Coasting into chaos: the Butler Student Health and Safety plan

Photo from the Butler University Instagram. 

EMMA BEAVINS | OPINION CO-EDITOR | ebeavins@butler.edu

Like many students, I’ve spent the summer wondering what my educational experience at Butler University will look like in the fall. I have answered innumerable questions about the university’s plan for dealing with COVID-19 with a vague and trailing “I don’t know …”

That uncertainty lasted until Monday, July 13, when I did know — well, sort of. I, like hundreds of other students, scrambled to read the labyrinthine Student Health and Safety Plan and the Student Commitment for Personal and Community Well-Being the day they were released. 

“The success of Butler’s plan to return to campus is dependent upon maintaining, and deepening, our culture of care and personal responsibility for oneself and others,” the Health and Safety Plan said. “Every member of the Butler community must do their part, in the spirit of The Butler Way, to protect one another. Now more than ever.” 

I scoffed. As the first COVID-19-related communication that students received from the Butler administration in months, I hoped to read through a meticulous, clearly-written strategy. Instead, the Butler Student Health and Safety Plan introduced fresh panic for my own health and safety.

I read platitudes about personal responsibility and assurances of safety standards that hardly met basic expectations. I read through the evidently-minimal efforts to provide online accommodations for students who “need it,” all the while feeling unrepresented as someone who simply wants the choice to keep myself safe. 

One thing became immediately apparent to me. The “unifying” language of this plan was not meant to keep me safe. It was meant to coerce me into paying tuition. In this moment I realized I was and am alone in protecting myself against a deadly virus — Butler certainly wasn’t going to implement the measures for which I had hoped. I was being forced to choose my education over my safety.

Other students I’ve corresponded with are also concerned that Butler is not taking student safety seriously enough. Grace Higgerson, a junior music performance major, is one of them. 

When Higgerson read the Health and Safety Plan, she said she was “dumbfounded” that a university would be so vague in its reopening plans. After publicly commenting on the Butler Instagram post about the plan, Higgerson received multiple messages from her friends and from students she didn’t know echoing her concerns. 

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Grace Higgerson shared a series of grievances she has with the university’s new plan on a Butler Instagram post. 

Rather than utilizing the dialogic function of social media to address the concerns of students and parents, Butler Marketing and Communications department merely glossed over their apprehensions by referring them back to the Student Health and Safety Plan website. When Higgerson contributed a paragraph’s worth of discontent over enforcement of the new protocols, murkiness around the involvement of SDS in the fully remote option, and the toxicity of The Butler Way, MarComm cut her short.

“@oh_holy_graceness Hi Grace — if you’d like to explore virtual learning options for the semester, please reach out to your Associate Dean for your college,” @butleru said. “They’ll work with you to come up with a plan.”

The point is not that students who are worried should just stay home. The point is that this plan has no concrete substance and should worry everyone.

Moreover, if you’re going to post about a controversial document, you’d better be ready with actual answers that are not regurgitated from the document in question. Or, have a method for community discussion where students and parents will be responded to in a timely manner — not just a thread of Instagram comments.

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Friends and strangers responded to Grace Higgerson’s grievances with the university. These people agreed to have their comments published in this article with this level of anonymity. 

Even the parents of other students defended Higgerson’s comments.  “@butleru you’re response is so sad, disturbing and disheartening for new parents and students. @oh_holy_graceness brings up valid concerns not only for herself but the Butler community,” one parent said. 

Students have a right to be concerned. Butler isn’t exactly known for its healthy learning environment, and as a music performance major, Higgerson’s apprehension about health and safety in the classroom — specifically, the lack of central air conditioning in Lilly Hall — is both valid and pressing.

“There’s not central air in a lot of the classrooms and buildings, and especially the practice rooms,” Higgerson said. “And the big thing with the aerosols from the coronavirus is they can stay suspended for hours, like, all you have to do is breathe in an area … Those are going to stay suspended in the air and a big thing with HVAC systems is, you know, having proper filtration of the air and air exchange. In our buildings we don’t have that. In the practice rooms we have a space heater.” 

While Butler isn’t allowing the orchestra and some ensembles to rehearse, students will still be going into practice rooms one after the other. For Higgerson and others like her, contracting COVID-19 could destroy any future as a performer. 

“I would lose my career, I’m high risk,” Higgerson said. “I wouldn’t be able to play my instrument anymore from the lung damage that I would get from just catching it… they’re not taking their students’ best interest into account at all.”

Senior marketing major Josh Hall feels similarly unheard by the administration. Unlike Higgerson, Hall is excited to return to campus, and remains optimistic that students can have a good year, even though it will be different. 

Hall’s main concerns revolve around classes, student life and the potential of an outbreak. These questions are significant points of concern for most students and faculty returning to campus in the fall, and neither the Health and Safety Plan nor the Statement of Personal Responsibility addressed them in enough detail to assuage anxiety. 

