Having now received a tsunami of messages from people across the US (and a few internationally) about the surveillance regimes being permanently installed at their educational institutions — in contravention of earlier assurances that the current academic year would mark a long-awaited “return to normalcy,” thanks to the onset of mass vaccination — there are a few conclusions to draw.
Just like Connecticut College and so many other institutions I’ve been taking flurries of messages about, Columbia has already mandated vaccination for all students, faculty, and staff, and is approaching 100% compliance. But as has now been made abundantly clear, for many people in positions of bureaucratic authority, universal vaccination was never going to be sufficient for a transition away from the “Permanent Emergency” mode of COVID exegetical theology. The perverse incentives are easy to grasp. These administrators have so much invested in the infrastructure of “case” detection they’ve constructed over the past year and a half — not to mention the wider ideological project of “stopping the spread” at all costs — that it’s impossible to imagine conditions under which they’d voluntarily move to dismantle the surveillance systems over which they preside. And not just because the new powers conferred by this infrastructure — the ability to micromanage the private lives of young adults, track and adjudicate the propriety of their movements, etc. — is probably creepily intoxicating on a level these administrators may not be overtly conscious of, and in any event would almost certainly never publicly admit.
No, the infrastructure won’t be dismantled any time soon because doing so would also require accepting a major paradigm shift in how COVID is understood. And for certain segments of society, that whole system of thought is just too all-consuming. Benign instances of transmission — i.e. transmission that results in no severe disease, which is almost invariably the case with vaccinated young adults at astronomically low risk from COVID — would have to stop being portrayed as alarming “outbreaks,” necessitating a never-ending stream of frenzied Zoom strategy meetings and swift, all-hands-on-decks interventionist tactics. The very word outbreak would also probably have to be ditched, given its alarmist connotations. I would suggest instead that outbreak be applied to these frantic upswells of bureaucratic overreaction. Perhaps the epidemiological origins of this diseased mentality could be “contact traced.”
Why should anyone be alarmed by an alleged “outbreak” of overwhelmingly asymptomatic or mild “cases” among a population of healthy vaccinated undergrads — “cases” which would never have been detected at all if not for the superfluous “surveillance testing” structures that these institutions require students submit to? And before anyone chimes in with the standard “because they can transmit to others” response: the “others” they’re surrounded by have had the opportunity to get vaccinated at no cost for the past eight months. Even the US prestige media is beginning to reject the utility of using “cases” as a benchmark for anything of consequence, so you’d think college administrators would eventually follow suit, but a combination of bureaucratic inertia and weirdly flamboyant zeal appears to be preventing that from happening.
Having read way too much administrative jargon recently, there are a number of obnoxious rhetorical strategies they employ to engender acceptance of edicts that more and more people seem to recognize are wildly, overbearingly arbitrary. “We all have to hold each other accountable,” these administrators will often pronounce, or some variation thereof, which ironically shields them from accountability for their own capricious and intrusive actions. Their orders are often cloyingly filled with artificial appeals to “the community,” which raises the question of who elected these surveillers and snoops to be spokespersons for “the community,” and how they even define “communities,” which seem to contain growing segments of unwilling inhabitants.
One key thing to know is that despite their pretension of acting at the direction of “expert” epidemiologists and public health officials, the day-to-day decisions about practical implementation at these places often come down to the individual discretion of officials who in no sane world would ever be deferred to on questions of infectious disease protocol, or really anything else of significance. The latest restrictions at Columbia were promulgated by the “Dean of Undergraduate Student Life,” one of those titles which you know must encompass a whole slew of useless, indecipherable makework — and now tends to include a never-ending cycle of COVID monitoring. In her official bio, Dean Cristen Scully Kromm of Columbia is described as having an esteemed background in something called “residence life and leadership oversight.” I don’t know about you, but I can think of few things more unappealing than to have my personal activity surveilled by official busybodies who have dedicated their careers to learning the majesties of “leadership oversight,” which sounds like a field invented specifically for people who actually enjoy receiving LinkedIn emails.
Thanks to my trusty network of informants, I was able to listen in on a Zoom meeting held Sunday night by Dean Victor Arcelus, the chief COVID decider at my old stomping grounds of Connecticut College. I apologize again for the unrelenting focus on this obscure liberal arts college in southeastern Connecticut, but it’s just become irresistible. Dean Arcelus convened a panel of all his subordinate Deans involved in the crafting of COVID rules; studying the credentials of these people sure is fascinating.
