College Students & Parents,
Vice-Chancellor Brigety receives many emails on a wide variety of topics, particularly in these challenging early days of the semester during the novel coronavirus pandemic. He makes every effort to address every one of them personally. The message below is an email to a set of parents who wrote to him about concerns their student had about recent events on campus. It has been edited slightly to preserve the confidentiality of the family. We are sharing it broadly to show some of the steps the administration is taking to protect the entire Sewanee community.
Vice-Chancellor Brigety invites you to join him for a series of webinars in which he and members of his administration will be available to discuss the topics that are of interest to you and your College student. The first of these will be held at 6 p.m. CDT Wednesday, Aug. 26. To register, please follow this link.
August 24, 2020
Thank you very much for your email. First and foremost, I do hope that [your student] is doing well. I have said many times that our first priority is ensuring the safety and well-being of our students. I understand what you are saying with regard to [student’s] dissatisfaction with his first week on campus and I take the sentiments that you shared with me very seriously, both as it relates to [your student] personally and also with regard to what may be the sentiment amongst students more generally.
We are living through unprecedented times that require us to take dramatically different approaches to life as we knew it at Sewanee. We are constantly trying to find the right balance between what the exigencies of the virus require and how we can have a meaningful in-person educational experience. It is also true that we must keep lines of communication open and honest throughout this time, which is why I have committed to holding a weekly webinar with parents and friends of the Sewanee community, starting this week.
For the moment, let me speak on two separate but related matters—COVID-19 restrictions and law enforcement as it relates to drugs and alcohol.
With regard to COVID-19, please note that the University of the South is attempting to do something that many other institutions are not, which is to provide in-person education to students in the context of a deadly pandemic. We simply cannot negotiate with the virus. It sets the terms. The provisions we have in place to #protectthebubble are based on the best available public health guidelines from the United States and around the world. We have spent millions of dollars beyond our normal budget to put these provisions in place. Our student life team has worked diligently with student leaders to create meaningful social interactions for our students who respect those guidelines while keeping people safe, which is the rationale for requiring that parties be registered in advance and that social distancing and masking requirements be adhered to during the events. I am pleased to tell you that we have had many such social interactions for students in the early days of this semester.
Yet I regret to inform you that we have had some events that have defied those guidelines. Two of them occurred on Friday and Saturday nights, both at the soccer field. Early reports that I have received from the Sewanee Police Department are that neither of these gatherings was authorized. Dozens of College students participated. On Friday night they left the field strewn with litter. Much more importantly, however, such gatherings have the potential to be classic "super spreader" events with students in close proximity to one another, and their inhibitions lowered through the use of alcohol and narcotics. Though we tested everyone upon entry to the "bubble," it is also entirely possible that they may have yet contracted the virus. Should they have spread it in events like those of Friday and Saturday nights, they almost certainly would have taken it back with them to their residence halls or Greek houses, thus creating the basis for an exponential spread of the disease. This is what we saw happen at UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame and what we are desperately trying to avoid at Sewanee.
The SPD arrived on scene at the soccer field on Saturday morning to document the damage of the night before. They were there as well on Saturday night when the students assembled a second time and police were present. Multiple students were cited for misdemeanor marijuana possession as well as public intoxication.
This leads me to the second point as it relates to drugs and alcohol. The University has long had a "zero tolerance" policy with regard to drug use and possession, and has long provided sanctions for public intoxication and, where valid, underage drinking. These policies predated my arrival as vice-chancellor, but there had also been longstanding concerns that they were not enforced uniformly. So, with the consent of the Board of Regents, on July 30 we instituted an approach to enforcement that was meant to give practical effect to this pre-existing policy. The events of this past week have demonstrated that for a variety of reasons there is widespread opposition throughout the Sewanee community (both from students and alumni) to a zero-tolerance approach to drugs. I listened to these concerns and, on Friday, Aug. 21, issued a moratorium on all University disciplinary sanctions for misdemeanor drug use and possession as well as for underage drinking pending a full review of our student code of conduct. That moratorium stands and is still in effect.
That said, I serve both as vice-chancellor of the University of the South and mayor of the town of Sewanee. Sewanee is an unincorporated municipality in Franklin County in the State of Tennessee. Therefore, the laws of the state apply here. Further, the Sewanee Police Department are not private security guards of the University. They are sworn officers of the law in Franklin County. At my direction, their approach to enforcing the laws of the state as it relates to alcohol and drugs is the following: They will enforce "plain sight" misdemeanor violations of drug use and possession and underage drinking. They will not proactively search out misdemeanor infractions. However, students who receive misdemeanor citations will have to adjudicate them with the appropriate legal authorities; the University will take no additional action. Further, they will investigate credible claims of felonious activity of any kind, to include felony drug possession. Students who are charged with felonies of any kind (e.g., drug possession, assault, criminal trespass, etc.) will be suspended pending the resolution of the legal process. I made this clear in my video announcement on Friday. Sewanee students are not above the law, and Sewanee is not a place that is beyond the reach of the law. On the premise that we must continue to communicate, we will continue to push this message out.
With this in mind, the events of Saturday night are entirely consistent with this framework. The "parties" on Friday and Saturday nights were unauthorized. They posed a substantial health hazard to the entire community, in addition to the damage that they did to University property. When the police were present the second night, there were students who were in "plain sight" violation of misdemeanor laws with regard to alcohol and drug use/possession. The University will take no further action against them in accordance with my policy, but the students will have to answer for their actions before the law, as would any other citizen.
With regard to the concerns about the general culture of "fear" amongst students, I hear you. I know that many students feel both that all of these restrictions are too onerous and, as you stated, as if they are walking on eggshells. We are committed to continuing to educate our students about what is required of them in this environment as well as their responsibilities under the law. But please know as well that the students are not the only part of this community. Faculty have a huge role to play as well. To be frank, almost to a person they are deeply worried that irresponsible behavior amongst students (the likes of which occurred on Friday and Saturday nights) will spread the virus on campus and that they (faculty) will fall victim to it. Fully one-third of our faculty declined to teach in person precisely because of this (as well as the fact that some have pre-existing medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus) and nearly all of the rest of them are deeply concerned. Events such as Friday and Saturday nights' unauthorized gatherings further erode their confidence in students "doing the right thing," and if we lose the commitment of our faculty to provide in-person instruction, then the rationale for remaining open as a university will rapidly deteriorate.
Finally, I appreciate your raising the concern about the apparent inconsistency between allowing willful violators of the #ProtectTheBubble restrictions to return after 14 days while students such as your student who may wish to take a break would have to stay away for the entire semester. This is a fair point and one that we had not anticipated in setting up our framework. We are learning as we go. At first look, it makes sense to me that students such as [your student] who voluntarily leave and may wish to return should be treated the same as the students who are required to leave—which is to say that they would have to stay away for 14 days, they would have to receive a negative test upon returning, and they would have to pay for the test. I will discuss this matter with my cabinet later today and we will get back to you on this point.
I am grateful to you for your feedback. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us with additional concerns.
Reuben E. Brigety
Vice-Chancellor and President