We Have One Chance: Shared Responsibility on Campus

Madeline Polkinghorn

As highlighted in a recent communication by Vice President for Campus Life Joshua McIntosh, the recent reopening of college campuses across the country has been, in many cases, an abject failure. Institutions such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have deferred to remote instruction following large campus parties that resulted in surges in positive test results. At the University of North Georgia – an institution located in a state that has been debilitated by pervasive COVID-19 transmission – students gathered in an enormous outdoor party, predictably with no masks or distancing. An entire sorority house at Oklahoma State University is now isolated from the student body after 23 members tested positive following the reckless decision to gather at public clubs and bars. 

Since the evacuation of students from campus in March, I have been reviled and horrified by the apparent lack of regard many individuals our age possess – including those in our immediate community – for others affected by this disease. On March 27th, I wrote about the ignorant and morally irresponsible decision of many Bates students to throw and attend a large off-campus party following the news Bates would have to cease operations due to the pandemic; with many proudly posting photos under a banner reading: “NESCAC Champs”; celebrating the fact that Bates dismissed students from campus after its peer institutions did. 

Knowing both the national context for college reopening and the historically poor decisions of many in our student body, I find it imperative to reiterate that every single one of us in returning to campus has entered a moral contract agreeing to, to the absolute best of our ability, act as stewards of the safety of our community. To make the deliberate and conscious choice to throw or attend large parties or gatherings on campus this semester is to make the deliberate and conscious decision to materially and potentially fatally harm our peers, staff, faculty, and the local community. 

Some have argued that critics of students’ objectively selfish behavior are focusing too closely on the personal responsibility of individual students, rather than holding institutions accountable for their administrative decisions to reopen in the midst of a catastrophic global pandemic. I will in no way contest, and in fact emphatically concur with the statement that infections and casualties as a result of reopening may absolutely be a result of the administrative failure; and that the answer to whether colleges should open at all is ethically ambiguous, at best. But the argument that since schools have chosen to reopen students may now abdicate any personal responsibility for the welfare of their peers is both logically reductive and morally lazy. 

The reality of our present situation is that many colleges, including Bates, have decided to partially reopen and many students have elected to return in person. As adults with normal moral consciences, we are all more than individually capable of making the decision to not actively contribute to an obvious potential superspreader event by attending large parties or gatherings. 

Bates College, as an institution, has indeed elected to move forward with the calculated risk of bringing students back to campus. This decision has been made, and was made months ago. Certainly, the transmission of COVID-19 will exist without parties; and may be present in dormitories, classrooms, showers, or doorknobs. But the notion that because Bates has decided to make the decision to reopen and that because some level of risk of transmission will be present on campus either way somehow relieves students of their inherent ethical imperative to not actively engage in activities that will inevitably lead to the spread of disease is insulting to the moral intelligence of young people. 

Adults coming back to campus at Bates are, regardless of institutional decisions, able to make the basic distinction between right and wrong. To suggest anything else is to absolve all young people from all social responsibility, anywhere and in any scenario. 

Others have also suggested that if we are afraid of getting COVID-19, we simply should not come to school. This take – dazzling in its ignorance and privilege – fails to recognize that the personal, familial, or economic circumstances of many students are not conducive to successful remote instruction – nor is it incumbent on the students for whom that is true to justify it to anyone. 

What’s more, we must not neglect to acknowledge the groups of people we will be actively harming if we decide to attend parties. The state of Maine has the highest racial disparity for COVID-19 infections than any other state in the country. Making up less 1.4% of Maine’s population, black Mainers account for almost 25% of its infections. Lewiston, a city home to many Black and/or refugee populations, faces devastating consequences of COVID-19. 

Across the country, too, Black Americans die of COVID-19 at unfathomably disproportionate rates. If we know this information and then make the conscious decision to act recklessly and selfishly, we are not only endangering our community as a whole but actively participating in the physical harm of Black and Indigenous individuals and communities. 

 The choice, now, is ours. All of us have the ability and autonomy to act according to our own moral standards. Our student body may be remembered as one that cared for each other and the local community we chose to enter. Or we may be remembered as one that decided their individual social desires were more important than the lives of others. Either way, make no mistake: the consequences of our actions will be felt far beyond the small, privileged bubble many of us inhabit.