BY STEVEN ZHOU
In a Sept. 3 email to all currently enrolled domestic students, Vice President for University Life Rose Pascarell laid out the following policy:
- Students may not host or attend any in-person events or gatherings off campus where more than 10 people are present.
- Events must occur either on campus or virtually if attendance is expected to be more than 10 people. All on-campus events must follow approved university guidelines.
- These restrictions pertain to events and/or gatherings that are both planned and spontaneous.
- These restrictions apply to all events, including those hosted and organized by Mason student organizations and teams.
Clearly in reaction to recent reports of sorority and fraternity parties being the source of COVID-19 outbreaks, this policy at first glance seems a reasonable response, if somewhat overbearing.
However, the vague and ambiguous wording of the policy belies a potentially more autocratic application. As stated, the policy does not include any qualifiers stating that it is only applicable to Registered Student Organizations (RSOs) or Mason-affiliated events and gatherings. Nor does the policy specify who is encompassed in the maximum person count. A spontaneous, unplanned gathering of 10 or more non-students is banned by the current wording of the policy. Moreover, the final line, stating “all events, including those hosted … by Mason,” implies that the policy is not intended to only apply to RSO-sponsored and Mason-affiliated events.
I’ve had a number of conversations with fellow students expressing concerns over the vague wording of the policy. Does this mean I can’t step foot in a grocery store, where there are definitely more than 10 people gathered in the same location (even if socially distanced)? What if I live with a family of more than 10 people — does this mean I can’t gather in my living room with them anymore?
These questions sound stupid, but they could be legitimate interpretations of this vaguely and somewhat sloppily-written policy. The whole point of a policy is to clearly draw the line between what can and can’t be done. This blanket ban of all gatherings of 10 or more, with nothing about safety standards (e.g. masks and social distancing) and local and state laws, doesn’t draw a line — it practically erases it.
Moreover, the penalties are not light. The email threatens suspension as a possible disciplinary action, and it encourages peers to turn one another in by reporting potential violations to University Life. As one colleague put it, “Sounds very 1984.” The message then takes a sharp turn: The threat is immediately followed by the unifying proclamation that “We are all in this together.”
I’ve reached out to the Department of University Life, and it seems there is confusion even within the department. Two different representatives replied with contradictory responses: One wrote that the policy is intended to “only affect students or student orgs (RSOs) that are hosting events that are connected to Mason or Mason activities,” but the other wrote that this “relates to gatherings of Mason students, whether related to an official RSO/University department or not.”
Should the former interpretation be true, then this policy was sloppily written with no qualifying statements clarifying who and what the policy applies to, leading to more confusion and stress among students than it purportedly alleviates. Should the latter interpretation be true, then this is an unenforceable blanket ban that not only contradicts local and state laws, but also seems like just another last-ditch effort to shift the blame of an outbreak, if it occurs, to the students.
Let me be clear: I normally am very supportive of the administration. I’ve been impressed with President Washington’s leadership so far, and I’ve written before that I believe administration is in fact on the students’ side even in topics such as funding.
I don’t believe this policy had any malicious intent to it. I’m sure the university is trying its best to contain the spread of COVID-19, even if the efficacy of such prohibitions is debatable.
But please, if you’re going to send a policy statement out to all domestic students at a large public university, make sure it’s clear about who and what the policy applies to — and where the boundaries of the prohibitions lie.