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Sympathy for the Rule Breakers

Sympathy for the Rule Breakers

Northeastern University in Boston recently dismissed 11 first-year students who were watching TV together in a dorm room. These students allegedly violated the university’s social distancing rules, which they were repeatedly informed of and even signed contracts promising their compliance. The students had moved in only a few days prior, but the university took the "heads-on-spikes" approach, even refusing to reimburse their $36,000 tuition.

Although 46 UM students have tested positive for COVID-19 thus far, none of our students have been dismissed for breaching distancing protocols. Our internal communication states that “a lot is going well at UM” because “students and staff are following the rules and taking their responsibility,” but I suspect that this is only half true. Sure, we are all "trying our best" and stewards are working hard to ensure social distancing within our facilities; but around town, it feels like everyone (not just students and staff) is out and about without much adherence to the rules.

What makes me feel extremely uncomfortable (aside from the higher chances of contagion) is that we are instructed to admonish colleagues and students when they are not following the rules. The problem isn’t just that I dislike confrontation, but I occasionally sympathize with the rules breakers, especially the first year students. Of course this feeling is tempered by the sense of frustration provoked by their callousness, which puts the lives of others at risk. Yet, I retain my sense of empathy for them in part because Maslow’s hierarchy of needs dictate that seeking for connection and finding a sense of belonging (especially in a new environment) are basic human instincts.

Unfortunately, the current crisis is forcing these first year students into an awkward position of either being socially responsible citizens or becoming social pariahs. While this may be a false dichotomy, at least when I was 18, I believed that being socially irresponsible was a prerequisite for social integration. The difference now being that hanging out with a group of friends has been criminalized (€390 fine and the violation etched into their criminal record). This means that if the law is strictly enforced, many of our students could end up jeopardizing their careers even before they started.

Perhaps draconian sanctions help contain the virus from spreading, but I find myself conflicted. College is – or at least was – a place where young adults can learn from their idiotic mistakes and (supposedly) grow up. But now, allowing our students to do so could endanger the public and jeopardize their futures. In the end, I’m not sure what the take away is here, but at the very least, I am glad that I work at the UM and not Northeastern.

Mark Kawakami, assistant professor at the Faculty of Law

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