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Suspend The Students If You Wish, Northeastern. But Keeping Their Tuition Is Theft

Students move belongings into a campus dormitory at the University of South Carolina on August 10, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Students move belongings into a campus dormitory at the University of South Carolina on August 10, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Return their tuition, Northeastern.

You made your point by suspending 11 first-year students who violated mandatory pandemic precautions. Don’t undermine it with a transparent money grab.

It is nothing short of theft for Northeastern to keep the $36,500 each of those students — or more likely those students’ parents — plunked down for a semester that was only days old when the miscreants being housed at the Westin Hotel in Copley Square were nabbed in a crowded room without their masks.

For administrators to claim to be shocked, just shocked, to discover that some of the 800 teenagers living in a swanky downtown hotel being used as a temporary dormitory threw a party is not an especially flattering reflection on said administrators. Northeastern is a research university, no? No one there is conversant with the longitudinal neuroimaging studies that have demonstrated that the adolescent brain does not fully mature until the mid-20s?

You made your point by suspending 11 first-year students who violated mandatory pandemic precautions. Don’t undermine it with a transparent money grab.

The United States Supreme Court and dozens of state Legislatures have been moved by advances in neuroscience to acknowledge that reckless, even violent criminal, behavior by teenagers must be treated differently than that of adults. Expecting college students to wear their mask, remain six feet apart and not gather in groups also required college administrators to ignore their experience with bans on binge drinking at frat parties and marijuana smoking in the dorms. How’s that working out?

Violations of health safety protocols by students at universities across the country were entirely predictable. They were, in fact, predicted.

Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University, concluded from his own data analysis last June that re-opening the nation’s institutions of higher learning for in-person instruction would be akin to “2,800+ cruise ships retrofitted with whiteboards and a younger cohort [setting] sail in the midst of a raging pandemic. The density and socialization on these cruise ships could render college towns across America the next virus hot spots.”

Professor Galloway was prescient. College towns are the latest hot spots for COVID-19, the disease that can result from infection with this novel coronavirus. A New York Times review of 203 counties in the country where students comprise at least 10 percent of the population found that “about half experienced their worst weeks of the pandemic since August 1. In about half of those, figures showed the number of new infections is peaking right now.”

Colleges and universities knew the risk. They took a gamble that they could buy enough disinfectant and perform enough testing to minimize the likelihood of a serious outbreak. Success, of course, would rely upon the compliance of everyone on campus, including students whose ability to resist reckless behavior and to appreciate its consequences is still developing. Many, maybe even most, would follow the rules. Some would not. Colleges and universities knew that, as well.

Forget the happy talk about not wanting to deprive incoming first years of the full college residential experience. The decision to reopen campuses was a financial one. No one wanted to lose their students to a competing institution that might offer live instruction. Colleges spent a wary summer eyeing one another with most deciding, late in the season, to patch together a mix of online and in-person classes. Notre Dame brought everyone back to campus, boasting that the “courage” and moral fiber of its community would keep it safe. It suspended in-person classes after a surge of cases only days into the semester.

Forget the happy talk about not wanting to deprive incoming first years of the full college residential experience. The decision to reopen campuses was a financial one.

The coronavirus that has killed at least 186,000 Americans and 887,000 people worldwide is an economic disaster as well as a public health crisis.

Restaurants are closing. Businesses are failing. The workforce is reeling from furloughs and layoffs. In some cases, there really is a stark choice between public health and economic survival.

Some small liberal arts colleges with thin endowments will not outlive the decreased enrollment and increased costs associated with operating during a pandemic.

Northeastern University is not one of them. By its own calculation, it boasts an endowment with a market value of $1.07 billion.

Discipline those irresponsible, non-compliant students, Northeastern. By all means, suspend them. But accept your share of responsibility for this situation. You rolled the dice. Give the kids their money back and hope, against prevailing scientific evidence, that those teenagers will learn their lesson in time to return next semester with checks in hand.

Eileen McNamara is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at The Boston Globe. She teaches journalism at Brandeis University. This semester, she will be teaching online.

Editor's note: An earlier photo featured at the top of this column was selected to represent Northeastern students moving. The student in that file photo, which was taken last spring, had no involvement with the recent suspension, and we regret the error.

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Eileen McNamara Cognoscenti contributor
Eileen McNamara teaches journalism at Brandeis University. The author of a biography of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, she won a Pulitzer Prize as a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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