The calm before the storm: Michigan and the ethics of uninformed reopening

Monday, August 31, 2020 - 8:37pm

–

On Tuesday of Welcome Week this year, I had dinner alone on my porch. The house I had moved into just a few days earlier was still uncomfortably hot, so I fled to the cool breeze and quiet murmur of the street. Settling into a chair, I watched the world go by in front of me as dusk faded into night.

Usually, when I sit still in such a bustling environment, I like to imagine where people are coming from, where they are going, who they are talking to on the phone and other mildly entertaining things. This time, though, I was focused on whether or not people were wearing masks. 

Since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-153, Michiganders have been required to wear face coverings in public spaces — both indoors and outdoors — to stop the spread of COVID-19. Adherence to these and other guidelines represents crucial public health measures for the state of Michigan, which has suffered more than 6,700 of the approximately 180,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States thus far. By my count, it seemed that less than half of the people who walked past my house that evening were wearing masks.

In addition to inadequate mask compliance, the return of students this fall has also increased the probability of super-spreader events. Large universities like ours, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Notre Dame University and the University of Alabama, have already succumbed to spikes in cases that have been traced back to bars and off-campus parties. With each new day, another university learns the same lesson about trusting its entire student body to restrain itself during one of the biggest party seasons of the year.

Over the course of the past week, I conducted interviews collecting people’s perceptions about our campus community’s response to the pandemic, as well as our chances of maintaining in-person instruction. How likely was it that our campus would experience similar outbreaks to those at other colleges? While there were differences in opinion on many issues, one particular prediction proved unanimous: the University of Michigan is next.

To me, this was cause for alarm. Practically everyone I asked predicted the University would be completely online within one or two weeks, and that the freshmen would likely be sent home before they even got a taste of the much-advertised “First Year Experience.” It was quite confusing to watch other people, especially my peers, go about their daily lives as if nothing especially odd was happening.

At the outset of my investigation, I wanted to explore the fatalism that had taken hold of our campus community. Operating under the assumption that a move to all-online instruction was a litmus test for our ability to contain the virus, I struggled with the question: Is the closure of campus inevitable? Or, in metaphorical terms: Are we living through the calm before the storm?

***

The belief in the likely failure of the University’s reopening plan was certainly widespread, but I still questioned the prevailing wisdom that there was nothing I could do to stop it. As a senior, the social connections and experiences I have built here over the years give me a relatively small, but relevant sphere of influence. I could still choose not to attend social gatherings that might endanger my health or the health of others, and encourage my friends to do the same.

But what if I had just arrived on campus, desperate to make friends and wriggle my way into the fabric of college social life? This is the plight of the current freshmen, who since March have had major coming-of-age events such as prom, graduation and now Welcome Week canceled or severely limited to virtual equivalents. I remember when I was a freshman; the first few weeks were a mad dash to attain the sense of feeling established and comfortable in my own skin. 

My intuition is that most upperclassmen like me have probably not thought much about this year’s freshman class, let alone interacted with them in any meaningful way. To better understand their perspective, I talked with a few freshmen who decided to study on campus for the fall term this year.

The first freshman I spoke with was David Welch, a student in the School of Engineering and an Ann Arbor townie. In our phone conversation, I asked David why, even with the pandemic still raging, he would still opt for the perennial college experience of living in the dorms rather than at home just a few miles away.

“What I want to do is meet new people,” Welch said. “I feel like that's the most important thing that I could potentially miss out on if I didn’t, you know, live in a dorm.”

For the majority of undergraduates, returning to campus offers the opportunity of connecting with their peers. There is nothing wrong with that, though I did find it unfortunate that the parties thrown by the elder undergraduates would likely lead the first-year experience to be more of a first-few-weeks experience.

Bea Brockey is another freshman who will be starting her first semester in the LSA Residential College, a living-learning program especially geared toward underclassmen. RC students have the privilege of living and taking classes in East Quad Residence Hall for their first two years, though the uncertainty of the pandemic has made students like Bea wary of getting too comfortable.

“I really hope we get to stay as long as possible but I think we’re gonna get sent home in, like, two weeks or a month,” Bea said during our phone conversation. 

