I have to admit that I’m shocked at the bad press colleges and universities are getting for setting high expectations for COVID-safe student behavior, holding students accountable for their actions, and frankly attributing negative repercussions to disregard for guidelines whenever a connection can be drawn. For the past few days, institutions have drawn fire for all of the above, and the hottest takes have even suggested that closures plus “student blaming” has been the strategy all along. Some seem to think that colleges have planned to communicate impossible standards, expect impossible levels of compliance, and then shut down when those standards couldn’t be honored. The argument from some seems to be that we can’t expect young adults to distance, wear masks, and not congregate in large numbers in order to preserve opportunities to learn together in person and keep more people healthy and alive.

I don’t buy it.

I don’t buy that early closure and student-blaming was the game-plan for institutions. More basically, I don’t buy the premises that colleges are asking the impossible, that young adults can’t be expected to act responsibly for the sake of greater goods like the educational enterprise or community wellbeing, even in high-stakes situations, or that institutions are unreasonable to hold students accountable for irresponsible behavior.

Let’s take each of these ideas separately.

Are colleges setting impossible standards? Hardly. Institutions are asking young adults who choose to be on-campus for in-person instruction to keep their distance, wear face-coverings, and avoid congregating in large groups. They may even have to use some one-way hallways or wait in longer lines for lower-capacity restrooms. All of these things are unusual, but they are decidedly possible and arguably easy. Are there other things that are difficult about this semester? Yes. Are these requirements among those difficult things? No.

Can we expect young adults to act responsibly or even follow rules they don’t agree with or fully understand for the sake of the greater good? Yes. We expect young adults to comply with standards in high-stakes situations all. the. time. The extreme example, of course, is what we expect of young adults serving in the military and what’s at stake in their meeting the standards set for them. But we don’t need the extreme non-higher education examples when we have good examples in higher education. We expect far more demanding things from students in all sorts of settings, especially in experiential education. Conducting lab experiments just right is more demanding, and getting lab experiments wrong can have serious consequences in some cases. Even the climbing wall requires students to meet more stringent standards. And off-campus programs? I’ve supervised students in experiential programs where a wrong step could cost a life (think deadly snakes, crocodiles, sharks), where a bad decision could compromise the education experience for everyone, where community wellbeing both among and beyond students depends on individual watchfulness, where there’s somewhere between little and no room for error. Every single one of those programs has required students to do more difficult things than distance, wear masks, avoid congregating in large numbers, and use one-way hallways, and the stakes have often been quite high. If we can’t reasonably require COVID precautions, even for weeks at a time, there are a lot of other, and more demanding, learning experiences we should probably stop offering to students.

Finally, are institutions unreasonable to hold students accountable if they don’t comply? No. The standards are not impossible, the stakes are high, and the students signed up for these requirements. Many, perhaps most, institutions are requiring students to sign a COVID agreement or compact – my own institution requires them to sign a covenant – agreeing to comply with these rules. In other words, the students who’ve shown up have pledged to comply. They’ve pledged to set both community health and sustaining this unusual educational experience as long as possible ahead of their preference for two-way hallways, partying, or masklessness. Students who wittingly engage in risky behavior should be sent home. (Again, the analogy to experiential education works. I’ve had to send home, or threaten to send students home, from experiential education programs for putting others at risk and compromising the long-term integrity of the educational experience for others.)

Now, does any of this mean that every college should have opened back up for in-person education? No – that’s a different question that should probably be answered differently by different institutions. Does it mean that college and university environments would be COVID-free if students would just comply? No – that would be impossible. Might we still see institutions close down in-person education and go online because of outbreaks? Quite possibly. I’m not saying that student compliance would lead to perfect semesters. But I am saying that it is entirely reasonable to set standards, to expect compliance, and to hold students accountable if they wittingly engage in risky behavior that jeopardizes the health, lives, or learning experiences of others.

