The two undergraduates had been accused of a bold infraction of the rules: sneaking a friend from across campus into their dorm room for some late-night socializing. As recently as last spring, nobody would’ve cared. But this semester, with Rice University officials determined to prevent a coronavirus outbreak that might shut down the school, students are not only forbidden from entering dorms they don’t live in; they’re not allowed to move between floors in their own residential building. After a tipster turned them in, the two alleged offenders were forced to appear before the student-run COVID Community Court that the school launched this semester to adjudicate public health violations on campus.
Though the alleged offenders adamantly denied the accusation against them in their Zoom hearing, the evidence was “overwhelming,” according to Mel Xiao, a twenty-year-old senior from New Jersey and one of three CCC judges, selected by application, who investigated the case. “We spoke to multiple other people who lived in their [dorm], and they all confirmed it,” said Xiao, a premed student who recovered from a battle with COVID-19 in September. “That was a case where we had to assign a more serious sanction, and they also received a pretty stern warning that essentially said, ‘We know you withheld this information and weren’t transparent with us.’ ”
Xiao wouldn’t say what punishment was doled out, to protect the identity of the students. Typical penalties include writing letters of apology, performing community service projects, meeting with advisers, and completing educational research papers about public health—not to mention the shame most feel after having been shown to have placed their fellow students at risk. A final punishment, a $75 fine, is available to the CCC, but the group has yet to levy that sanction because of concerns about its potential disproportionate impact on low-income versus high-income students.
At a time when schools across the country have struggled to enforce on-campus restrictions, Rice decided its best bet for remaining open during the pandemic was to rely on those with the most to lose: the students. The CCC has overseen dozens of cases in recent months, the vast majority, including that of the socializing scofflaws, set in motion by fellow classmates who have been encouraged by the university to report coronavirus-related misconduct that makes them feel unsafe. Friends have turned in friends, usually without advance warning, for failing to wear masks and maintain social distancing. Most tips are submitted anonymously online, and they often include photographic evidence or screenshots from Instagram stories. In many cases, the rule-breaking is accidental. When confronted with evidence of an infraction, the majority of students are cooperative and apologetic, court members say.
The university’s administration and many in the student body support the court’s work, believing it has helped to ensure that Rice, with about 7,500 students, has one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates among colleges in the state. Xiao argues that without enforcement of the rules, some students will forget or neglect to observe them. In the university’s student newspaper last month, she wrote that she’s certain the virus has spread among students and noted that she had witnessed classmates vaping in the halls of her apartment building without masks, entering areas of dorms that are off-limits to them, and “going out in large groups.”
But other students worry that the court has begun to turn the idyllic, oak-shaded campus into one swept by paranoia and punishment. As French philosopher Michel Foucault famously argued, plagues create the ideal conditions for excessive surveillance. To keep tensions from flaring, the university has embarked on a campaign to destigmatize the reporting of violations and has promised that initial offenses won’t be recorded in anyone’s permanent records. Xiao added that the court has placed messages around campus arguing that reporting others is “adding to the greater good.”
“I think a lot of people want . . . the stereotypical college experience,” Xiao said. “Unfortunately . . . this is not a normal semester, and we cannot behave like it is.” Desperate times, the cliché goes, call for desperate measures.
Fueled by students living in close quarters, attending crowded parties, and making “selfish decisions,” as one university president put it, colleges around the country have emerged as viral hot spots in recent months. Eighty-three colleges and universities in Texas have recorded more than 20,000 coronavirus cases, by far the most in the nation, according to the New York Times database tracking the coronavirus at U.S. colleges and universities.
Though it’s located in a county with more than 171,000 COVID-19 cases and sits across the street from a medical center that has treated thousands of coronavirus patients, Rice has fared exceptionally well. The university has poured more than $20 million into creating temporary facilities, IT support, contact tracing, and a robust weekly program that tests all students and staff members. Since August, the university has conducted about 60,000 tests of students, faculty, and staff, and it’s found just 77 positive cases. The University of Texas at Austin, by comparison, has conducted 30,000 tests since June and has recorded 365 positive results.