I then asked Bea whether she thought campus closure was inevitable. “College students aren't necessarily notorious for their ability to follow the rules, and I think people are going to party. They have been partying at other colleges that have reopened. And if they do that, I think it's likely that we will be sent home.”

I felt empathy for the freshmen I interviewed about the upcoming semester, if only in the sense that I also felt I had very little control over how things would play out. I wondered: Is there any evidence out there that Michigan will be able to stop the spread of the virus and deliver a quality in-person education at the same time?

***

The first data source I probed was my own lived experience. On two consecutive nights, I went out late in the evening to scope out the streets, and this time not just from my porch.

Donning a face mask, I set off on the first night for a walk around campus. I walked by a group of guys playing a game of beer die, blasting music and shouting as the dice plummeted toward a carefully painted table. I passed by several restaurants where bare-faced diners were wolfing down their meals in the outside seating area. Wherever I looked, it seemed like more people were wearing their masks around their neck than on their actual faces. I even had a few minutes completely to myself as I walked down an empty State Street, but the relative solitude was interrupted when a group of roughly twenty girls dressed up to go out ran past me on the sidewalk.

The next night, I interviewed some of the late-night revelers. The prevailing sentiment among the people I talked to was that they were just having a good time (all spoke on the condition of anonymity). They did not believe what they were doing was harmful, and many said they felt poorly informed about the consequences of getting in trouble anyway.

This lack of awareness was not surprising. In fact, the University has largely avoided addressing disciplinary action in its COVID-19 messaging but instead has appealed to students’ sense of responsibility. In an interview with The Daily, University President Mark Schlissel complained that “I get a little insulted when everybody says there’s no way that students are going to wear masks, and there’s no way that they’re not going to party in dangerous fashions, and there’s no way they’re mature enough to recognize the importance of the moment and behave like the adults that you all are.”

But students disagree, and for good reason.

In an episode characteristic of mature adults, a Twitter user captured a photo of a social gathering that featured a banner with the words, “You can’t eat ASS with a mask on.” The photo also featured another banner that seemed to have “Rush Phi Psi” written across it in red letters, referring to the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi.

The University’s public response was one of mild displeasure toward the students in the photo. In an email to The Daily, University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen wrote that even though the banner “does not reflect positively on the residents,” it constituted protected speech under the first amendment. She also maintained that Phi Kappa Psi was not affiliated with the gathering and that the people in the photo were not breaking any public health guidelines. On the other hand, she wrote that she “thoroughly condemns” those who were harassing or threatening the residents on social media.

Jeff Lockhart, a sixth-year Ph.D. student in sociology and complex systems who is also involved in the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s COVID Caucus, pointed out the irony in Broekhuizen’s statement during our phone conversation.

“It seems to me like what the University is already doing is letting people off the hook and assigning no sort of criticism at all for that kind of behavior, while actively criticizing the people who call it a potential problem.”

When I asked Lockhart for his opinion on the University’s reopening plan more generally, his response caught my attention.

“We know that this University administration is living in fantasy land, right?” He then referred to an argument Schlissel made during a “Virtual Faculty Town Hall” in mid-August about testing; namely, that students who tested negative for COVID-19 would be emboldened to take greater risks, just as gay men supposedly did during the HIV/AIDs epidemic. As Greg Gonsalves wrote in his article for The Nation, Schlissel’s statement was “a fabricated tale, stigmatizing gay men all over again as vectors of disease and infection.”

Lockhart further criticized Schlissel’s statement as a justification for not carrying out regular asymptomatic testing on-campus: “Anyone who knows anything about HIV public health knows that regular asymptomatic testing is crucial … so for him to say that HIV testing is an example of why we shouldn't have asymptomatic widespread testing; it is the most backward, nonsensical thing.”

In fairness to Schlissel, he has since made several apologies for this statement in the wake of criticism from U-M’s Queer Advocacy Coalition. Nevertheless, his slip of the tongue was not merely a mistake; it was a window, an invitation to discover a wealth of unsettling evidence regarding potential corruption in the University’s reopening scheme.

