Party Like Your Life Depends on It

To safely reopen this fall, faculty and staff must reinforce social norms that capitalize on students' natural tendency to want to do the right thing, argues Brendan Cushing-Daniels.

August 19, 2020

Many students, mine included, are scared about what will happen as colleges and universities reopen. Faculty and staff members on campuses everywhere are worried sick about direct instruction as well as young people living and working in close quarters next month.

This is understandable -- the risks of exposure and illness are significant. I share those concerns. Davidson College has been tracking the plans for fall instruction at nearly 3,000 higher education institutions in the United States. Of the nearly 2,200 whose plans were known as of July 31, roughly 700 were returning primarily or exclusively to face-to-face instruction. More are sure to follow.

A troubling idea is circulating that students cannot be trusted to act responsibly to reduce the risks of COVID-19 exposure among themselves and others on and off campus. But, the situation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Notre Dame, and other colleges around the country notwithstanding, I trust students. In fact, I am betting my own health and that of my family that they are overwhelmingly smart and decent enough to pass this test.

Research tells us that undergraduates, especially men, have portions of their brains that are underdeveloped. These are the sections of the brain that promote delayed gratification, forethought and planning for logical consequences. Alcohol use exacerbates poor decision making.

College parties tend to be loud, sweaty petri dishes involving hundreds of young adults coming in close contact with each other for hours at a time, and alcohol flows freely at many of them. This fall, if campuses are going to have any chance at avoiding massive outbreaks that overwhelm campus health officials and systems, college parties must be controlled to minimize the risk of wide exposure.

Many students and professors I have spoken with, and authors of articles I have read, do not believe students will have that self-control. These critics question students’ ability to resist the usually ubiquitous party scene and make good decisions.

Leaders on my campus, like their peers around the country, have promulgated a student contract that lays out the expectations for student conduct. Behavior that puts other students, faculty or staff at unnecessary risk of contracting COVID-19 will result in serious consequences, such as being required to leave campus to continue learning remotely. That is a common-sense measure to promote the health and safety of all. But it is not the most important measure we can take.

Faculty and staff members must reinforce social norms that capitalize on students’ natural tendency to want to do the right thing. Every day in class, in addition to checking on their health and those of absent peers, I will remind my students that their actions literally have life-and-death consequences for vulnerable members of our community.

More important, I will speak regularly outside class with students whose major appears to be in the Department of Parties. None of them wants to see their friends get sick or worse. I will stress to them that we are at a critical time, when their values are being tested like never before.

This is where the skeptics will disagree. If students were concerned about each other’s safety, they say, we would not have alcohol-related injuries and deaths on campus. Maybe I am naïve, but I think the typical overconsumption problems have more to do with those underdeveloped brain capacities than with a lack of concern for themselves and each other.

The coronavirus is an order-of-magnitude more significant challenge. We are not just talking about a few students nursing headaches the next day. We are talking about spreading a pandemic and potentially causing the evacuation of our campuses again. Students are smart enough, decent enough, to get that.

That is really the point. Our students are smart and decent. Believe that; rely on it. Parents should tell their sons and daughters that they believe in their wisdom and decency, that they will take responsibility for the health and safety of those around them.

Administrators and faculty members develop strong relationships with students, including those who party like it’s their major. We all need to lean into those relationships and encourage students to party like their lives depend on it.


Brendan Cushing-Daniels is associate professor of economics and the Harold G. Evans Chair of Eisenhower Leadership Studies at Gettysburg College.

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