The Collegian
Thursday, December 03, 2020

97

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8,508

Total COVID-19 tests

1.1%

Total positivity

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Current cases

1.2%

Current monthly positivity rate

OPINION: Interim COVID-19 policies set a dangerous precedent

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian

The University of Richmond recently implemented a series of interim policies aimed at combating COVID-19’s spread in order to allow students to return to campus. Some of these policies include suspending student conduct councils when reviewing COVID-19 policy violations, promoting anonymous reporting for COVID compliance (including through an additional URPD form) and expediting the conduct process from weeks to days

These policies are fundamentally, by definition, authoritarian (enforcing obedience to a single authority or small group at the expense of larger personal freedom). I would argue that this safety-at-all-costs approach is more negative than positive and that we, as individual students, must take a more active role in holding each other accountable rather than resorting to immediate authoritarian policy enforcement. 

The policies as written suspend key elements of due process that,  just as due process is used on a national level, are meant to protect those accused of a violation. The penalties for violating these policies are severe: suspension, eviction and separation from UR. These have effects that can last 10+ years because of the lasting effects of disciplinary records on graduate and postgraduate pursuits; one example of this is in law school admissions, where students are required to disclose any and all disciplinary incidents when applying to law school and preparing for the bar exam. Additionally, these penalties are by nature more likely to disproportionately harm low-income students and their families. This has already happened at other college campuses around the U.S., such as Northeastern University where students were asked to leave campus and did not receive a refund of their $36,500 tuition; this can cause students to bear additional financial burdens without the semester of academic credit. Although it may be natural to quickly say that students who are suspended deserve any punishment they get, I would hesitate to jump to that conclusion.

There are incentives for administrators to discriminate against students in sentencing decisions, especially when these decisions take place behind a curtain with no student oversight whatsoever. One of the most salient incentives is financial; it is more beneficial to retain a student who pays full tuition than a student who may receive a scholarship or aid. 

Additionally, everyone has implicit biases based on many different categories of a person’s identity; for example, race, class, gender and sexual orientation, which is why having several decision-makers instead of one can help prevent these biases from playing an instrumental role in decision-making. If the single authority holds any kind of bias (implicit identity-based bias or bias against the particular student), the accused student is entirely vulnerable to unfair or disproportionate action.

Additionally, relying on any anonymous reporting form seems incredibly dangerous, especially because we have little to no information about the specific penalties that come from being reported anonymously via this form. Additionally, if someone misidentifies someone and reports them anonymously, it leads to an inconvenience for the reported student. This is because the school must address the report even if it’s wrong, and there is no way for UR to follow-up with the person who made the report to obtain enough information to ensure the reported student is actually the person they saw. 

Anonymous reporting also allows for revenge reporting, in which one student can submit multiple reports about someone in order to anonymously subject them to the interim policies. UR cannot even investigate who filed the reports and the student in question has very little recourse against any possible administrative action even though the evidence is so tenuous. 

Although there is an appeals process for COVID violations, it still involves no students. Additionally, the appellate administrator who processes appeals can be someone who worked in the same office alongside the original conduct officer; by definition, the conduct officer can be a dean, and the appellate administrator can also be another dean working in the same office. Although, of course, the deans are incredibly fastidious and prudent, this process can potentially hinder the ability for an appeal to be heard completely impartially. With no student oversight, there is little to no information about how these disciplinary proceedings and records are used or compiled or how investigations are conducted with so little information.

My criticisms mirror many criticisms on a national level surrounding accountability and fairness in law enforcement. With no student conduct board, involvement or oversight and with complete discretion in the hands of a few administrators, the chances are higher that there will be cases adjudicated unfairly with no recourse. 

The enforcement of COVID-19 policies at UR is a microcosm of larger authority issues. We should value a community where we protect rights and where we recognize the dangerous implications of policies like these. Although the few people enforcing these rules are, I’m sure, well-intentioned, we need to understand that we don’t live in a perfect world, and the people enforcing rules are not perfect either. It is because of this that we must prioritize civil liberties and recognize the steep cost that comes when we pursue safety at all costs. 

We must recognize that if there are serious inequalities in how laws are enforced nationwide that can vary based on identity, those same inequalities can exist in rule enforcement on our campus.

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I am in no way, shape or form a COVID-19 denier or an anti-masker. I believe that these rules themselves are well-intentioned; they’re things we should be doing voluntarily, both on- and off-campus. To be clear, it is our responsibility to protect each other from the dangerous and painful effects of COVID-19. A large part of why we have been able to stay here this long is because the rules themselves are ones we should be following. 

But just as many believe we can have a safe society on a national level without a carceral state, we can on a campus level hold each other accountable without an authoritarian process. I would encourage students to correct each other before immediately resorting to this expedited COVID-19 violation process. 

If you see someone not wearing a mask, tell them to put one on rather than creating a culture of anonymous reports and surreptitious under-the-table intervention. Hold your friends accountable and create an environment where it is socially unacceptable to put each other at risk. 

It is remarkably easy to immediately appeal to a police state to solve each and every one of our problems — strict “law and order candidates” on the national level frequently try to do so. However, the solution that may be the easiest for the majority may hurt some students in ways by which they are forever impacted. It is our responsibility to take an active role in protecting each other rather than relying on authoritarian enforcement to do so.

Contact contributor Meghna Melkote at meghna.melkote@richmond.edu.

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