Lockhart shared with me two key documents that reveal a suspicious misalignment between expert knowledge and University policy: The Report of the Ethics and Privacy Committee that Schlissel himself charged with investigating the University’s options for reopening, and a more recent document titled “Update on the current situation and planning for the Fall Term” by the same committee. The Report assesses the ethical implications of a return to in-person instruction “from a diverse array of standpoints,” taking into account the moral obligations the University has to its students, faculty, staff and surrounding communities. Its publication on June 8 preceded the announcement of the University’s Maize & Blueprint plan for what Schlissel called, “a public health-informed in-residence semester this fall.”

However, the Update memo, originally sent on July 31 according to the memo’s header, was not made public until Dr. Silke-Maria Weineck — a professor at the University — shared it on her Twitter account on Aug. 24. The main assertion of its authors is that we, as a University, would likely turn Ann Arbor into a COVID-19 “hot spot” that placed members of the campus community as well as all members of adjacent communities in serious danger. 

The publication of the document was just one of a series of actions by University employees demanding greater accountability and transparency from the University. On the Friday before classes began, the Faculty Senate considered a vote of no confidence in the administration, one day after an anonymous staff member published a scathing Op-Ed in The Daily.

I suppose right now we cannot know the deeper motivation for inviting more than 30,000 undergraduates from all around the country to Ann Arbor this fall. Many people, though, have speculated that securing tuition dollars for the year was a major factor. I spoke over the phone with Sharif-Ahmed Krabti, a recent University graduate who will be starting a master’s degree in the School of Social Work on campus in the fall. In a rare moment for the interviewer, Krabti turned the tables and asked me whether I could remember a reason why the University planned to switch entirely to remote learning after Thanksgiving. I admitted I did not know, to which he gave his own reply.

“I was thinking about it last night and I was like, ‘I can't think of any reason beyond that they want people’ ... they simply want to retain students and want to make sure students pay tuition for the year,” Krabti said. “And then, whatever happens, happens, and we’ll just move to online anyways.”

To be sure, this is a cynical interpretation of the University’s reopening plan; a more charitable interpretation for switching to all-online instruction after Thanksgiving would be that the University wanted to limit student travel over the holidays. But the reasoning remains questionable; if the University thought students returning to campus in November represented an intolerable risk to health and safety, why did the same logic not apply to students returning in August? Indeed, per University rules students must quarantine for 14 days after returning to campus; after Thanksgiving that would mean they would have only one week free to roam campus. But this seems shortsighted to the fact that not every student is following quarantine or resisting travel anyway.

Did the University exploit desperate freshmen by offering them the impossible promise of the “Michigan Difference” in the middle of a pandemic? Does the University value its revenues more than its students? Probably not, but only because its revenues come from its students. More students on campus, more money in the pockets of the University administration to protect its financial health.

But that is just speculation. One thing we know for certain is that even if we attained nearly total compliance, this virus is still highly contagious and deadly. While there are not yet enough data to determine an accurate mortality rate for COVID-19 in the U.S., as of the writing of this piece, Washtenaw County has totaled 2,826 cases of the virus, and of those, 115 have died, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As more people arrive on campus — many from cities and states hit hard by the pandemic and each carrying their own subjective judgments of the virus — case numbers will likely rise, as they have at every other university thus far. And as case numbers rise, so will the probability of serious illness or death for members of our community.

***

As a student at this university, the current course of events is troubling. More importantly though, as a member of the Ann Arbor community, I feel a shared responsibility for the health and well-being of my neighbors, especially during an emergency such as a pandemic. For me, this is what it means to be a good citizen: To help cultivate a society in which we concern ourselves with the well-being of our neighbors as much as with our own.

Concern for yourself and others — that, I think, is what we must all practice right now. Perhaps we are not likely to change the course of events, but that does not mean we should not try. Dr. Dan Lowe, a professor of philosophy at the University, explained a simple, but powerful metaphor in a Zoom call with me to illustrate one such way we can reconsider our ethical commitments to others.

“A theme in moral philosophy is that we have different circles of concern,” Lowe began. “There’s the people immediately around us, then there’s the people around them, and eventually expanding all the way to humanity and maybe even, you know, non-human animals in some cases as well. And very often being a moral person is about expanding that circle of concern.”

