Actual Malice: An open letter to college administrators regarding COVID-19

Dear chancellors, presidents and other top administrators of U.S. colleges and universities,

If you want to see what kind of college experience you are providing to your students, I would invite you to spend your morning where I did on Monday: In a line on campus for a COVID-19 test.

I had two emails over the weekend from students I met with on Wednesday who told me they either were in contact with someone who had tested positive or were exhibiting symptoms of the illness.

My wife, a nurse who works with an elderly and immuno-compromised community of people, demanded that I get tested, in spite of my explanations that I had sanitized, I was masked, I was distanced, I only saw the students once and more. I had done everything my university had told me and yet, there I was, outside of Albee Hall at 10:30 a.m. with a burgeoning line of undergraduate students.

You need to go out where your kids are being tested for COVID-19, administrative folks, as I lack the ability to adequately capture the eeriness of our “new normal.” The only normal thing about this experience was that everyone in line was typing on their phone.

The line was mostly socially distanced as it bent through the wide pathway where students often crowd between classes. Aside from a few stragglers walking out of the student union and one kid wandering in and out of the library in about 10 seconds, we saw almost no one. Campus felt deserted and tense.

Nobody in line spoke and no one really spoke to anyone in line. The silence was such that not only could I hear the soft chirps of a few birds in a distant tree, but I could hear the wind ruffling the environmentally friendly grasses and plants that dotted the walkway. When a student recognized me and we began a conversation, it seemed like I should lower my voice. I kept feeling like I was yelling during a funeral visitation, even as I spoke at a relatively subdued volume.

One by one, students walked out of Albee, wiping their noses with tissue or folding up paperwork. Some had friends who came to be tested while others brought someone for moral support. One younger woman slowly walked out of the testing site, her shoulders slumped slightly and her demeanor one of exhaustion. Her friend approached her and for a second looked like she was going to give her what she desperately appeared to need: A hug. The friend seemed to catch herself just in time and stopped short. They then left the area, walking together, but at least three or four feet apart.

The line moved slowly inside where a crew of more than a dozen people had donned the kind of things you’d expect to see in a movie about aliens. Shields, gloves, gowns, masks and more. They were plastified to the nines.

The signs on the door, apparently left over from last year, told students to enjoy the updated athletic facilities. Plastered over the top of some of them were printouts that explained who could or couldn’t be tested for the coronavirus. Each student was asked, “Do you have an appointment?” An alarming number of them said, no, they didn’t, but they called a university hotline to explain their circumstances and were told to report immediately to testing. Some had appointments later in the week, but symptoms appeared and they were told, “Get here. Now.”

So, to Albee Hall they came, at 10:30 on a Monday morning, less than one week into their first week of the semester, to find out if they would test positive for an illness that has already killed enough people in this country to fill Lambeau Field to capacity more than twice.

Welcome to college.

In the courses I am teaching this term, we discuss the concept of culpability as it relates to libel and it often comes down to one of two standards: Negligence and actual malice.

Negligence is easier to prove. The concept is that the defendants in the case either did something they shouldn’t have or failed to do something they should have to prevent the harmful outcome. In other words, you did your job in a sloppy fashion and thus created the problem.

Actual malice is tough to prove, but it isn’t impossible. Defendants accused of this, essentially,  knew something was wrong and did it anyways. It’s a conscious choice to act in a way that creates harm, knowing full well the problematic outcome that can follow.

The question we ask in this situation is, “Did you have a reckless disregard for the truth?”

If we had to apply those standards to the reopening of colleges in this country, it might not be a hard case to prove negligence against administrators who began school in the late weeks of July or the early weeks of August.

You know social distancing is required to keep this illness from spreading, but your institutions have spent years trying to cram students into classrooms, libraries, dorms and other facilities to maximize enrollment and thus increase institutional income.  You stack bodies like cord wood where possible and rely on communal bathroom facilities in many living quarters.

(Dorms have changed a good deal since I was in school, but the stories I hear from students tell me one thing is still true: You’re basically on top of your roommate whenever you’re both in the room.)

You pushed faculty to offer in-person classes or classes that could at least have an in-person component. Classes that drew students to campus and put butts in classroom seats were valued. You created all sorts of untested hybrid options with the idea that some personal interaction was better than none. Faculty objected and students went with online options when possible, but still you persisted.

You created pokazukha websites and plans and fliers for your students and faculty, complete with testing sites and “dashboard numbers” of tests and cases. You told them that “We’re all in this together” and that things would be fine because you were locked and loaded for this war.

Then, you passed the buck to a group of 18-to-22-year-olds and told them, “We want you to have a normal college experience” in the same breath that you layered on admonitions and restrictions that made such an experience impossible. You also told these students to act in a fashion that belied your decades of experience observing students, even as you lacked the resources or structure to enforce such edicts to the extent necessary to avoid case spikes.

Administrators, flip your calendar back to any point in your entire academic career. Mentally recall the scene at a campus-area bar on Friday. Think back to your memories of one of your more raucous “party places” (frats, sororities, BMOC homes or whatever matters on your campus) on Saturday.

(Hell, look at what happened when states “relaxed” stay-at-home orders and thousands of chuckleheaded so-called adults poured into bars, restaurants and anywhere else that served food and booze with a side order of dangerous proximity issues.)

Now think about what you told students to do to avoid this plague. I don’t think Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was as optimistic as you all were about the likelihood of this succeeding.

Could these early adopters have crossed all your fingers and toes, thought, “Maybe the kids are going to game up” and hoped for the best? Sure, but that level of naiveté is still enough to make an argument for negligence.

As for those of you who brought students to campus in the past two weeks? I could imagine Dick Wolf doing a “Law and Order” special “ripped from the headlines” episode about actual malice in this case.

You relied on the same sanitation methods, the same masking requirements and the same social distancing efforts that led other schools to fail miserably, and yet you went ahead and opened your campuses anyway.

You saw the spikes happening at school after school, just as everyone with a brain predicted, and instead of rethinking your approach, you pressed forward.

You saw the dead canaries piling up at the entrance to the mine shaft and you said, “My canary will be fine. Onward.”

You saw those schools that tried to make a go of it fail and fail and fail again and yet you refused to accept reality.

As W.C. Fields famously noted, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damned fool about it.”

You weren’t fools. You were reckless.

You were reckless with the physical health and safety of your students, faculty and staff, most of whom, I would imagine, find themselves pondering every cough, sniffle and sneeze.

You were reckless with the physical health of those people’s family and loved ones, because they might carry home with them an undetected case of COVID-19.

You were reckless with the mental health of everyone in both of those groups. I bet I’m not the only one who spends countless hours worrying about everything from catching this thing to figuring out how to immediately “go online” the minute someone above my pay grade decides the tuition checks have cleared or the numbers look too bad to persist. Between furloughs, increased class loads, shifting platforms, delivery shifts and more, I find myself panicking more now than at any point in my two decades in higher education about my ability to do my job.

As I wrote this, my email inbox popped up with a new message. My results came back as negative.

No quarantine or isolation for me. Amy says I don’t have to sleep in the milk house to keep her and the kid safe.

At least, until I get another email, from another kid, telling me about another set of symptoms and another crest of anxiety builds within.

If you want to discuss this cycle of disaster further at that point, you know where to find me.

In a line outside Albee Hall, hoping for the best and praying it’s not the worst.


Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)


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