In the past three days, several major universities have shuttered their doors and pivoted to remote instruction, as off-campus gatherings and parties led to spikes in coronavirus cases.
But we Boilermakers, we’re different — right?
On Aug. 9, Purdue President Mitch Daniels sent a back-to-school message to students that included stale reprises of his most prominent talking points for justifying the decision to reopen: Symptoms of the virus have so far been milder in college-aged populations, and the majority of students surveyed want to return to campus.
It’s inane to harp on the low lethality of the virus among young people when students are going to come into contact with older professors, community members, business owners and essential workers. Pretending any different is selective ignorance.
To his second point: Offering students the option to anecdotally respond to a complex administrative question is irresponsible. Of course the vast majority of people want to return to campus. Campus offers stability, or at least the illusion of it.
Does Daniels know that many upperclassmen didn’t have the option to take online classes if they wanted to graduate on time? When you tailor the fully online option to work best for freshmen and people enrolled in lower-level courses, seniors interested in earning a degree within the next year are naturally going to need to be on campus.
The harm done by a haphazard transition to online classes this spring should have prompted the University to rethink its headstrong reopening of campus. Now, three days before classes begin, it’s probable we’ll again face the academic and emotional consequences of that switch.
Relying on superficially gleaned student sentiment as justification for reopening reads as little more than an opportunity for administrators to deflect blame in the event the first student, faculty or staff member dies from coronavirus.
We all want to get back to “normal.” We can want that yet still understand how that desire means unnecessary danger for thousands. College students can have nuanced opinions, especially when we know, better than anyone, how we all act.
Daniels has shown a dangerously flawed understanding of how students opting to return to campus will behave by trusting an honor code. Not until Wednesday, days before classes are set to begin, were “disciplinary sanctions” written into the student code of conduct for violations of the Protect Purdue Pledge.
The Purdue University Police Department had already logged at least one violation by the time the new policy was added.
The 10 college-aged students written up for playing basketball can be blamed for their recklessness, sure, but the University allowed 88% of undergraduates to return. And administrators will blame such students when the virus begins to spread, as evidenced by Dean of Students Katherine Sermersheim’s comment, “If you don’t abide by the rules, there is no place for you here.”
On the topic of blame, in his address to students, Daniels hyperlinked a conspicuous page titled “Student Compliance Naysayers” when discussing people who say the University’s experiment will fail.
The page is part of the Protect Purdue website and was ostensibly created for the sole purpose of pitting students against medical experts, health writers and professors who genuinely care for students’ health and well-being.
Reading the quotes now, after clusters stemming from parties and off-campus gatherings at the University of North Carolina shut down in-person instruction, is like reading a list of winning bets on the fate of higher education this fall.
“We are not convinced that student behavior will be sufficiently prudent for four months,” said Susan Blum, a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. “The restrictions are going to be brutal, and asking them to keep them up the whole time they’re here is asking a lot.”
Notre Dame also announced this week that it will shift to at least two weeks of online courses after nearly 150 positive cases of the virus were identified among the campus population.
“Some students are going to party, regardless of what officials say,” said Stephen Gavazzi, a professor in the department of human sciences at The Ohio State University.
Beer pong abounds in front yards near Salisbury Street and just south of State Street, as well as outside fraternity houses. One hears inklings of pool parties at various apartment complexes without even seeking them.
Partiers aren’t hiding their apathy, and it’s the week before classes begin. What do you expect will happen when 35,000 of us share the same campus in the coming days?
Despite stoking an adversarial relationship between students and professionals who genuinely care about public health, Daniels ends the letter in saying the semester is one for unity.
He yields a highly restrictive “we” in the event of success: We’ll have proved the cynics wrong. We’ll have inflated Purdue’s already exorbitant ego. We’ll have made history.
This distinction could be the fatal kink in the rationale for reopening campus. Daniels thinks he and Purdue administrators are siding with students by trusting them to adhere to policies necessary to prevent the spread of the virus. The “naysayers” and “cynics” are not to be heard, despite their relevant and expert credentials.
The skeptics are right, of course: Reopening campus is inherently unsafe and a doomed act. Daniels hopes to pit students against the very individuals who have the integrity and expertise to look out for them.
Caring for students is not coddling their egos, deluding them into a vision of Boilermakers as particularly responsible. Caring is offering transparent, candid commentary about the material threats the virus’s spread poses for students who contract it and, especially, the older people with whom students interact.
But transparency is often bad politics, and Daniels has emboldened students to believe it is us at Purdue versus “them”: experts, journalists, doctors.
His method is working.
As students have arrived for Purdue’s orientation week, The Exponent has sent reporters to ask incoming students how they feel about everything, from group activities to the new dining court system to wearing masks most of the time.
Several times when reporters started photographing the crowds of people lining up outside dining halls or gathering on Krach Lawn, Boiler Gold Rush student leaders began spacing them out to adhere to social distancing guidelines after spotting our cameras.
Team leaders and supervisors have refused to provide details of their experiences thus far, saying they’re unable to speak to the media.
Once, as a reporter attempted to question freshmen in line for food outside Earhart Dining Hall, a team leader stopped her and said BGR freshmen weren’t allowed to speak to the media. That is patently false, according to Daniel Carpenter, director of student success.
“There is definitely not a prohibition against speaking with the media,” Carpenter said in an email Wednesday afternoon. “Anyone from the media is welcome to talk to whoever they want to.”
The leader who stopped one reporter launched into a tirade about how national news outlets would twist students’ answers to make Purdue look bad.
Our reporter is a fellow student attempting to discern how safe freshmen feel in the midst of a pandemic that has killed nearly 170,000 people in the U.S.
Students’ voices matter now more than ever.
“Our intention throughout this time of trial,” Daniels said in the email, “is to be as open and direct as possible.”
But there is no incentive for administrators to be transparent about a safe reopening when they are deluding themselves and, by association, the students they serve.
There will be cases. There will most likely be deaths.
We will be the ones writing the obituaries. Would Daniels care to comment?
The editorial board is made up of the editor-in-chief, managing editor, campus editor, assistant campus editor, city editor, sports editor, graphics editor and a special projects reporter.