Despite what some of the sorority girls were saying, Katie was calling them out on Twitter because she was worried about public health — not because she was mad they didn’t invite her to party with them. A 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Katie had been looking forward to the start of in-person classes with her peers. But throughout August, rumors of a spike in COVID cases among students who have already moved back to town — like the sorority girls — made the school’s reopening feel increasingly uncertain. As she waited to learn whether she would suddenly be facing a year of Zoom lectures, Katie channeled her anxiety into feuding with sorority sisters online after seeing photos of their not-so-socially-distanced parties. “After people started calling them out for partying, one of the girls posted on social, ‘Just say you wanted a bid and move on,’” she says. “It’s literally life and death, and they’re treating it like it’s Twitter beef.”
Campus politics are a quagmire at the best of times. But as many colleges have brought students back to campus and made them responsible for containing the spread of COVID-19, they’ve also encouraged them to report their peers for social-distancing infractions. Now, as college kids have begun policing each other, campuses have become a place of paranoia, finger-pointing, and mistrust.
Already, at least 24,000 new COVID cases have been reported at colleges and universities since late August; epidemiologists have expressed concern that college parties could lead to major outbreaks across the country, while colleges such as UNC Chapel Hill and Notre Dame have already had to temporarily shut down campus. The stress has exacerbated existing social tensions and turned campus rivalries existential. Instagram posts that used to stoke FOMO now get people reported to the administration and suspended from campus, while frat parties that were once a feature of campus life have become potential public-health crises.
Much of this tension plays out on social media, where videos of parties or photos of beach trips are scrutinized. On some college campuses, videos have spawned student petitions to get their peers expelled or even resulted in evictions from student housing. After Katie called out the sorority girls, they turned on her, calling her a hypocrite for posting a photo with three friends a few weeks before. And according to Katie, another student also jumped in to criticize the group that tweeted photos from a party: “I hope it was worth it,” she wrote. In retaliation, the partygoers reported the student to the administration for breaking social-distancing rules.
It’s exactly this kind of misuse of reporting processes that experts have warned colleges about. “People report on one another (truthfully or falsely) for a number of personal reasons, including competition, revenge, leverage, and everyday aggravations,” Cornell professor Karen Levy and doctoral student Lauren Kilgour recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “Students have their own loyalties, broken hearts, rocky roommate relationships, and fraternity codes of silence.”
Naturally, being asked to snitch on each other has made campus a stressful place to be. The other day, Ashley, a 21-year-old Bryn Mawr student, and a few of her friends were outside smoking weed — all, she claims, standing six feet apart with their own joints — when another student came by, took a photo of them, and walked off. Was this anonymous photographer planning to report them using the incident-reporting system set up by the college? All they could do was anxiously wait. “I always feel a little, like, uncomfortable doing anything on campus unless I know I can trust the people I’m around,” she says.
She has also been on the other side of things. When students from nearby Temple University threw a massive house party that flooded social media, she and her friends were furious and banded together to report it. While parties at neighboring schools pose a risk to everyone in the area, they also present an opportunity to exercise existing rivalries. “It’s solidifying the stereotypes we already had,” Ashley explains. “Temple is kind of like the people who wanted to go to UPenn but didn’t get in.”
The pandemic has also heightened the age-old divide between students who came to party and those who did not. “Among people who are choosing not to party and being safe, there’s kind of been a social shift in the opposite direction where everyone wants to be the top snitch,” says Sara, a 23-year-old “super-senior” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “There’s an anger that’s already there, and there’s something very gratifying about it because it’s like, I can’t party, so at least I can ruin someone else’s party.” Sara says she’s already reported two parties to campus authorities. But when the transgression happens closer to home, she’s found her moral responsibility harder to parse. After one of her roommates got COVID and the rest of the apartment was forced to isolate, she didn’t report on another roommate breaking isolation to go to Starbucks because she didn’t want to sow discord in her living situation or get her roommate suspended. Her boyfriend got mad at her for staying mum. “Was I, like, the perfect COVID fighter-hero? No, but there is a social pressure to be that,” she says. “Once you’re in this position, you realize it’s a lot harder than it seems to be, like, the perfect COVID warrior.”