At this moment, part of expanding my circle of concern involves trying to convince those around me of the importance of mask-wearing and social distancing. The problem is that it is sometimes embarrassing to call out your friends, let alone strangers, and tell them what they are doing is wrong. Our moral interactions with others are delicate, fraught with the possibility of mutual misunderstanding. However, Lowe reassured me that, if it is out of genuine concern, encouraging others to do the right thing is worth a try.

“I think there are good reasons to wear a mask, and so if your response to somebody telling you to do that is, well, they just want to feel morally superior, as opposed to, they have a sincere concern for their health and the health of other people in their community, I think that is an unnecessarily cynical and uncharitable way of interpreting that.”

I agree with Lowe’s assessment, but I will stress that a genuine change in students’ attitudes toward social distancing has to come from people they trust and respect. What will only serve to stifle this kind of radical cultural shift is the new “Michigan Ambassadors” program. The program enlists students, faculty and staff to serve on vigilante patrol squads in conjunction with the University’s Division of Public Safety and Security and the Ann Arbor Police Department.

Apparently the administration thinks that obvious euphemisms are sufficient to hide its efforts at policing students’ behavior. In the two-tiered ambassador program, the first level is unpaid, but the second level is actually a paid position. It is at this second level that students “participate in proactive public health neighborhood canvassing as part of an ambassador team to educate the community on best practices for staying safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.”  

Translation: The ambassador will aid in a university-sponsored campaign of fear and intimidation against an amorphous contingent of their ignorant, uninformed peers.

Beyond the nefarious character of the program, its enforcement mechanism raises two major issues. First, a student ambassador has no real authority at all and does not deserve automatic respect from anyone. Second, the increased police presence poses a particular threat to students of color who are more likely to face discrimination from the police than their white counterparts. Here in Washtenaw County, there have been multiple instances of police racism in recent memory, including evidence of blatant targeting of multicultural fraternities on game days, an incident involving the arrest of three Black men outside the popular venue The Blind Pig and a video from this May showing a white Washtenaw County deputy brutally punching a Black woman in the head in Ypsilanti Township (TW: violence, police brutality).

Whether policing comes in the form of an ambassador or an officer, it is far from an ideal solution. The incentive for following the rules becomes the fear of punishment and surveillance by strangers, not the recognition that the rules are there to safeguard the well-being of the community.

***

My original motivation in writing this piece was to try to understand why some of my peers would flout rules that are clearly meant to protect us — if this is the calm before the storm, why are some people practically doing a rain dance?

However, I now realize the extent to which I unconsciously adopted the language and logic of the University administration in formulating my question. I had set my sights on the benchmark of in-person instruction, without realizing how the promise of on-campus learning puts the entire community in harm’s way. Schlissel has assured the student body that a “Wolverine culture of care” will help keep us safe; this is coming from the same administration that has ignored the advice of Whitmer, the demands for greater transparency from its own faculty and the pleas of its own ethics committee. To anyone critical of its policies, the University has given a clear response: “I don’t care.”

But they should, because the real failure of a coronavirus outbreak in Ann Arbor will not be the embarrassment for Schlissel and the Board of Regents or a blow to the institution’s reputation, it will come in the form of irreparable damage to the health and well-being of our community perpetrated by its own members.

Those calling for a change of course, however, have to contend with the possibility that it might be too late. Freshmen have already moved into the dorms. Fraternity and sorority houses are packed to the gills. Bars and restaurants have swung open their doors to the returning students. The inevitable cycle of life on campus is already in motion.

Perhaps more worrying is the possibility that, even if we experience a spike in coronavirus cases, the University will not cancel in-person classes after all. It would be disappointing, but not surprising, to see Schlissel forgo doing the right thing for fear of admitting he was wrong. We can no longer look to him or the rest of the administration for guidance.

The virus has challenged each of our communities in many ways, but the fact is that we are now all here together. And though the University has abused the trust of the community, that gives us all the more reason to fix our attention on our own actions and those of the smaller communities to which we belong. Over the next few days, weeks and months, each of our actions will either matter very much or very little in determining whether we save lives or destroy them.

Correction: This article previously stated that Broekhuizen said the banner in a viral party photo was "embarrassing." This was a misquote, and has been updated to "does not reflect positively on the residents."