How an Anonymous Reporting System Made Yale a COVID 'Surveillance State'

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January 27, 2022

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Yale University has required all students to mask indoors in public spaces. But it was 9:30 p.m on a Saturday night, and the library was deserted. With no one within at least 150 feet of him, a Yale senior decided to relax with a movie—and without a mask.

It got him reported to the school’s COVID hotline.

According to the Yale senior, another student walked into the library and demanded he mask up. Since he didn’t have one on him, the senior said he would leave. As he was gathering his belongings, the other student pulled out her phone and began filming him. When the senior asked for her name, the student raised her middle finger and stormed off.

Two days later, he received a notice from the Yale administration that he had been reported for violating the school’s "Community Compact," a set of rules put in place to "promote the health and safety of all community members." The student was given 24 hours to provide the "Compact Review Committee" with "any relevant information" he would like it to consider during the official "evaluation" of his conduct. He was ultimately found guilty of a violation and threatened with a "public health withdrawal."

"The [committee] has determined that your conduct posed a risk to the health and safety of yourself or other community members," the university wrote the student two weeks later. "Should you continue to engage in behavior that violates the Yale Community Compact, you will be placed on Public Health Warning and may face more serious outcomes, including the removal of permission to be on campus."

According to university documents reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon, the incident in the library took place on December 4, 2021—the same night 1,000 maskless students gathered for Yale’s annual holiday dinner. A ritzy Yale tradition that had been canceled in 2020, the dinner featured lobster-laden ice sculptures and a parade of mostly masked dining hall workers, who marched the decadent culinary spread through a packed crowd of students, according to a video posted of the evening’s festivities.

The episode offers a window into the intrusive and often inconsistent enforcement of Yale’s COVID rules, which, as one student put it, "made campus feel like a surveillance state." The rules were put in place before the existence of vaccines but have persisted long after, relaxing or tightening as case counts fluctuate and new variants erupt.

When Delta hit, the university banned "close contact greetings" at club sporting events, "including handshakes, hugs, and high-fives." And in anticipation of Omicron, it ordered students to "avoid" local businesses and outdoor restaurants until at least Feb. 7, warning that the "campus-wide quarantine" could "extend beyond that date if on- or off-campus COVID-19 rates are high."

The rules increasingly feel like overkill, several students told the Free Beacon, and adherence to them has grown spotty at best. But while there have been scattered complaints about the restrictions’ toll on mental health, there has not been much organized opposition to the restrictions themselves.

That quiescence is not a coincidence. Rather, it is the product of an anonymous reporting system that has turned students into informants, encouraging them to snitch on their peers for the most mundane infractions, according to those who’ve lived under the rules for nearly two years. The result is what one student called "a silenced majority" of undergraduates, who oppose the restrictions but fear the "shame" and "administrative consequences" of speaking out.

COVID has normalized such surveillance throughout higher education. Many institutions, including Northwestern University, Carnegie Mellon University, Johns Hopkins University, Brown University, and Harvard University, have set up online forms and hotlines for students to anonymously report COVID "safety" violations.

Yale is a microcosm of the culture these policies are creating. For some students, it is also an ominous preview of what will happen when their peers graduate, as the norms of the ivory tower diffuse into the wider world.

"Like it or not, Yale generates the future leaders of this country," said Trevor MacKay, a freshman at the university. "Making warrantless surveillance a normal and acceptable part of their lives is dangerous."

At first, some students said they accepted Yale’s surveillance system out of genuine fear and uncertainty. But what were pitched as temporary stop gaps soon ossified into a seemingly permanent regime—one with very little transparency or due process.

"I have no clue who reported me," one student, who was cited for going maskless outdoors, said. "The system has had a lot of success in keeping people scared."

At the heart of that system is the Compact Review Committee, a small group of university administrators who review reports and mete out punishments at their discretion. The most striking thing about it, many students said, is how opaque it is compared with Yale’s normal disciplinary apparatus.

Since its inception in the fall of 2020, the committee has not published guidelines on which offenses merit which sanctions. It does not tell students who reported them, nor does it give accused students an opportunity to question their accuser—protections that are enshrined in the university’s Title IX procedures.

The committee has the authority to quarantine students in their rooms while it conducts its review, a process that can take weeks. And there is no appeal process for its decisions—except when it imposes a "public health withdrawal" and gives students 48 hours to vacate their rooms.

The system has had a chilling effect on student life. Undergrads have taken to reporting not only what they see around campus, but also on social media. In early 2021, one student was anonymously reported after posting on Instagram about dining outside at a New Haven restaurant, a violation of the university’s ban on off-campus dining. The student took his significant other to the restaurant 12 hours before the ban expired, figuring it would be close enough.

