For anyone who believes that America’s elite institutions of higher learning are taken far too seriously — and I count myself among the believers — the last two years have been bracing. Of course I am referring to COVID policy, in particular the current efforts of Princeton and Yale to restrict the off-campus movements of their students in fairly radical ways.
Last week Yale sent out an email laying out requirements for returning students. According to the Yale Daily News, there will be a campuswide quarantine until Feb. 7, which may be extended. Furthermore, students “may not visit New Haven businesses or eat at local restaurants (even outdoors) except for curbside pickup.”
Meanwhile, in Princeton, the university issued this announcement on Dec. 27: “Beginning January 8 through mid-February, all undergraduate students who have returned to campus will not be permitted to travel outside of Mercer County or Plainsboro Township for personal reasons, except in extraordinary circumstances. … We’ll revisit and, if possible, revise this travel restriction by February 15.”
My first reaction, as someone who teaches at George Mason University in northern Virginia, is to be amazed that the life of the Yale campus and the life of New Haven can be so readily separated. If Yale truly has evolved to be a separate enclave, then that is a sign of trouble, pandemic or not. My school is so integrated with the local community — including a large number of commuting students — that such a regulation would be unthinkable.
My second reaction is that these two elite American institutions have lost their moorings. Can you imagine your school telling you not to leave the county? (Though Princeton sports teams are somehow exempted.)
If Princeton or Yale took the position that the current state of COVID is so potentially dangerous that the entire university must be shut down, that would at least be consistent (and, in March 2020, I agreed with that view). But these policies do not and indeed cannot insulate these universities from the outside world.
The assumption seems to be that the virus spreads in particular ways that can be controlled by a university with virtually no enforcement apparatus. It is all but impossible to imagine an enforcement of these rules that is in any way universal and fair.
Hypocritical and corrupt
What about the risk from keeping the students together in dorms? Princeton has a 20-student limit on gatherings, but if the virus is that dangerous, can a group of 19 students be justified?
Perhaps the strongest defense of these policies is this: Universities can only do so much. And if they don’t want to shut down, at least they can institute rules to help limit the spread of the virus until the omicron wave passes.
I doubt these policies will significantly limit the spread of COVID. But my objection is more fundamental: They put universities in the untenable position of both panicking about COVID and treating COVID as trivial. Given the purpose of a university as an educational leader, a university that is hypocritical and rhetorically corrupt is failing outright.
The restrictions also show these universities as content to treat their students much worse than their faculty and staff. The liberty of Yale students to visit a local bookshop or grocer is less important than freedom of movement for faculty and administrators.
Imagine the reaction if a professor or a dean told a student: “I will go out and about and do largely as I please. But you have to stay on campus, so you do not infect me.” It would be considered outrageous, and rightly so.
Right now some of America’s top universities are essentially sending that message — in the process telling the world that they are not morally serious. They should not be surprised, then, when the world starts believing them.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University.