Friday, July 24, 2020

Georgetown's COVID-19 Compact and My Response

UPDATE 2: I learned recently that the Faculty Senate also objected to this document (back on July 14 before the rest of us saw it) for the same reasons, and as a result, it is likely that it will be revised.

UPDATE: Upon further reading, I realized that the compact, as written forbids me from hugging my kids or having sex with my spouse this year (if I want to come to campus) since it literally says I must stay 6' away from them. In this case, though, I presume on their behalf this is merely improper wording. 

N.B.: I will delete this post if our policies are amended.

Today I sent our provost the following email:

Dear Provost Groves,

As a scholar of the political economy of academic decision-making (e.g., Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education, Oxford University Press 2019), and as someone who has published in a peer-reviewed journal on policy failures regarding COVID-19 I was eager to see what our campus compact would be this fall.

I assume that the document was carefully written, the language is intentional, and that the implications are intended. As it stands, the compact has a number of disturbing features.

For instance, consider this language: 

 Recognizing this responsibility, in order to be present on any university-owned, managed or controlled properties (“Campus”), and, if a student, to live in the neighborhoods of Georgetown, Burleith, or Foxhall, (the “Neighborhoods”),  I will adhere to the terms of this Community Compact for the 2020-2021 academic year.

I specifically commit to the following:

….8.  Practicing good personal hygiene consistent with the COVID-19 Health and Safety Measures, including:
1. maintaining 6’ of physical distancing between myself and any other person,
2. frequent hand washing for twenty seconds,
3. frequent use of hand sanitizers, and
        4. wearing a face covering over my nose and mouth at all times except when I am alone in a room, when eating, when in my personal residence without guests, or when exercising outdoors with at  least 6’ of physical distancing; [emphasis added]

As written, if students or I intend to come to campus, then this document implies (as in “deductively implies”):

1. In order to sit outside on my own deck to read a book, I agree to wear a face mask. (Perhaps we understand “in my personal residence” to include “outside on one’s own property.")
2. If I decide, at long last, to visit family members or allow them to visit me at Thanksgiving or Christmas—family members I haven’t seen this entire year—that they and I must wear face masks the entire time they are in my house, unless we are each alone in separate rooms. This holds even for Thanksgiving, despite the fact that the earliest I would be on campus would be over a month later and I would no longer be able to spread the disease at that point.
3. Any of our students living on or near campus cannot kiss their significant others this year, unless they also live together. 
4. If I sit outside on an empty park bench in my neighborhood park, I must wear a mask.

And so on. 

These are extremely strict measures not, as far as I can tell, supported by the academic literature on the risks of COVID-19, though perhaps we are forced to adopt such measures by DC regulations. They are certainly far stricter than the legal requirements I face or have faced as a resident of Virginia.

Further, the document suggests that students, staff, and faculty agree that you can unilaterally change the compact at any time, and that they pre-consent to whatever changes you later make. I don’t know if this document qualifies as a contract in some legal sense, but in general, in legal contracts, even when there is language to the contrary, parties do not acquire the right to unilaterally revise the conditions.

As it stands, then, the document requires faculty, staff, and students to either A) abide by extremely strict rules or B) lie about their intended compliance with such rules. 

I suspect the overwhelming majority of our students will choose B, in part because they will feel that they are under duress. They will sign the document and pledge to follow those rules, but will in fact deviate from them and know they will do so ahead of time. For instance, they will have friends over to their apartments from time to time. They will not abstain from, say, kissing a significant other they don’t live with. When they go home for Thanksgiving, they will not wear a mask the entire time nana visits. 

Further, I suspect it is not cynical to suggest that whoever drafted this document is knows that students who sign this will not intend to comply strictly with the document. It appears we are knowingly asking students (and others) who wish to be on campus to make false promises. 

I was on the fence about teaching in person this year. I am 40-years-old, have no co-morbidities, and on the best estimates, have an expected IFR of maybe 0.01%. I am one of the faculty least at risk. But as it stands, I will have to choose to teach online and avoid campus, because if my in-laws decide to visit on Thanksgiving break (after 11 months of all us practicing radical social distancing), I will have to have agreed that we must all wear masks except when alone in our individual rooms.

Jason Brennan

Robert J and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor
Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy
McDonough School of Business
Georgetown University