August 27, 2020

Where Fun Comes To Die

Reopening campus poses a major threat to students' mental and physical health.

Where fun comes to die …

Ever since this slogan was put on UChicago T-shirts, the administration has been trying to discourage its use. Personally, I like the slogan. It's a humblebrag but also a self-critique that simultaneously celebrates and skewers how seriously we take academics. In the fall of 2020, however, the slogan portends a much darker and more literal meaning.

As of this writing, the University of Chicago is proceeding with plans to bring students to campus mid-September to live in dorms and take classes with a mixture of in-person and remote teaching. The arguments in favor of this move are clear. Many students are eager to come to campus and start something as close to “normal” college as possible, the University is eager to build a sense of community among the new cohort of students, and the administration is eager to find ways to grapple with a dire financial shortfall. These are understandable motivations, but they are not remotely adequate to justify the increased risk to our students’ lives. Students should not be in residence on campus for autumn quarter.

The University is crafting social-distancing policy, posting health-awareness signs, and formulating a campus health pact. These are clearly important measures, but we know that lecturing, warning, and shaming are not especially effective at curbing risky behavior. There is abundant evidence that abstinence-only is not an effective strategy for public health. We know our students are exceptional, but they are still human, and some of them will transgress policies and ignore risks. They will hold and attend parties, they will hook up with one another, and they will continue to attend classes despite feeling unwell. (There’s a joke: “How many UChicago students does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer: “None. They just continue working in the dark.”) Any policy whose success is contingent on students always adhering to the guidelines is unsound. Worse yet, shaming and prosecuting students who transgress policy will encourage students to hide transgressions and make attempts to trace infections much harder.

In the clearly inevitable outcome where social distancing guidelines are not adequately followed, the University will ramp up isolation measures (e.g. by an “emergency” shift to all-remote classes). Problem is, this will exacerbate the danger posed by isolation itself. During a normal quarter, there’s a whole network of resident assistants, resident heads, housing staff, resident deans, and other employees who keep tabs on students’ well-being and mental health through meetings, shared meals, and socializing. Almost none of that will be taking place under social distancing. College is already intensely stressful. This will be compounded by the stresses of remote learning, social upheaval (in an election year no less), and family medical emergencies and deaths. This is the worst possible time to make our safety net virtual and attempt to rely on Zoom check-ins to catch signs of potentially life-threatening mental health issues. 

At the University of Chicago, we pride ourselves on free debate and the use of evidence. None of that seems to be going on here. The benefits are not worth the increased risk to our students. Showing a genuine commitment to the health and well-being of our community is the best way to avoid UChicago being known as a place—literally—where fun comes to die.

Jason Riggle is an associate professor of linguistics and resident dean of Max Palevsky Residential Commons.