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Level 2: The Questionable Ethics and Limited Efficacy of Collective Punishment

Editor’s note: All opinion pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author.

By moving into Level 2 of the COVID Mitigation Plan, Haverford’s administration has chosen to arbitrarily curtail the freedoms of rule-abiding students in order to convey a broader message regarding the serious nature of COVID precautions.

This decision was made not to restrict viral transmission stemming from risky gatherings, but instead to communicate the unacceptable nature of this behavior. Substantive changes in privileges are targeted at student life. If the goal was truly to target transmission, faculty and athletics would also be moved to level 2 of the mitigation plan. Similarly, classroom lessons would shift to become entirely remote – but that is not the case.

As of Friday, September 18, the College’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that there has not been a single positive COVID test amongst the student body on-campus.  Tellingly, the next round of testing will not even occur until after the scheduled re-evaluation of mitigation level on September 20. Concern over risky behavior should prompt immediate and frequent surveillance testing. Yet that has not happened. The college has merely continued to pursue its policy of surveillance testing only once every two weeks. These inconsistencies reveal a thinly veiled truth: in this instance, the primary concern of the administration is not immediate COVID spread as a result of the bad behavior that has already occured.

Beyond the specific details of the policy shift, the email messages – sent on September 12 and 14 from both Dean Bylander and President Raymond – offer clear insight into the intentions behind this decision. Departing from the traditionally cordial discourse of school-wide emails, Bylander warned students: “For those of you contemplating testing my resolve or that of the college, don’t do it.” Further, in the email notifying the student body of the shift to Level 2, Bylander and Raymond suggested we “use this opportunity to reset the expectations of those who have not made responsible choices.” Both of these quotes provide further evidence that the change to Level 2 was not a response to changing incidences of COVID on campus, but is instead intended to send a strong message about administrative intolerance for risk-taking behavior.

There is no question that coming back to campus during a pandemic requires community-wide cooperation and respect for agreed upon rules. The contagious nature of this virus solidifies our understanding of interdependence and the reality is clear: individual actions have repercussions for the entire community. Targeted punishments (for example, a return to room quarantine) for students found to be engaging in risky behavior would effectively reduce any viral spread that resulted from these gatherings. It would also send the message to students who have already displayed callousness to the rules that their behavior will be met with serious consequences.

However, the decision to curtail campus-wide privileges in response to the actions of a minority of the students is an irresponsible use of power. Students who come to campus under these circumstances should be allowed to continue to enjoy the privileges they use responsibly, at least until COVID-related circumstances prohibit it. Haverford has acknowledged the varying circumstances under which students return to campus, and has implemented different policies to account for each student’s likelihood of exposure (i.e. upon return to campus, quarantine procedures are determined based upon where a student is traveling from).

The response to specific instances of misconduct on campus should be no different. To the extent that it is within the administration’s control, it should be the students who engage in risky behaviors that suffer the consequences. Students returning to campus entered into a social contract between their peers and the administration. This involves a delicate balance of restricted personal freedoms for the collective good of the group. For its end of the bargain, the administration should respect student autonomy and be judicious in their exercise of power. In an already abbreviated semester, losing a week of relative freedom is a sincere loss, and the College should be conscious of the ways it is reducing the quality of life of students who have upheld their commitment to social responsibility.

In a bizarre twist, the administration also took this change in mitigation level as an opportunity to place deans as gatekeepers of students’ mobility. The email we received on Sunday explained that should students need to stock up on groceries for the week, they may email their dean for permission to go out for them on Monday. This threatens the developing interpersonal relationships between students and their dean: Adult college students are forced to revert into childlike beings, needing to ask permission before exiting school to engage in life-sustaining behavior. It eerily mirrors the behaviors of elementary school students asking permission of their classroom teacher before stepping out of class to get a drink of water or use the restroom. Does COVID care whether you run to Trader Joe’s on Monday or on Tuesday? Doubtful. And yet, the college takes this opportunity to exert their authority in the mundane goings-on of a student’s daily existence.

The merits of this collective punishment strategy remain to be seen. Perhaps this “shock to the system” will pave the way for a smooth remainder of the semester. However, it also creates the opportunity to breed discontent on campus and poses serious ethical questions about administrative overreach into student life.

One Comment

  1. John Doe September 18, 2020

    We have to remember – there is still a sizable number of staff and commuter students that are coming and going from campus every day and potentially bringing infections into the larger surrounding communities, communities that have done comparatively well to insulate themselves from the virus as compared to many areas throughout this nation and communities that explicitly do not want to see that progress eroded by the return of the campus populations that dot the area. I think it is very important to recognize this, and to be respectful of the larger communities in which we reside.

    In my opinion this decision is less about group discipline and more a reaction to what seems like potentially unsafe conditions brewing on campus. In my eyes, the swift move to a “level 2 aka campus quarantine” is a targeted, proactive move to get in front of these large gatherings and hopefully stop potential asymptomatic spread to the greater Lower Merion/Haverford Township communities before it begins.

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