Why is the university blaming students for its own error?

As you may already know, students attending the University of Miami were ‘caught’ on TikTok having a party without masks, and the university quickly sent out guidance outlining measures that will be taken should students continue to break the university’s guidelines for social distancing and decreasing coronavirus transmission.

However, all of this could have been prevented if we had not brought students back to in-person instruction. Moreover, blaming the students for the university administration’s own error seems misguided at best, authoritarian at worst.

UM despite the objections of its own faculty and students, opened to face-to-face instruction this fall, moving thousands of students back to the Miami metropolitan area – an area that has since the end of last semester become a national epicenter for coronavirus cases and deaths. As I have previously written, this comes after over 600 in the UM community signed a petition that went unanswered by key administrators despite being covered by local and national news outlets. This petition requested that instructors be given the same choice students were to choose the modality of their own courses. What has resulted is a system of denial and, predictably, victim-blaming from the university. Some instructors have been told by UM administration to take leaves of absence and go without pay.

As the Instagram account @iwould_die_4u has noted, the situation caught on TikTok could have been avoided if university administrators had invested in moving to a completely digital instruction model sooner, as other peer institutions in South Florida and around the nation have. We could have guessed that young people who had not seen one another or, perhaps, anyone besides their families in months would break quarantine to see one another. This is, in other words, the logical outcome of bringing thousands of young people back to a small locale.

What has been particularly frustrating in the ensuing events since the TikTok video surfaced for me has been the administration’s quick blaming of students. This reminds me of the horror I felt upon the announcement that the university would be recruiting students to report on others as to whether or not they are following the university’s guidelines– a secret police of sorts where students report other students to the administration for investigation or punishment.

You may have also noticed the new security officers appointed to different locations throughout campus that are checking temperatures and monitoring students, staff and faculty at all times. You may find my assessment of these circumstances a bit melodramatic, but have we so accepted Orwellian-style surveillance in our society that these things do not worry us?

I do not mean to say that the university should not have released guidelines and worked to make sure that students abide by them if indeed they bring students back to campus. I am suggesting, however, that were the university to have listened to public health experts and its own students and faculty, these measures of surveillance and policing could have been avoided. Digital instruction, therefore, not only would have protected us all from coronavirus transmission, but also from the policing and surveillance by university proxies that predictably could disproportionately affect people of color.

Implicit bias, by which is meant the unconscious association with stereotypes of certain groups, is something we must consider when appointing not only policing agents in our municipalities but also in our student body. In other terms, have the so-called health ambassadors who exist practically as surveilling and policing entities throughout student life been trained to handle implicit biases? If not, will their monitoring and reporting bare the same implicit biases we know exist already in society and certainly in a demographic as privileged (even if diverse in background) as UM’s?

Whether intentionally or not, the university has inducted a culture of surveillance and policing without proper oversight, and for what? So the university could continue in-person instruction and not risk having to lower tuition as a result of complete digital instruction?

What is perhaps most important here is this: There is a clear separation of material privilege between those who will suffer as a result of the administration’s policing efforts. As the Instagram account @iwould_die_4u also notes, the university administrators at UM are pocketing largely unfettered salaries and benefits during the pandemic while the rest of us continue to put ourselves at risk of investigation, surveillance and perhaps viral contraction without benefits, salary pay or hazard pay. Each of these is preventable and each of these should be on our minds as we watch the latest construction projects on campus, including the $30 million Frost Institute of Chemistry and Molecular Science, which breaks ground this semester.

Preston Taylor Stone is a Ph.D student in the Department of English at UM, where his research focuses on ethnic studies, queer studies and contemporary culture.