One member of the ad hoc infectious disease task force, Ariella Rabin Rotramel, currently serves as the College’s “Interim Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion,” and is also Associate Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Intersectionality Studies, with a specialty in “Queer Theory and Activism.” Here is Rotramel answering a Zoom question from an anonymous student:
I’m sure they is a lovely person, but it’s unclear why Rotramel should be endowed with authority to issue virology-related policy pronouncements. Either way, they gave some indication that they is perhaps not up for the task, describing the whole situation as “exhausting” — that familiar exasperated rallying cry of activists demanding acquiescence.
Demonstrating his unparalleled leadership abilities, however, Dean Arcelus stated that he was “quite disappointed” at reports that parties had been rudely held this past weekend at an on-campus residential facility. “There will be conduct consequences,” he warned. “Suspension is most definitely on the table.” Though the most extreme variation of the Australia-style lockdown had been lifted just hours after my visit last week, students are still being ordered not to partake in normal social gatherings such as parties (gasp) or going to bars (gasp).
“If you have parties, if you go to the bars, you’re not going to be able to have everything else,” the Dean exhorted, threatening that those who misbehave could prompt a return to lockdown for everybody. However, he did leave a glimmer of hope, enticing students that “if we were able to see that you all were actually being really good” about acceding to his prohibitions, then “things could potentially change.”
“The power in preventing this from happening again is in you and in holding each other accountable,” Dean Arcelus continued. There’s that ubiquitous feature of the contemporary college administrator jargon — presumably tailored to the sensibilities of “accountability”-minded young adults. Again with the added irony that these invocations of “accountability” serve to deflect scrutiny from those who wield the real decision-making power. In the name of “accountability,” students become scapegoats for the irrational policy choices of the people actually in charge. “Accountability” is usually also demanded on behalf of some imagined “community,” so you are not to comply solely at the behest of Dean Arcelus, but rather at the behest of some diffused assemblage of individuals who are claimed to represent a unified community. There’s always this incredibly annoying pretense that bureaucratic operatives and public health “experts” are alone the most exalted guardians of “community safety,” and if you don’t agree with them on moral, practical, or epidemiological grounds, you are a menace.
“Moving forward, none of you should be OK with people not having a mask on inside, or not having it properly worn,” the Dean inveighed, again appealing to the shockingly pervasive snitch culture being fertilized at this and other academic institutions. Deans at Georgetown University and the University of Southern California have also been sending out these imperious injunctions for students to rat out the alleged violators among them, or as USC Law School Andrew T. Guzman put it in that typically manipulative style: “non-compliant members of our community.” What’s a “non-compliant member” of the USC “community,” exactly? Someone who engages in unsanctioned indoor “hydration.” No, I’m not kidding.
Do you find any of this arbitrary or ridiculous? Tough luck. Because nowadays all public and private officials apparently have to do is incant the magic word “Delta,” and people whose dictates about proper interpersonal behavior would otherwise be ignored are suddenly imbued with this awesome, unchallengeable power. Their decrees must be obeyed, preferably with effusions of gratitude. Forcing masks on crying two-year-olds? “Delta.” Forbidden to remove your mask for a few seconds in order to take a sip of water at USC, even as a lavish and unmasked Emmys extravaganza just took place right down the road? “Delta.” Shutting down a special needs school in East Harlem less than a week into the academic year? “Delta.” Concerned about the privacy implications of being made to walk around with your health information stored on mandatory smartphone apps, as is the current policy at the University of Michigan, and being made to display this information on command? “Delta.” Also, I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to Delta.
For all his foibles, at least Dean Arcelus nicely encapsulates the mindset which is now running rampant at major US educational institutions — the same institutions producing the graduates who will soon be governing the rest of the country. At the disciplinary Zoom meeting, the good Dean admitted: “I know all of us thought, going into getting vaccinated in April and May, we thought that we would be able to come back to campus and live campus differently [sic] having been vaccinated… But as I’ve said multiple times now, the Delta Variant just presents a whole new level of challenge to us. And that’s why we can’t do what we thought we were going to be able to do back when we got vaccinated in April and May.”
Well, there you have it. Vaccination was never the gateway to normalcy it was presented to be, and the only option is apparently to instate “Permanent Emergency” protocols with no cognizable “off-ramp” in sight, as a Duke University “expert” helpfully conceded this week. Reneging on these prior assurances is portrayed as some inherently unavoidable fait accompli, rather than a conscious policy choice undertaken to the exclusion of other vastly more sensible options. Choosing another option would mean re-assessing the underlying logic of constantly surveilling a 99% vaccinated population of healthy young adults with these increasingly dubious “tests,” and gathering their private data so as to opine about the permissibility of their social activities. College administrators are totally committed — politically, professionally, metaphysically — to that logic. There’s also an entire financial infrastructure that’s been erected to sustain the endless provision of nonsensical testing services. Ultimately, these officials can’t or won’t extricate themselves from the scolding surveillance paradigm — and why would they? That would entail the relinquishment of power.