Perhaps the reason Butler’s plan is so unclear is because the responsibility of viral containment has been dumped onto unwitting students and faculty members. Butler’s plan is entirely based on the idea of the “Community of Care.” This phrase was a slippery one even before the pandemic, and now, while students are lulled into the soft cradle of our own demise, the Butler administration is softly whispering “we are not liable” as it tiptoes away. 

“By engaging in the on-campus community of Butler University, students voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19,” Butler’s On-Campus Plan said. This is the part where Butler washes its hands of any deaths that should occur as a result of their negligence — I jest, but this should terrify students and parents alike. 

Denying liability for the very regulations Butler has spent the summer putting in place should concern students immensely. If the administration is not willing to take the blame for an outbreak based on their own, self-created policy, we certainly cannot expect the “Community of Care” to do anything either.

The administration’s vague regulations, halfhearted threat of discipline and lack of communication tells me that the university is not actually committed to student safety. Relying on the crutch of uncertainty —  by asserting that the COVID-19 situation is constantly changing — allows them to throw their hands up if it all fails. “We tried, we really did,” they’ll say, as infected students up and down the Ross Hall infirmary argue about which idiot didn’t uphold the Community of Care.

Using unifying language like “Community of Care,” “The Butler Way” and “BU Be Well” does not emplace a shared set of ethics on campus. In reality, these phrases appeal to future tuition-payers more than they govern my interactions with the guy down the hall who spends his evenings eating $18-Plum-Market ranch dressing with a spoon. Any student who has been at the university for more than 15 minutes realizes the disconnect between the language of a marketing campaign and the reality of student interactions on campus.

But whether Butler students truly care about the well-being of their peers is not my concern. What is concerning to me is the Butler administration’s willingness to use propaganda to lull us into a false sense of safety. 

It’s outrageous to me that in all of this, the administration has not once asked for students’ opinions. I understand that health decisions need to be made through expert consultation. But while the institution has been pushing and pushing to get everyone back on campus — while cases in Indiana are soaring, I might add — have they even thought to ask us if we want to come back? If professors are comfortable being around hundreds of students who went who-knows-where last weekend? 

We understand that faculty and staff have been working hard this summer. No one is trying to undermine the efforts that have been made, particularly by faculty members. We know the administration has been working with health officials, and that classrooms have been modified to reflect social distancing guidelines. 

We can applaud your efforts. However — as many of us Type-A Butler students know — sometimes your best isn’t good enough. 

No amount of “Go Dawgs” branding or references to the “Community of Care” or “BU Be Well” will absolve you of the responsibility to communicate with us, the student population, in the middle of a pandemic. Insisting that we should be reassured by an elusive marketing concept is irresponsible and, frankly, dangerous. 

Yes, we must be flexible in this time. Yes, this is a time where we should rely on close friends to keep one another accountable. But choosing to place the fate of the campus in the hands of students who don’t support one another in normal times is perhaps the most foolhardy decision the university has made in decades.

If this plan doesn’t demonstrate how disconnected the administration is from the student body, then a July 14 interview with President Danko definitely does. When Collegian Editor-in-Chief Meghan Stratton asked whether the university will have testing available for students on campus, Danko said he didn’t know. When asked what the discipline policy will be for not wearing a mask, Danko said, “I have no idea … that might be buried somewhere within those 30 pages.” And, after unsuccessfully answering several important questions, Danko said this: “You’re interviewing the wrong person … maybe that’s something we need to talk about in terms of what a president does.”

If the university’s decisions on COVID-19 protocol are so disjointed that the president of our university doesn’t know what the hell is going on, how will a plan based on shared responsibility succeed?

Butler, please listen: it’s crunch time. We will be back in one month. You can’t say you miss us being on campus over email and then tell us nothing that concerns our health and safety. While we’d all love to be back on campus free from our fear of a highly-contagious virus, we must be realistic. 

“My education is not worth dying for,” Higgerson said.

Students, we cannot let this level of bureaucracy go unchecked. It puts our lives and the lives of the faculty and staff we love at risk. Uncertainty cannot beget ignorance. Uncertainty is not a free pass. If the administration thinks students are ignorant to the realities of COVID-19, it’s time to wake up. We are here. We have questions. 

We do not have any more time to waste. 

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One Comment;

  1. Nicole Felker said:

    Thank you! Honestly, I feel like students should petition to delay in person classes until Indiana rates aren’t insane. This is literally THE WORST time to bring people from out of state to campus. It truly baffles me that Danko didn’t feel responsible for knowing COVID protocols, especially as president. And if they decide to return to virtual learning AFTER students have started to come to campus…well we know how that will end.

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