Universities Are the New Church Ladies

Both experience and medical consensus attest that young people are least at risk from COVID-19 and more likely to suffer or die from pool drowning or car and bicycle accidents. Even if they “conceal carry” the pathogen, young people can stay away from those at greater risk, and college kids who spend most of their time with peers pose an even lower risk of contagion to others. 

These facts haven’t stopped universities from imposing bewildering and austere requirements on their students. Colleges say little to their students about getting sufficient rest, proper nutrition, or outdoor exercise—the time-tested advice from Grandma to fortify the immune system. Instead, schools demand masks for students, including outdoors where the risk of contagion is zero and also off-campus, where the authority of school officials is questionable. 

None of this mattered to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where three students have now been suspended for being unmasked outdoors, off-campus, and . . . at a party on a Saturday. The school learned of the offense from a photo on social media.

The suspensions shocked the parents. “She did everything right,” said one mom of her valedictorian daughter, who was also class president in high school. “One little thing happens and you’re out?” It’s heartbreaking.” A dad was equally pointed: “U Mass hosted a party for the championship hockey team and lots of people weren’t masked. I want the administration to be equitable and fair.”

In response, university officials are holding their ground: Students were made aware of “the importance of following public health protocols and the consequences for not complying.” The suspensions will therefore stand: the students are banned from classes, have lost the semester’s academic credits as well as the semester’s $16,000 of tuition to a school that turned out to be either malevolent or ignorant or both. Ouch. 

What lessons here? First, now that this “emergency” is in its second year—stretching the very idea of an “emergency”—one can’t help but notice that some people like the crisis. Not only is there no shortage of drama requiring special conditions, special experts, and special orders, but a new puritanism has taken hold of those intent not just on obeying the new moral code but also enforcing it: Mask? I double mask. And I snitch on neighbors who don’t.  

Universities are not going to be outdone in this department. They are the new scolds—the church ladies, though their church is one of the new denominations, Safetyism 

Along with this spirit of puritanism, the old-fashioned power trip is having a revival. COVID makes police officers of us all. “It’s good to be King!” exclaims the monarch upon discovering his power in Mel Brooks’ “History of the World, Part I.”  

But being apparatchiks or commissars isn’t bad either. Ask the university administrators—unaffectionately called “dean-lets”—who’ve embraced the role. 

Unfortunately, university bureaucrats have had all too much practice in such roles, wielding unchecked power these past few decades. 

Everyone knows that tuition has skyrocketed, increasing at rates well beyond the general rate of inflation and fueled by the easy money of federal student aid. What many people don’t know is that most of this money goes not just to campus rock climbing walls and other resort-like amenities but to the university bureaucracy, now in charge of a lot of programs imposed on students, quite outside of classroom instruction. Think “diversity” training at student orientation, or “equity and inclusion” policies for student groups, or Title IX, the law banning sex discrimination in education but now used to process campus sexual misconduct claims and often branding students sex offenders for life. 

They “have gotten drunk with power,” observed Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis about these school officials after she herself was charged with discriminatory misconduct for an essay she wrote. Maybe she should reach out to the three students suspended from U Mass Amherst? The victims of university administrative overreach now constitute a very big club.

Clearly, universities have not only joined the new public health dictatorship but plan to lead it, with students, faculty, and staff likely casualties along the way. The UMass Amherst students and their parents have learned this the hard way. 

Let’s hope they do something constructive with this knowledge—such as giving $16,000 worth of tuition money to some other college that is a bit less tightly wound. 



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About Teresa R. Manning

Teresa R. Manning is the policy director at the National Association of Scholars and a former law professor at Scalia Law School, George Mason University.

Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images