Repeating History

The Editorial Board reflected on the administration's recent decision to tighten Covid rules, and found the exact same problem that caused the outrage when students were asked to leave campus three semesters ago: a failure to communicate compassionately and to consult with the groups most affected.

Students were understandably shocked when they received an unexpected email from the President’s Office detailing a drastic shift in the college’s approach to Covid-19. The college had just implemented a new policy much harsher than those of almost any other college in the country, a move administrators said was necessary to stop the spread of Covid at a place that seemed to be barely affected by it. Blindsided by the sudden shift, a sense of outrage blanketed the campus and hundreds of students protested, calling for the reversal or moderation of the changes — but the administration barely budged. After all, in their eyes, they had the backing of health experts that understood the supposed direness of the situation — so what did they do wrong?

Dean of Students Liz Agosto answered that question succinctly in an email on March 10, 2020: “It was clear to me that one of the biggest concerns you all had was about communication.” But that understanding seemed to be lost on the administration when the tale we laid out above — of Covid entering the U.S. and the college asking students to leave campus three semesters ago — repeated itself last week, after the administration suddenly announced much stricter rules just a day before first-year orientation began.

Each time, hundreds of students protested the administration’s brusque and unexpected announcements, and, while the administration stood by its decisions, it acknowledged that its tone and communication strategy were flawed. Why has the administration gone back to its old ways?

When The Student’s Editorial Board met to discuss the issue, one editor somberly joked that when Agosto’s regular “drumbeat of communication” had served its purpose, the administration quietly slinked back into its earlier stance — authoritarian and alone — rather than maintaining the more open and consultative position students and faculty wanted. Without this stubborn, go-it-alone attitude, community members — who are widely understanding of the benefits of two-and-a-half weeks of entry restrictions — would likely have been much more supportive.

The depth of student support is critical because, as the people who are most directly affected by the restrictions, students are also the ones with the most control over whether or not the policies are adhered to, and thus, successful.

The lack of enforceability of some restrictions, such as the double-masking requirement, calls into question the forethought administrators put into these policies’ eventual efficacy. Especially because restrictions without enforcement will only end up impacting the most cautious students (who are already likely to be Covid-safe) while being entirely ignored by those who are most likely to spread the virus in the first place. In other words, they generate very little benefit while breeding distrust toward the administration — and even leading to trending condemnations online.

The main thing students sought was simply to understand why the restrictions were being put in place. As pointed out in an open letter signed by hundreds of students against the new policy, several of the new Covid restrictions directly contravened CDC guidelines. It was only under pressure that the administration revealed that it had consulted with experts and created the new policies around a yet-to-be-released paper that detailed new findings on the Delta variant’s hyper-contagious nature.

Perhaps that explanation was more shocking than the actual announcement though, as it confirmed that the administration was willfully keeping information concealed that would clarify the situation— a tacit acknowledgement that the administration simply did not value input from the rest of the community in making major decisions for campus life and a fact it had routinely denied after the March 2020 debacle.

And that was something we simply couldn’t wrap our heads around at The Student. What logic prevents the administration from sharing its thoughts the first time around? For a school whose claim to fame is the trust it places in students to guide their own academic experience — its open curriculum — its treatment of students during the pandemic has represented a disconcerting level of dismissal and disrespect.

But the worst aspect of the administration’s approach is the predictable gulf between the student body and administration it creates. Several students have suggested that perhaps the announcement — sent after tuition had been paid and right after the entirety of the freshmen class moved in — was timed to avoid first-year deferrals. Others have wondered whether the college is aiming to recreate the media praise that came with its ultimately successful March 2020 decision. Ultimately, the administration has created a dangerous environment in which a palpable majority of community members feel comfortable in their distaste for the administration and, in some cases, perhaps even in disregard for its policies.

Here at The Student, we wholeheartedly support the administration’s continuing consultation with experts and updates to restrictions as new information becomes available. And we trust that Martin and the rest of the administration have our best interests at heart. However, we cannot support the way in which these decisions were made or announced.

Students deserve a say in what campus life looks like. We should be consulted about decisions before they are made and informed of the reasoning when new policies are implemented. Faculty members, too, deserve a hand in how our community is governed. After all, isn’t the point of these restrictions to create the best academic environment possible given the pandemic — surely academics themselves might have some ideas of how to do so. And finally, we want to emphasize the role of staff on campus as well. They come face-to-face with students every day, and are at particular risk if the administration creates an environment in which student traffic is congested indoors or students rebelliously flaunt the rules made by a seemingly hostile administration. They should be consulted when new policies are created, as they have insights into the goings on of campus life that administrators sorely lack.

None of us expect the administration to be able to handle the pandemic perfectly, and we certainly don’t expect them to handle it alone. Keeping the community safe while consulting it is possible — and likely easier than the alternative.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 10; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 5).