The Atlantic: Don’t Let Colleges Blame Students for Campus Coronavirus Spread

CAMBRIDGE, MA - DECEMBER 16: A gate sits locked on Quincy Street at Harvard University during a bomb scare December 16, 2013 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Police were alerted at roughly nine thirty this morning of possible bombs at four different buildings on the Harvard campus. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
Darren McCollester/Getty

Professors from Harvard and Washington University in St. Louis published a column in the Atlantic last week in which they claimed that universities and colleges will blame college students for administrative failures to prevent the spread of the Chinese virus on campus this fall.

The Atlantic published a column last week by Harvard epidemiologist Julia Marcus and Washington University in St. Louis psychiatrist Jessica Gold in which the pair argued that colleges and universities will likely blame their failures to prevent the spread of the virus on their students.

There is existing evidence for their claim. Over the summer, an administrator at Tulane University in New Orleans blamed students who held a small gathering on the Fourth of July. To deter future gatherings, she threatened them with suspension or expulsion.

“Do you really want to be the reason that Tulane and New Orleans have to shut down again?” That was the question that Erica Woodley, the dean of students at Tulane University, posed in a July 7 email scolding students for their “disrespectful, selfish and dangerous” partying during the Fourth of July weekend. “This type of behavior is indefensible and truly shameful,” she admonished. Woodley went on to warn—in bold and all caps—that students who hosted gatherings with more than 15 people would face dire punishment: suspension or expulsion.

Marcus and Gold believe that it is inappropriate for university and college administrators to rely on the “self-control” of young adults. Rather, administrators should work to implement protocols that can prevent a spread in a community where people will eventually socialize together.

Despite serious public-health concerns, Tulane and other campuses are slated to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall. Students will get infected, and universities will rebuke them for it; campuses will close, and students will be blamed for it. Relying on the self-control of young adults, rather than deploying the public-health infrastructure needed to control a disease that spreads easily among people who live, eat, study, and socialize together, is not a safe reopening strategy—and yelling at students for their dangerous behavior won’t help either.

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