Over the last few months, the University of Michigan has issued guidelines and rules for its students regarding the ongoing spread of COVID-19. Of course, intelligent containment efforts are necessary, as COVID-19 represents a serious threat to the health of the University community and the challenges administrators face are remarkably difficult. However, this containment goal does not justify the means the University is employing. Further, it is what the University risks by employing these means that matters. The directives the University has issued and the means by which they intend to enforce them violate the higher-order principles that constitute the University’s mission as an institute of higher learning.
The manner in which the University is monitoring contact tracing risks an invasion of privacy. Contact tracing — the attempt to track who has come into contact with whom, and by extension, who is at risk of infection — is acceptable in principle. Contact tracing is a tool. The question is how it is being used or enforced. The University’s recently announced program protects students’ autonomy by making it a voluntary opt-in. However, in the University’s FAQ page under the heading “What is U-M’s plan of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing?” they note that students will be allowed to manage contact tracing efforts under the supervision of professionals. In addition, per the Recognized Student Organization safety measures, RSOs must keep meeting rosters for 30 days and, “when directed by U-M administrators,” must provide a list of those in attendance. RSOs must also report to the Center for Campus Involvement should any of their attendees test positive for COVID-19, though it’s unclear whether they are required to report students’ names or the organizations they are affiliated with. The issue is that administrators and fellow students — not health officials bound to protect the privacy of their patients — will be conducting contact tracing efforts.
Chillingly, these efforts extend off-campus, beyond the purview of the University. Recently, the University posted a job listing for the Michigan Ambassadors. These ambassadors are responsible for “Off-campus Community Canvassing Responsibilities,” which comprises 70 percent of their responsibilities. This suggests that these students will be confronting and reporting individuals off-campus, leaving the ill-defined scope of their jurisdiction remarkably broad. This must also be done through a “diversity, equity, and inclusion lens,” suggesting that one’s gender, racial, ethnic or religious background will be taken into account and, hopefully, held to the same standard, when canvassing and enforcing the rules. While this may be the University’s attempt to mitigate discrimination against protected classes, it would seem that the University may still be risking the unequal enforcement of its policies off-campus. Furthermore, the Ann Arbor Police Department and the University of Michigan Police Department “response teams” will be deployed if an emergency is reported through a hotline the University has set up, and the circumstances of this call can be reported to the Office of Student Conflict Resolution and the Dean of Students Office. Assuming the University’s guidelines aren’t a perfect reflection of the laws that AAPD is responsible for enforcing, by what right can AAPD enforce the University’s guidelines, which don’t reflect those laws? Furthermore, the academic and personal consequences of such reporting remain unclear.
For some, it may be difficult to see past the potential risk of not implementing these measures. But the risk to the privacy of students among us and those non-students who may be caught in the fray — who could suffer dearly when who they associate with is revealed — is equally as great. For example, say a student who is gay or questioning their sexuality and has not opened up about this to anyone. This person would be deeply concerned about their privacy. They may go to an LGBTQ+-related RSO meeting to find answers or meet like-minded individuals. They may go to a party with fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community, risking exposure to the virus. Maintaining their privacy outweighs that calculated risk. However, the aforementioned University guidelines risk potentially outing students in situations such as these, the consequences of which are personal and grave. Because they may be exposed in the most public way one could imagine — by one of their fellow students showing up to their gathering, calling a hotline, having the police show up to their door and reporting all of the names of those who gathered to administrators and fellow students — that person’s privacy and journey to personal identity would be sacrificed on the altar of “care.” And all of this could occur in a place where the University has no right to impose its power: off-campus.
The University is, ostensibly, the very place where young individuals grow into autonomous citizens. Through education — the absorption of centuries of thought — children are formed into authentic versions of themselves through the guidance of the University and their own will. The University is, with its measures, denying students the opportunity to act autonomously and in their own best interest. The University is undercutting its own mission by violating the privacy, right to freely associate and autonomy of its students. While measures must be reasonably employed on-campus, the off-campus enforcement of the University’s rules by AAPD, the Michigan Ambassadors or any other means, is the imposition of top-down power in its students’ homes and in the most intimate parts of their lives.
Joseph Jackowski is a senior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at email@example.com.