Verbum Ultimum: Let's Work This Out
Closing the gym is an extreme and unfair measure — but both students and administrators have a role to play in de-escalating tensions.
One week ago, interim athletics director Peter Roby ’79 announced that, due to a lack of compliance with masking rules as well as “inappropriate behavior” by students when asked to mask by gym staff, students would be barred from Alumni Gymnasium for two days — Monday and Tuesday of this week. This closure — the second this term, after an earlier one-day shutdown in October — is demonstrably unjust, a collective punishment that negatively impacts both the physical and mental well-being of the student body. Yet the student behaviors described in Roby’s email — which have been observed at other places throughout this campus, including in the dining hall and classrooms — also have no place on this campus. Simply put, both sides have a part to play in reducing the current tension: the College, for its part, must stop foisting unjust collective punishments on students and commit itself to more coherent and rational pandemic policies, while students must take the simple step of treating the College employees who do so much for this community with the respect they deserve.
From both fairness and efficacy standpoints, the College’s decision to once again close the gym makes little sense. Nobody gains or learns anything when the gym is closed; in unfairly punishing the vast majority of students who were following the mask mandate,these measures are highly unlikely to increase compliance long-term. This is, after all, the second time the College has shuttered the gym — why should this time work any better than the first, when students are now even more resentful and mistrustful of the administration? What’s more, for a College supposedly attempting to demonstrate increased concern and care for mental health, the closures — which hinder students from fulfilling a basic need for physical activity — seem especially tone-deaf.
But while the College should bear much of the blame, students must also acknowledge their own role in creating a community of respect — or lack thereof. In a year when verbal and physical attacks on service employees have increased nationwide, it’s troubling to think that such a culture of nastiness could also pervade at Dartmouth. If an employee asks you to put on a mask, the correct course of action is simple — put on your mask.
Issues with student disrespect go beyond just masking and COVID-19-related policies. Members of this Editorial Board have personally observed students engaging in verbal confrontations with dining hall employees, leaving messes behind for staff to clean up and generally treating poorly the people whose labor makes the operation of this College possible. No matter how frustrated you are by DDS’s long waits, it’s not OK to treat their employees with blatant rudeness and disrespect. The same goes for the overstressed student workers at Novack Cafe and the custodial staff in dormitories. If anything, confrontations with employees only increase the likelihood of negative consequences for students — as evidenced by the gym closure.
For the College’s part, a few key changes in enforcement could make a tremendous difference. Individual, rather than collective, punishments should take precedence. Take down student’s names — standard practice during busts of dorm parties — to avoid confrontation in the moment. If someone repeatedly violates the mask policy, rescind that individual’s gym access for a week rather than shutting down access for the whole student body.
In addition to enforcement changes, a few key reforms in the College’s mask policies could make them more fair and equitable. Is it really reasonable to expect fully vaccinated students to wear masks during intense exercise? Instead, in light of consistently low case counts this term and near universal vaccination on campus, the College might consider transitioning to less restrictive COVID-19 mitigation measures for the winter term — like moving exercise equipment farther apart to increase social distancing, for instance. The gym closure issue has also highlighted inequities between varsity athletes and other students — the gyms for athletes have remained open, and teams, on a special exemption from the College, are able practice and play games without masking. Yes, athletes do test twice per week — but why not also extend this option to test more in place of masking to the general student population? Simply put, making masking policies make more sense could go a long way in resolving current tensions. But at the same time, students should also be mindful of wearing their masks, especially when the situation calls for it — like in a classroom setting with faculty who are older and more vulnerable.
This past year has strained student relationships with administration to the point where the student body has almost no faith left in top college leadership. Measures like closing the gym, though far from the worst of the College’s missteps, are unnecessary and punitive, and we commend those who have spoken out in a respectful manner. But telling off a gym employee who asks you to put your mask above your nose isn’t helping matters, either. Respect requires active participation from all sides — and it’s time for our community to demonstrate that.