Unlike other colleges in the state, Rice has the advantage of not having fraternities or sororities, places where frequent partying can accelerate the virus’s spread. But from the beginning, the school has also taken a more proactive response to the pandemic than its peer universities. In March, days after a university employee tested positive after returning from Egypt—and unleashed one of the region’s first COVID outbreaks—Rice became the first Texas university to cancel in-person classes. President David Leebron has remained on edge ever since. “I go to sleep worrying about this issue, and I usually wake up in the middle of the night worrying about it, and then I wake up in the morning worrying about it,” he told me.
When the university’s dean of undergraduates, Bridget K. Gorman, sat down this summer with faculty members and student leaders to discuss reopening plans, the team realized it faced a daunting challenge with little room for error: persuading students, who tend to be carefree and eager to socialize, to abide by health guidelines. What they needed, Gorman realized, was student buy-in. “We knew we didn’t just want to have the administration wagging a finger at them when they made mistakes,” Gorman said. “We had to find another way.”
To get that buy-in, the team decided to hand over enforcement of health protocols to the student body. Students were asked to sign a “Culture of Care” agreement that outlined COVID-19 guidelines. One-hundred-sixty-five undergraduates were named “public health ambassadors,” the pandemic equivalent of hall monitors who remind students to social distance and wear face coverings. And, finally, the CCC was established. If the ambassadors were a way to create more public awareness and health education, the court was designed to be their enforcement arm.
An early challenge was figuring out who should serve on the court, to ensure that students took it seriously. “We didn’t necessarily want the most active student leaders but people who had a lot of social capital,” explained Emily Garza, the university’s director of student judicial programs. At a university with no shortage of premed students eager to take on leadership positions, Garza said she worried the court might become “a popularity contest,” a development that could’ve threatened the body’s legitimacy once classes began. “None of this works if the kids don’t buy in,” she added. “All through the summer I was super nervous about whether students would take the court seriously.”
On a recent fall afternoon, I decided to find out for myself. Strolling through the university’s stately campus, which is regularly listed among the most beautiful in the nation, it was easy to forget that this was not a self-contained world, that COVID-19 patients were dying a few hundred yards away inside the Texas Medical Center. As I approached Brochstein Pavilion, a chic glass-and-aluminum landmark, I noticed clumps of masked students studying and socializing in a distanced fashion around the building. Most were aware of the CCC and said it was a necessary measure for policing student behavior. If you’re following the rules, their thinking went, you don’t have anything to worry about.
Jackson Jeffcoat, a nineteen-year-old sophomore who serves on the CCC, argued that curbing some liberties is necessary to keep the university functioning during the pandemic. He believes the court, which he considers more educational than punitive, also functions as a type of backup for vulnerable students. “Whenever we hear that a student is feeling like another student’s behavior is endangering them or their college environment, we want to address that and make sure people feel safe on campus,” he said.
But for some students, such as Julian Braxton, a twenty-year-old junior from Dallas, the prospect of enforcement has had the opposite effect. Though he lives off campus, Braxton said he feels uneasy each time he sets foot on Rice grounds, a distinctly different feeling from years past, when he felt relaxed being there. Social interactions are almost entirely gone, he said, replaced by isolation and the fear of making a mistake. He’s seen students break up groups of students. He worries about his mask momentarily slipping beneath his mouth when he’s on his way to class and about running into hyper-vigilant students who are “hunting” for infractions. When someone walks by and looks at him, he can’t help but wonder if they’re “part of a patrol” of some sort, he said, admitting that it sounded absurd. This was not how he envisioned college. “It hurts because people are social creatures,” he said. “And now if you’re lonely and want to meet up, you can’t help but be a little scared. You never know how people are going to react or who’s watching.”
Not far away, I ran into Abigail King as she studied by herself in a courtyard. King said she was wary of the appointment of student leaders to render judgments about health protocols and told me the school’s strict rules had led to instances of public shaming within group texts at certain dorms. The junior from Austin also said she has off-campus friends who live across the street from a member of the CCC. They worry, she said, that if they play their music too loud they’ll invite the scrutiny of the student judge, who may assume they’re recklessly partying. “The cost is reduced trust in the student body and turning students against each other,” she told me.
A few minutes later, my phone rang. On the other end, a friendly university official whom I’d previously interviewed politely informed me that I didn’t have permission to be on campus and would need to leave immediately. I apologized and told the official I hadn’t realized I’d violated any school policies. “By the way,” I asked, “how did you find out I was on campus?”
“News travels fast around here,” the official replied. “You were reported.”