Fear and Loathing in a Coronavirus Pandemic

People wear masks as they wait in line at a coronavirus testing site set up for returning students, faculty, and staff at New York University in Manhattan, August 18, 2020. (MIke Segar/Reuters)

At Cornell and elsewhere, the shaming of those who fail to follow public-health guidelines must stop.

The administration at my alma mater, Cornell University, has been outspoken about its intention to open the school’s Ithaca campus this coming fall semester. Writing in the Wall Street Journal on June 30, President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff promoted the research of Cornell associate professor Peter Frazier, which suggests that universities that reopen are acting in the best interests of public health while those that stay closed will cause their communities to “experience markedly worse health outcomes.”

How do they explain this counterintuitive theory? It’s based on the assumption that many students — having already signed overpriced leases for the 2020–2021 school year and spent six long months living with their parents — would return to Ithaca whether the campus reopened or not. From there, Frazier, Pollack and Kotlikoff maintain that opening the university and instituting a vigorous screening protocol as well as strict behavioral requirements is more desirable than having these students return to the area without any supervision.

These behavioral requirements are outlined in the “Cornell Student Behavioral Compact,” which includes an educational course and quiz. Students must assent to the Compact before they are “permitted to enroll in classes or participate in university activities.” Among its components is the “Daily Check, an easy-to-use online tool that allows faculty, staff and students . . . to confirm that they are symptom-free and have not had recent exposure to someone with COVID-19 prior to their arrival on campus or accessing university facilities.” Another is a 30-person limit on both official events held on campus by student organizations and unofficial off-campus social gatherings. Individuals at such events must maintain six feet of distance from other people. And in addition to these behavioral requirements, students will be expected to “participate in ongoing ‘surveillance testing’ throughout the fall semester.” To break any of the rules of the Compact is to invite disciplinary action from the Cornell Compact Compliance Team (CCCT), which can dole out its own punishments or refer students to the Office of the Judicial Administrator for more serious sanctions.

None of these precautions and requirements strike me as needlessly burdensome or troubling. It would in all likelihood be impossible to safely integrate a majority of Cornell’s more than 14,000 undergraduates, 6,000 graduate students, and thousands of additional faculty and staff members back into the community without measures that recall the days of the pre-1960s American university and its in loco parentis approach. But that approach has also either elicited or exposed some worrisome behaviors and attitudes in the student body.

On Instagram, an account called “cornellaccountability” has amassed almost 600 followers. It calls itself a “community-based accountability system” and asks for direct-message and email “submissions,” while insisting that it is “not intended to single out/harm persons/group/orgs.” The account’s actions dovetail with its stated purpose. Its very first post, from August 2, is a screenshot of a May tweet that shows a front yard where a group of students had gathered just outside campus, and names the fraternity that was renting the property at the time. Presumably, most of these students were graduating seniors who were robbed of their last few months on campus and graduation. Nevertheless, this “accountability system” with no intentions of singling anyone out felt it necessary to dig up a months-old tweet and add its own snarky caption. Such behavior would seem to have less to do with accountability and public health than with like-harvesting and virtue-signaling.

Elsewhere, on Cornell’s popular Facebook meme page, which has nearly 35,000 members, a recent post that garnered over 400 likes urges students to call the police on anyone they suspect of breaking the Compact. Cornellians, who spend their four years in Ithaca ostensibly transitioning from child to adult, can do better. If you’re nervous or concerned about your peers’ behavior, a simple conversation with them should be much more productive than dialing 911 or thinking up captions for anonymous social-media shamings.

To the shock of no one, this puritanical line of thinking has already claimed its first victim. A group called the “Concerned Student Coalition” and many “student leaders” are calling for an incoming freshman’s acceptance to be rescinded after a Snapchat of her making fun of students who take social distancing seriously leaked. Apparently, she has also hosted and attended parties since arriving in Ithaca. To be sure, she is guilty of breaking the Compact, and of being a selfish jerk. But should her life be turned upside down? What of the others who attended the parties she did? Should they all be hunted down and expelled? The truth is that expelling such students will do nothing to make the community safer. It will only satiate the bloodlust and inflate the self-regard of the mob.

Cornellians are far from the only ones who have acted like this, of course. The inclination to condemn and punish those who are in any way less pious in their observation of guidelines and best practices is all too common these days. Mainstream media outlets insisted on depicting protesters unhappy with Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s arbitrary orders in Michigan as neo-Nazis. They’ve also assaulted the records of governors, such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Texas’s Greg Abbott, who have been quicker to reopen their states, while ignoring the higher death rates seen in both Michigan and Andrew Cuomo’s New York.

COVID-19 is not, as Cuomo clumsily asserted at the Democratic National Convention last week, a metaphor. But it is a mirror. The physical, financial, and emotional destruction that this virus has wrought is astonishing. No one could be blamed for fearing what else it might do, and who else it might hurt. At the same time, one can hardly blame those who are ready to begin the transition back to normality. Isolation and depression can be dangerous too, particularly for indebted students at a high-pressure university who are likely to enter the job market under tumultuous economic conditions. Ultimately, those at Cornell and elsewhere who are using their own fear as an excuse and taking others’ as permission to bully, intimidate, and control must stop it.