[Guest Column] Think Twice Before Letting Penn State Off Hook With Coronavirus Compact

Editor’s note: The Coalition For A Just University’s open letter was written before Penn State announced Thursday morning it will change its Coronavirus Compact’s language, specifically the quoted section below. The university plans to change the pledge’s language “in the coming days,” but it currently remains intact.

Dear Penn State students,

As Penn State University faculty and members of the Coalition For A Just University (CJU/PSU), we are presenting this open letter to inform you of our concerns about the “COVID-19 Compact” that Penn State administrators have placed as a condition of access to LionPATH, the management system for courses and financial information at Penn State.

This compact promotes public health measures with which we fully concur, among them mask-wearing and social distancing. However, we are concerned about the ill-advised inclusion of an apparent liability waiver in the compact that could compromise your rights. The waiver reads as follows:

I acknowledge that the Centers for Disease Control, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania State University have issued rules and precautions that may, or may not, be effective in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, and that it is my responsibility to follow these and other directives to protect myself and others from the substantial risks posed by this virus. I assume any and all risk of exposure to COVID-19 that may result from attending Penn State, or participating in Penn State activities, and I acknowledge that exposure or infection may result in personal injury, illness, permanent disability, or death.

This language suggests that despite their numerous assurances, Penn State’s leaders recognize that a return to campus may not be safe at this time. This language may aim to intimidate you and exempt Penn State from any responsibility for COVID-related illness and death — even in cases where it may be caused by the university’s own negligence or inadequate safety protocols. Although it is unclear whether such a waiver would stand up in court and although administrators have claimed that this language is not intended as a waiver, we are alarmed that our university is seeking to shift the entire burden of risk onto individual students. Requiring students to agree to these terms as a precedent of registering and accessing their records is coercive, and we are especially troubled by a report that one student was forced to agree to the Compact in order to make an appointment at the Student Health Center.

Michigan State has also adopted a COVID-19 compact that requires students to practice safety protocols, yet it does not include a waiver of liability. At the University of Pittsburgh, the COVID-19 compact was written by a committee of students, and it emphasizes important points such as “refraining from stigmatizing any race, ethnic group or nationality group as the cause of the pandemic.” Nowhere in it is there any language like the liability waiver in Penn State’s Compact. In fact, our university’s compact is such an outlier that it has received coverage in media outlets such as Spotlight PA and Newsweek.

This waiver is likewise troublesome given what we know of Penn State’s plans for testing and other safety protocols. Epidemiologists and public health experts all agree that very frequent widespread testing is essential to preventing outbreaks on college campuses. Yet Penn State’s plan is insufficient in this regard. Many universities — including Cornell, Purdue, and the University of Illinois — are testing all students, faculty, and staff prior to or upon arrival. At Boston University, all undergraduate students who spend time on campus will be tested twice each week throughout the semester. The same is true at the University of Illinois, another Big Ten school that is commonly considered one of our peer institutions. By contrast, Penn State will only test around thirty percent of all students, faculty, and staff prior to arrival, and after that it will conduct random surveillance testing of one percent of the population each day — which means that each person will be tested on average once every hundred days. Twice per week at the University of Illinois versus once every hundred days at Penn State: what explains this difference? Other universities have publicized the data modeling on which they are basing their testing policies, but our leaders have yet to provide any scientific evidence to justify their decisions.

We object to being made complicit in the University’s attempt to coerce you into waiving your rights in order to register for the courses we have designed for you. Of course, the decision of whether or not to agree to the Penn State COVID-19 Compact is yours. We recognize that refusing to agree can present difficulties and that many of you may have already agreed without spotting this questionable language buried in the middle. However, we encourage you to think critically about the implications of this document, and we will stand in support of any student who chooses not to accept the Compact until the waiver of liability is removed. If, like us, you are concerned about the possible implications of the Penn State COVID-19 Compact, we hope you will follow the lead of some of your fellow students and join us in communicating your concerns to President Eric Barron ([email protected] or 814-865-7611) and Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims ([email protected] or 814-865-0909). We wish you all a healthy, successful start to the semester, and we look forward to working with you.


The Coordinating Committee of the Coalition For A Just University at Penn State University (CJU/PSU)

The Coalition For A Just University at Penn State (CJU/PSU) is committed to working for greater transparency, equity, job security, and safety in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and for the meaningful involvement of faculty and other workers in decision-making processes at the university. Although CJU/PSU efforts started out as a faculty organization, we are seeking to expand our collaborative efforts with staff and graduate employees, and we are building alliances with undergraduate students as well as other on and off-campus organizations and community members. We look forward to sharing our collective knowledge and experiences so that Penn State will emerge as a more just and spriting place of learning for all.

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About the Author

Coalition For A Just University

The Coalition for a Just University at Penn State (CJU/PSU) is committed to working for greater transparency, equity, job security, and safety in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and for the meaningful involvement of faculty and other workers in decision-making processes at the university.

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