And while it’s easy to point fingers at Greek life, some members of fraternities and sororities feel they have been unfairly scapegoated. Jon, a 20-year-old fraternity member at a large university in the Southeast, says his chapter has strictly enforced a zero-tolerance policy on events, especially because they know they are being closely surveilled for any possible infractions. That hasn’t stopped the finger-pointing. “On Twitter, people were saying things like, ‘The frats are gonna kill us all. These rich white kids can’t stop themselves from partying; they’re bioterrorists,’” he says. Often, he says, these claims were coming from the “hard-core” left factions on campus that already think Greek life should be eliminated. “It was frustrating to have students without evidence make just these broad, sweeping claims about the actions and the morality of Greek life while seeming to ignore the obvious failings of our university.” Now that students are starting to trickle back and are seeing that many Greek students on campus are being compliant with social distancing, Jon says, they are uniting more and more around a common enemy: the administration. “The university’s been really just kind of wishy-washy back and forth and has given convoluted sort of guidelines. They really haven’t been clear on what we’re supposed to do.”
It’s true that many college campuses around the country have experienced outbreaks tied to fraternity parties and other social gatherings; most recently, there was a cluster linked to a University of New Hampshire frat party featuring over 100 guests. But colleges have been quick to point the blame at partygoers while sometimes doing less than they could to keep students safe. As experts have pointed out, some outbreaks are more likely the result of high community transmission than student recklessness. For example, as NBC News reported yesterday, the University of Alabama allowed students to return to Tuscaloosa, where infection numbers were rising, and then was quick to attribute the spike to “student behavior.” “What we’re seeing now is that a lot of school administrators are blaming their students for their failure of their own public-health plan, which I think is unconscionable,” said Harvard infectious-disease epidemiologist Julia Marcus in an interview with NBC News.
And while some schools are taking a more proactive approach to campus health — testing students multiple times a week, making their own rapid-response saliva tests, or even testing sewage — many schools didn’t even require testing before bringing students back to campus. Meanwhile, college-football players have been forced to keep playing amid safety concerns, likely in part due to the huge amounts of money they bring in for institutions. An ESPN investigation found almost half the schools in the Power Five conferences it surveyed refused to release data on positive tests in their athletic programs, and the University of Oklahoma recently said it won’t be releasing football players’ COVID-testing results, citing “competitive advantage.” Athletes have found themselves wondering whether their safety matters only insofar as it affects the school’s bottom line.
At the same time, students have noticed that administrations seem increasingly willing to pit them against each other. When Jack returned to his on-campus job at North Carolina State University, he was encouraged by the administration to enforce students’ mask-wearing. “What I was told is that they didn’t want relationships between staff and students harmed, which I thought was a very interesting response because that’s at the expense of student-on-student conflict,” he says. When he tried encouraging people to put on masks, he received angry responses claiming that mask requirements amount to political tyranny. “I think ‘Simps for Biden’ is my favorite one I’ve heard,” he says. He didn’t have to hear these complaints for long, however; after two weeks, there was an outbreak on campus and NCSU decided to close dorms and send kids home.
Jack says he wishes the administration had never reopened campus in the first place. While he accepts that Greek life — of which he’s a member — should bear some responsibility since it’s been throwing most of the parties, he too feels the administration has passed the buck to students as a way of abdicating responsibility for bringing them back in the first place. “The administration was very much, Nobody’s going to throw parties, everyone was going to follow their rules,” he says from his apartment in town, where he’s now waiting to hear about the fate of on-campus education for the rest of the school year. “They had this very perfect image of what was going to take place. I feel that most people with common sense would have been able to tell them that that was never going to happen.”
Student names have been changed to preserve anonymity.