Due Process — And Normal Social Relations — Are Being Destroyed By COVID Snitching Culture
Earlier this month, a student at one of the country’s most eminent law schools received an email announcing that a fellow classmate had anonymously lodged a complaint against him. The allegation: that he had violated University policy by engaging in prohibited behaviors, such as momentarily lowering his face mask to take a drink of water during a 90-minute lecture.
Ironically for a top tier law school — at which vaccination had already been mandated, and where basic precepts of due process are presumably taught — the student was denied any opportunity to be apprised of his accuser’s identity. Nor was he advised of any adjudicatory process to contest the allegations. So the complaint just hangs there, in a kind of creepy administrative limbo, and there’s apparently nothing he can do about it.
I would love to provide more specifics — including the name of the law school, and the exact obnoxious quotes emailed by the Dean in question — but I cannot. Because the person who gave me these emails is extremely worried, probably for good reason, that going on-record could jeopardize his life in all manner of ways. Including social ostracization, compromising future employment prospects, and perhaps even inviting additional retribution from what I’ve been told is a highly ‘assertive’ crew of official disciplinarians.
It’s far from an unusual situation. As you may be aware, since I began reporting on colleges and universities that continue to enforce outlandishly stringent COVID measures well into this current Fall semester, I’ve received a torrent of messages from students across the country with stories of the latest bizarre administrative dictates they’ve been subjected to. Almost invariably, the students are adamant that their names not be divulged — thanks in large part to a formal and informal snitch culture which now pervades these institutions, including the aforementioned “elite” law school.
And so students are hindered from publicly criticizing policies that to outsiders increasingly appear beyond ridiculous. To review just a sampling: At Stanford and University of Pennsylvania, vaccinated students are required to wear face masks while playing pickup basketball. At Georgetown and the University of Southern California, students are expressly forbidden from removing their masks in class even for a few seconds to “hydrate.” At Columbia and Brown, decrees have been issued barring students from hosting guests or going to restaurants. And just this past Monday, Harvard Business School canceled in-person classes, citing an allegedly “distressing” spate of “cases” amongst a population of students who — as is uniformly true at these institutions — are already near-universally vaccinated.
To justify such intrusive measures, administrators seem to need only incant the word “Delta,” as though it’s some kind of magical spell — and then all prior assurances that mandatory vaccine uptake would enable a return to “normalcy” disappear in a poof of smoke.
As you might expect, the messages keep pouring in. I’m almost not sure if it’ll do any good to continue reporting them, because at a certain point the whole routine may become repetitive. But, you play with the cards you’ve been dealt I suppose. George Mason University just sent out a directive demanding that masks be worn in cubicles, “even if you are alone within the cubicle and even if there is no one occupying the cubicles and spaces around you.”
Here’s a notice to University of Oregon law students that campus security will be diligently monitoring the outdoor basketball court, to ensure that masks are worn while students are shootin’ hoops.
At UC San Diego, wearing a mask in perpetuity is now deemed necessary as a “psychological” safeguard:
At the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill this semester, course syllabi contain a clause that threatens swift and decisive disciplinary intervention for even the smallest infractions. “If you choose not to wear a mask,” the clause reads, “or wear it improperly, I will ask you to leave immediately, and I will submit a report to the Office of Student Conduct. At that point you will be disenrolled from this course.”
Summary disenrollment for improper mask-wearing practices? Yep — that’s the threat, anyway. Hassan Melehy, a professor of French at UNC, confirmed to me that his syllabus contains such language. Per usual, these unwieldy threats tend to be made at the supposed behest of some imagined “community,” such as an “educational community,” which seems a convenient public-spirited pretext for the individual paranoias of instructors.
But clearly these measures go well beyond any lone professor’s pathologies, and speak to a broader mindset taking hold at the country’s most well-endowed and influential institutions. Through a confluence of bureaucratic inertia, ideological zeal, and a continuous spigot of funds, these institutions are unable or unwilling to extricate from a paradigm that sees COVID a crisis with no end. If vaccination wasn’t the way out, what would be?
As I keep saying, this is a dynamic that even those without any connection to academia should be acutely mindful of. The new college COVID bureaucracies have seemingly entrenched themselves as permanent fixtures of ordinary life, and progressively expanded their remit in the process — a trend that could easily be replicated in other non-academic contexts. Having been accorded with the power to surveil and micromanage the private affairs of adult students, under the guise of benign-sounding concepts like “contact tracing,” it doesn’t take much imagination to grasp why these bureaucracies might be reluctant to voluntarily give up those powers.
