MIT leadership needs to restore students’ trust; until then, student leaders must step up to save our semester

Compliance with COVID-19 policies will not happen on its own

The MIT administration has been telling us to not go to parties and to get tested for almost a year. President Reif and Cecilia Stuopis, director of MIT Medical, send us emails on a regular basis, and by now we greet them as old friends. This familiarity means that many of us don’t read their emails. But even if we did, would we do as they say?

The quarantining period for undergrads arriving back to campus for the spring semester was extended by almost two days following noncompliance with testing requirements and reports of COVID-era policy violations. A week later, residential pod programs in three dorms were temporarily suspended due to the rising number of positive cases. As it turns out, the prior weekend, over 50 students participated in or were pod mates with participants in off-campus parties. If precedent holds, this in-person semester will not last much longer than last Spring.

Why are students doing this? Certainly, we have all been locked inside our homes for months, and it’s hard to resist interacting with friends again. But there are less dangerous ways of doing that than going to a social event. So do students not care that they are putting all our peers in danger with this behavior? Some of them maybe, but certainly not most of those who I know.

There is a deeper issue here. Young adults (or, in many cases, children) don't start drinking because they read the literature on the long-term effects of alcohol consumption and decide that the benefits outweigh the risks. People don't become anti-vaxxers because they consult epidemiology textbooks and conclude that they have no reason to be afraid of the given disease. Students don't start partying after having read all relevant federal, state, local, and Institute guidance and having carefully weighed the risk factors of every guest.

We engage in all kinds of risky behavior because those we believe and trust also engage in them, or at least don't recommend against them. These trusted entities can be governments, institutions, experts, or our peers. The most relevant entity telling students how to behave now is MIT, more specifically, MIT leadership. However, the trust between MIT and its students has been seriously strained by years of issues. Just over the course of my time at MIT, we have had dorms shut down and their communities needlessly scattered, meal plan prices raised without warning, clothing-optionality policies revoked, and more, seemingly unilateral decisions made. (The decision to send all undergraduates home this time last year is not without issues either and could merit a column on its own.)

I sincerely believe that there are staff in DSL, HRS, and senior leadership who genuinely care about students. The problem is that time and again, this is not what is reflected in their actions. Of course, there are often more constraints than just the wishes of the students, but when you see promises broken and student voices (seemingly) disregarded repeatedly, you start to wonder whether some Institute policies are really there to protect the students or just to serve as a legal liability shield for MIT.

Although I commend MIT leadership by following through with its decision to invite all first years, sophomores, and juniors back to campus, the events of the past few weeks show that they are not fully in control of the situation. The question is: how do we avoid further escalation of noncompliance, which could result in more cases of COVID infections and ultimately lead to undergraduate residence halls depopulated — again?

The Tech’s editorial board already made its appeal to the general student population two weeks ago. I don’t think this is enough. What we need more of is clear guidance from someone we trust. Many students don’t trust MIT at the moment, but students do trust other students. In particular, student leaders, both formal and informal: FSILG presidents, club directors, dorm execs, prominent upper-year students, well-known names from Class groups.

MIT influencers, we need your voices to stop the madness! Serve as an example to your peers. Educate them. Listen to them. Explain how their actions put their futures in danger.

And notice how I didn’t say: report them. That’s not how you build trust.