When one thinks of the word purgatory, it often conjures up thoughts of Dante or some situation of mild suffering, waiting for something to happen, good or bad. Me — I think of Stanford. It’s in a midway state: far from hell, too imperfect to be heaven, and seemingly immobile. Purgatory is also an attempt to purify something — in this case, to purify the university of all forms of risk. It’s obvious that Stanford has an obsession with safety, or at least keeping our psyches safe.
Post pandemic, the collegiate obsession with safetyism has spilled over from the psychological to the physical. Trigger warnings and censorship have morphed into real, physical restrictions on human beings. In the same way that trigger warnings did not actually “protect” students from danger, Stanford’s restrictions do not, in fact, protect.
Stanford’s nonsensical COVID rules, its new alcohol policy, and its attitude towards fraternities all purport to shield students from the dangers of college life (in a pandemic!). But in the end, they are not much more than performative, especially when so few people bother following them.
As you may be aware, students who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic are required to test for COVID-19 every week. Never mind that Stanford’s COVID tests regularly take 1-3 days to provide results, more than enough time for a positive person to infect others; or that everyone is sick — not with COVID — but with some version of the flu. Few would attest to having symptoms on the HealthCheck, lest you be unable to sit in the dining halls or grab your own food for 2 weeks. About 17% of all Stanford courses were still offered only online this quarter.
None of this makes sense, because coronavirus would be a mild infection for the vast majority of students and faculty (about 98% of whom are vaccinated). The hospitalization rate for vaccinated individuals remains below 1 in 13,000.
But Santa Clara County still has an indoor mask mandate. County health officials say they will recommend lifting the mandate if 80% of the population gets vaccinated, or 8 weeks after 5-11 year olds are eligible to be vaccinated (this would put the theoretical relaxation in January). As for Stanford, we don’t know any of their plans! Will the HealthCheck badge ever cease to be mandatory on a daily basis? What about “surveillance testing,” or the campus mask mandate? These restrictions aim to maintain the façade of creating an environment without risk— something that is impossible.
New rules that no one legitimately follows also include Stanford’s new alcohol policy. Effective September 1st, Stanford changed its open-door policy for underage drinking; previously RAs were not required to report underage drinking as long as students kept their doors open, so that any incident would be visible to a bystander who could assist a student in need. Now, frosh and sophomores must simply drink with their doors closed.
The new rules were supposed to turn RAs into mandated reporters of underage drinking. That is, until an RA strike (partially due to the alcohol policy) and promises from RAs that they would “use discretion.” Besides, the new rules seem to have no effect on decreasing underage drinking, and perhaps it actually contributed to making the situation more dangerous. Ten undergraduates were transported to Stanford Hospital in September for alcohol poisoning, up from 3 in 2019.
Safety at parties is not a new concern, but it certainly became more emphasized during the pandemic. The new alcohol policy coincides with renewed calls for fraternities to unhouse themselves. An ASSU survey claims about 58% of respondents would support Greek houses losing some or all of their housing privileges. But fraternities are some of the few still functioning social institutions on campus.
This fall, many sophomores came to campus knowing few of their classmates and were, of course, unable to form many or any friendships freshman year. For the rest of us, friendships and social bonds were often cut short during the pandemic. While some have concerns about safety at fraternities, it’s clear many still desire for them to exist. Eurotrash, a party that always takes place on the first full moon of the academic year, was so popular that many attendees jumped a fence to bypass pandemic capacity limits.
The university already made it difficult for fraternities to operate as real social organizations. Greek life has seen a virtual rush, capacity limits, and some, such as Theta Delta Chi (TDX), lost their university housing. Barrillaga, the new open bar every Friday in Tressider, is not a sufficient replacement for these decades-old social institutions. Pieces of Stanford’s history are lost each time we chip away at campus customs and traditions.
What will be Stanford’s trajectory over the next few years? It’s unclear... Perhaps we’ll receive more ridiculous adverts of “I wear my mask because I love my common area” during each seasonal COVID-wave, frosh will continue to smuggle bottles of booze past unwitting (they think) RAs, and people will still bum-rush “restricted” parties on the Row. Maybe the university will come to the realization that COVID, a little unbidden underage drinking, and the social institutions of our forebears are highly unlikely to harm us. I don’t know— but, for now, we’re simply stuck in purgatory.