It was not. The student was notified of an anonymous complaint based on his social media post and given 24 hours to send the administration a statement explaining why he had been huddled under an outdoor heat lamp at a sparsely populated bar.

According to emails between the student and the administration, Yale directed him to schedule a meeting with a "Public Health Advisor to discuss the importance of … preserving public health and safety during COVID-19." At the meeting, the student said, an administrator told him that his violation wasn’t "a big deal."

But afterward, he was still in the dark about the committee’s decision-making process—and about what could happen if he slipped up again. The feeling is prevalent among students, nearly a dozen of whom criticized the system’s lack of transparency.

"I have no understanding of how the punishments work," said Jack Barker, a senior at the university. "It’s like we’re being hazed by Yale."

For Barker, that hazing began in fall 2020. He was in a friend’s suite when a group of graduate students burst in unannounced, cell phones at the ready. The graduate students were "public health coordinators," deputized by the university to police compliance with COVID regulations, and they were there to record a bust.

According to Barker and another student in the suite, the public health coordinators did a head count to ensure that the hangout did not violate the university’s capacity limits. Then they chided the students for not wearing their masks, turned around, and left. They were videotaping the whole time.

Shaken by the incident, Barker contacted Melanie Boyd, the dean of student affairs who oversees the public health coordinators. In email correspondence viewed by the Free Beacon, Boyd acknowledged the incident but claimed the coordinators did "not realize" the suite could be entered directly from an elevator. Otherwise, she said, they would have knocked.

It is unclear why the coordinators were already filming as they exited the elevator. Boyd, a women’s studies professor and the "Yale College COVID-19 Health and Safety Leader," did not respond to a request for comment.

As the semester wore on, Barker said, the surveillance came less from the administration than from other students. One day, he was tossing a football around in his dormitory courtyard without a mask, only to see a student walk by recording him. Later in the semester, Barker was taking a stroll outside without a mask on, and a student spotted him from a dorm window. The student texted Barker that he was violating the rules. The implication, Barker said, was "don’t do it again" or he’d be reported.

"This is too much power to put in the hands of students," the student who posted on Instagram about dining out said. "People can be petty and get classmates in trouble with standards that are changing every five minutes."

Underlying that concern is the haphazard enforcement of the restrictions. Even students sympathetic to the rules say they are flouted frequently without consequence, especially now that all students are vaccinated. But that makes the occasional report seem all the more arbitrary—and, some students said, all the more vindictive.

"You could be drunk and accuse the random person who refused to sleep with you of a COVID violation," one junior told the Free Beacon. "It doesn’t take a lot of effort."

Several students said they were worried that the reporting system could be used selectively to punish unpopular people—including people with unpopular views.

"A lot of conservatives are very worried that this will be weaponized against them," the junior said. "This is an easy way to get people with different views in trouble if they are not following the rules to a T."

Liberals, on the other hand, worry they’ll be branded as conservatives if they speak out against the restrictions. "People associate that with Tucker Carlson," one student quipped, echoing what three other students independently told the Free Beacon.

Yale has justified its surveillance system as a matter of "health and safety," especially for the immunocompromised. In a recent email to all undergrads, the university told students to "keep in mind the vulnerability of many members of the Yale College community," for whom COVID-19 remains a "threat." A few risk-averse students have even suggested that eliminating the restrictions would be tantamount to "eugenics," according to some undergrads, who say they privately roll their eyes at the comparison.

But it is not just students who’ve grown disillusioned with the pandemic panopticon; it’s also many public health experts—including some at Yale itself.

In October 2020, nine Yale professors signed an open letter decrying the "inhumane" treatment of college students during the pandemic. "Across the country, students have been blamed, snitched on, policed, sanctioned, suspended and dismissed for violations of COVID-related guidelines, including minor infractions," the letter read. "Students who fear harsh disciplinary action will become expert at hiding their activities, exposures and symptoms, contributing to the breakdown of contact tracing efforts and potentially increasing the risk of ongoing transmission."

The letter’s 111 signatories—one of whom, Rochelle Walensky, now runs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—also warned that students’ "mental health may be heavily impacted by the loss of positive social connections."

At Yale, those lost social connections have killed more people than COVID-19. In September 2020, a Yale freshman told the Yale Daily News that the isolation of the pandemic had made her worried about her mental health. In March 2021, she committed suicide in her dorm. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been no reported COVID deaths among Yale’s students, faculty, or staff.

Now, as uncertainty looms about the coming semester, some students are sounding a note of despair.

"I’m definitely considering a gap semester," Barker said, noting that he had already taken time off after experiencing the restrictions in 2020. "I only have one shot at college. I’d like my last semester to be as normal as possible."