the state reported 4,428 new cases with a 7-day average of 6,062.

Provost Kathleen Hagerty explained the decision to allow first- and second year students by pointing to the school’s “testing protocols and the contact tracing and the very positive behavior for all people on campus.” In the same interview, Provost Hagerty added that a “big unknown is individual behavior, because you can’t control what people do.” It’s true that behavior is an unknown, but in the end, they made the decision to bring people back and increase density on campus. Regardless of mitigation measures, this is a riskier situation than Fall Quarter. Priced into that decision is the understanding that there will be noncompliance along with its potential risks. Bringing more students back increases risk on and near campus.

Like many other schools, Northwestern has a code of conduct detailing expectations of safe behavior on campus and consequences if one violates that code. Like many other schools, Northwestern encourages students to anonymously report those violations.

At other schools with dorms open, often at the encouragement of administration, many students saw it as their responsibility to police each other’s behavior. That created an environment where students didn’t trust each other and were empowered to retaliate against others by submitting anonymous concerns. We saw the beginnings of that environment over the summer. In anticipation of a fully opened campus Fall Quarter, someone started an Instagram account where people could anonymously submit pictures of other students breaking covid rules. The person running the account insisted that they were doing it in order to preserve the college experience for many Northwestern students.

We should make sure to resist the university’s attempts to completely offload the responsibility for safety onto us. Before the start of Fall Quarter, administrators pointed to rising cases of coronavirus as their reason for cancelling move-in for thousands of students. They made the proactive decision to lower density on campus to protect student safety. Now — while local spread of the virus is even higher — the decision to fully open dorms puts them in the reactive position of seeing what happens when more students are on campus with less space.

It’s important to keep that decision in mind as the University asks us to surveil each other. If we immediately look to blame other students, we provide administrators with easy scapegoats if something does go wrong. Additionally — especially after campus protests to abolish the police in the fall — we should resist powerful institutions when they ask us to help them inflict punishment onto our peers. Potential biases in scrutiny would lead to punishment being dealt out disproportionately to marginalized groups on campus. And many of those sanctions, such as being sent home for noncompliance, will be disproportionately felt by marginalized groups as well.

This isn’t to say that we all shouldn’t be trying to keep each other safe as much as we can. There are obviously measures we can each take to prevent the spread of the virus. But this is a collective problem, and individual decisions can only keep us so safe. Whatever outcome we see will be more of a result of administrators’ decisions, rather than an indictment of students’ behavior. We all want to stay safe, but we need to make sure that desire for safety isn’t expressed as policing each other.

If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.