One Comment

  • Vincent Morris says:

    My friend Noah is at once wise, knowledgeable, and thoughtful (not identical qualities), which is why I like to connect with him for the occasional conversational luncheon even though we no longer work at the same institutions as before. I agree with much he has to say here—one way to promote maturation and growth in young people is to challenge them to “do hard things” for the sake of others. David Brooks talks about “obituary virtues” and the need to define our lives in commitment to others and to a cause and a community. Practice in these areas can be accomplished through heightened community life expectations around COVID-19 and caring for others. An institution that opens for in-person classes can set, and make clear, these expectations for students. (This necessarily leaves aside concerns for the more-vulnerable employee population forced to come to in-person work in such an environment, but that perhaps is a subject for a different post.)

    However, human nature is “born to trouble as the sparks fly upward,” so we should not be surprised when young people make poor decisions, even when much is at stake. For instance, while abstinence might be the moral high ground for our sexual expectations for teenagers, the wise teacher or youth pastor will still (among other lessons) use a banana to show high schoolers (and middle schoolers!) how to use a condom properly. Setting expectations is a good thing; being prepared to deal with the fallout of missed expectations is also prudent. In the case of COVID-19, missed expectations can cause mass sickness and death. The pressing issue is not expectations of compliance; it is that the stakes are much higher for the community than with an errant eighth-grader who didn’t pay enough attention to the banana demonstration.

    I am not so cynical as to think institutions are purposefully setting impossible standards just to have a scapegoat—“bad” student behavior—for their inevitable in-person shutdown. Noah writes, “The argument from some seems to be that we can’t expect young adults to distance, wear masks, and not congregate in large numbers in order to preserve opportunities to learn together in person and keep more people healthy and alive.” We certainly can expect these young adults to do these things—but we shouldn’t be surprised if they don’t. As the old quote goes, citing Scripture: “‘The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong’—but that’s the way to bet.” Expecting perfect social behavior from a massed collective of undergraduate students (for it will take perfect behavior to avoid the virus’ contagion) is not the way to bet, with so many others’ health and lives at stake.

    The problem I have with the “set high expectations and hold ‘em accountable” approach is partly captured in the Chronicle article of August 24, “Colleges Lost the Moral Authority to Blame Students” (https://www.chronicle.com/article/colleges-lost-the-moral-authority-to-blame-students?utm_source=Iterable&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=campaign_1466131_nl_Afternoon-Update_date_20200824&cid=pm&source=ams&sourceId=57206&cid2=gen_login_refresh)

    The plain and simple truth is that these same institutions, which now wish to claim the right to impose strict consequences on students for violating community safety standards regarding the virus, have utterly failed in imposing meaningful consequences for other risky or illegal or immoral behavior that damages community life in the past. Turning a blind eye to underage drinking (3/4 of traditional-age students are not legal drinkers in any state) has led to liability claims, sexual assaults, physical damages, and the waste of academic potential in myriad cases. Rather than eliminate and expel violators routinely, schools market their “cultural experiences” as part of what an 18-year-old should expect to be doing in the American college years. Noah may have sent home his experiential students who violated community norms, but this is the exception and not the rule across the breadth of higher education.

    Another of many similar examples of lax enforcement is academic cheating, which for the sake of the community should, but usually does not, lead immediately to expulsion (as it does for their professors), and is also closely associated with grade inflation as part of the ethically questionable notion that actually doing the academic work is not what is important—getting an acceptable grade is what matters. Several studies indicate the actual learning accomplished in four (or more) years of tertiary education in recent years is not, in general, increasing the average graduate’s knowledge base much over high school—even as average GPAs continue to climb.

    If schools, to serve their reputations and business models, have been long willing to let slide these types of damaging community behavior, it will take some convincing for a typical student to see the importance of “this time we are serious” restrictions on behavior in a pandemic age for the sake of community health. The punchline of an old joke about a concerned father hovering over the dating life of his teenage daughter comes to mind. “How will you keep the boys away?” “Well, I figure I’ll shoot the first two or three and the rest will get the idea.” How many schools are willing to grit their teeth and expel the first two or three (or twenty or thirty…) students who violate COVID-19 social expectations and thus threaten the community? These colleges and universities haven’t been able to bring themselves to do so concerning drinking or cheating, even with several decades to observe the community damage. Neither are high expectations in order for virus response.

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