Even at universities less associated with the pinnacle of elite American culture, the COVID bureaucracies often operate on a logic that is barely any more decipherable. Boise State University administrators announced last Friday that despite a recent decline in positive “cases,” another round of surveillance policies would be imposed to specifically target football fans, with a “pivot to random sample testing for ticket holders in the student section for next week’s home game.” As is common with bureaucracies, once new powers are accrued, continual exertions of those powers become almost self-justifying.
Importantly, a version of this crackpottery is also happening within the K-12 public school system. The head of the Chicago teachers union made the incredible revelation last week that 10,000 students across the city were simultaneously in “quarantine.” (The term “quarantine” is a total misnomer, too — unless you think every sixth grader in Chicago is scrupulously adhering to 10 days of isolation protocols.) On a daily basis you can find examples of elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools shutting down in a frenzy due to bureaucratic paranoia over supposed “outbreaks” of “cases” — even though it’s been conclusively demonstrated that school-age kids are at astronomically low risk from COVID, and even though every adult to whom they could conceivably “transmit” the virus has had the opportunity to get vaccinated at no cost for approximately nine months. An entire middle school in Ohio shut down September 28 because of a single, solitary “case” detected among a member of staff.
So if even private colleges which don’t have to deal with things like union constraints or Boards of Education are still operating within this “Permanent Crisis” mentality, what hope do these lowly public schools have?
My past reporting on this subject has been criticized — speciously, I would argue — on the ground that I haven’t dutifully sought out enough “experts” to verify that forcing vaccinated 20-year-olds to wear masks while playing basketball seems a tad ridiculous, or that forcing 10,000 school kids in Chicago to shambolically “quarantine” seems a tad excessive. You can watch my video discussion with Matt Binder of the “Majority Report” — on YouTube and Rokfin — wherein he raises these appeal-to-authority criticisms.
I reject that it’s some sacred requirement to kneel before the altar of official expertise in order to report on a major public policy issue. Nonetheless, I have in fact talked to plenty of well-credentialed people who view these measures not just as asinine, but also as detrimental for wider societal reasons. Monica Gandhi, a Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told me: “Is our goal to prevent every case? Or is our goal what it has been for every pandemic — to stop disease? That goal has been achieved on college campuses.” She added, “The US will never get back to normal if we can’t do it in the microcosm of college campuses.”
In fairness, that may not be exactly right; large swathes of the country have long ago returned to “normalcy,” if they ever departed from it in the first place. But at the country’s most ostensibly prestigious institutions, “normalcy” is hardly on offer, and in many places is regarded as an inherently suspicious aspiration. Rather more preferred, it would seem, is the quasi-permanent implementation of a surveillance and behavioral regulation apparatus.
Despite mounting evidence that COVID is destined to become an endemic disease, these institutions continue to cling to an outmoded framework that treats every positive “case” — even among asymptomatic, vaccinated young adults — as cause for perpetual alarm. Perhaps not coincidentally, the same framework allows for the burgeoning COVID bureaucracies to endure well past the point of there being any conceivable “emergency” to contend with. That, as well as the habits of mind inculcated by students’ submission to a never-ending slew of arbitrary intrusions, can’t be ignored. As I’ve repeatedly emphasized: these are the institutions producing both the sensibilities and the graduates that are soon to govern the rest of society.
I’m particularly interested in hearing from somebody who’s been the target of a “complaint” filed through one of these anonymized Orwellian snitching systems. Please get in touch — ideally, if you’re willing to go on the record.
For encrypted email, use firstname.lastname@example.org
For regular email, use email@example.com
Of course you can also DM me on Twitter (@mtracey)
These institutions may not erradicate the virus but they have wiped out critical thinking and any genuine sense of autonomy and Constitutional freedoms. Imagine it's only about $40,000 per year to learn to heed authoritarian mandates uncritically.
Outside of the criminal justice system, I can't think of any American institution where adults are able to lord it over other adults to the extent they do so in academia. When I am feeling uncharitable, I sometimes conclude this fact is what makes their jobs so attractive to many college administrators.