An Online Student Attended a Rooftop Party. He Was Reported to NYU and Suspended Indefinitely.
It was a gorgeous August weekend in New York City, and Andy—a college senior at New York University (NYU)—decided to attend a rooftop social gathering with his roommates.
The party was consistent with New York City’s Phase 4 COVID-19 guidelines, which allow events of up to 50 people. Many attendees went mask-less, but Andy says he didn’t stand in close proximity to anyone other than his roommates—who are also students—and they left after a short while.
But unbeknownst to Andy—whose name has been changed for this article to protect his privacy—someone at the party posted a video of the event on social media. Andy never saw this video, but he knows that he was visible in it. The video was reported to NYU administrators via the university’s COVID-19 compliance system. On Sunday, August 23—a day after the party—NYU Director of Student Conduct Craig Jolley sent an email to Andy accusing him of “threatening the health and safety of the NYU Community.” By 5:00 p.m. on Monday, NYU had suspended him indefinitely: To return to campus in 2021, Andy will need to write a reflection paper and beg for readmission. Resuming his education might be impossible, anyway, since he relies on a full-tuition scholarship that is now threatened by his disciplinary status.
Andy thinks NYU treated him unfairly. It’s hard to disagree. Importantly, he didn’t actually put anyone on campus in danger, because he had no plans to set foot on NYU property: He lives off campus, and all his classes were online.
“I am not a student who will be staying at or near NYU housing, nor will I be entering Campus Grounds or NYU buildings as I am currently enrolled in all online courses,” Andy wrote in his appeal of the decision.
The appeal was rejected.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a multifaceted disaster, casually crippling vast swaths of the U.S. economy, bringing social interaction to an unexpected and unprecedented halt, and of course, killing more than 200,000 Americans. The challenges are daunting for many people, organizations, and industries—U.S. higher education certainly among them.
Colleges and universities have adopted a wide variety of strategies. Some have decided that in-person instruction is simply impossible: In May, California State University (CSU) became the first to announce that the fall semester would be online-only. Earlier this month, CSU made the same call regarding the 2021 spring semester.
Many other universities, perhaps realizing that students will balk at paying full tuition for a series of glorified online tutorials, attempted to reopen in various stages and forms. But these reopenings were accompanied by tough restrictions on student social gatherings in dormitories, off-campus housing, and elsewhere. Evidently, administrators expected that students would be willing to come to class, learn, then hurry back to their residences—and stay there. At many campuses, near-perfect compliance with extreme social distancing requirements on the part of students was not merely a requirement, schools assumed they would comply.
“Everything we have done—the months of planning to give our students the opportunity to continue their educational pursuits in person—can be undone in the blink of an eye with just one party or event that does not follow the rules and guidelines,” said Katie Sermersheim, Purdue University’s dean of students, in a statement detailing the school’s no-parties pledge.
Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, likened Sermersheim’s admission that non-universal compliance will destroy the strategy to “an evacuation plan that will work perfectly as long as the building isn’t on fire.”
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