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Controversy of U. event amid COVID-19

A Sept. 13 dinner hosted by the Brown Athletics Department for student-athletes drew backlash from students, who criticized the University for hosting a large event that coincided with its announcement of temporary COVID-19 restrictions.

The short-term restrictions included a halt on in-person dining, more frequent mandatory testing and a requirement that student groups hold all events virtually. The requirement that clubs meet virtually was subsequently reversed.

Vice President of Athletics and Recreation M. Grace Calhoun ’92 told The Herald that the event was University-sponsored and that, despite the rule changes, the Athletic Department was assured that the event could continue as planned. “I was aware that changes (to COVID-19 policies) were coming. I didn’t have full knowledge of what the changes (would) be, but I was clear on the fact that outdoor events that were University-sanctioned were still appropriate,” she said. “We had clarified those questions earlier in the day to ensure that if (the dinner) were outside and University-sanctioned, that was still okay.”

Responses from athletes who attended the event were mixed. Andrea Wei ’22, a member of the women’s swim and dive team, expressed apprehension over the lack of precautions taken. “None of the emails mentioned anything about mask regulations,” she said. “When we actually got to the event, which was probably 500+ people, there was literally not a mask in sight. We also all found out about the (indoor) dining halt halfway through.”

Women’s hockey player Sonja Bjornson ’24 pointed to the irony of her team attending the event amid their own COVID-19 concerns. “Two girls on our team are in quarantine currently, so they couldn’t attend the event, and it’s ironic because we took a team picture (without) masks outside,” she said. “We had our scheduled fitness testing Monday afternoon, (but) because of people testing positive on our team and other people (having) woken up feeling a little bit sick, they canceled our fitness testing. But we were still told to go to the event.”

Others felt comfortable at the event given its setting. “I thought the dinner was perfectly safe (because it was) outside,” said Sierra Bornheim ’24, a member of the women’s sailing team. “There’s less transmission outside (and) we were all fully vaccinated.” Still, Bornheim understood her peers’ criticism of the event. President Christina Paxson P’19 “was there at the dinner speaking about 10 minutes after I first learned about (the restrictions), so I just think it was really poor timing on (the University’s) part,” she said. “I kind of knew there would be backlash.”

Women’s soccer player Sheyenne Allen ’23 believed that knowledge of the new restrictions didn’t substantially change the event. “I have a feeling many people didn’t know about it when we were all mingling,” she said. “I think those that did know about the changes weren’t immensely affected by them.” Still, Allen expressed her support for the new restrictions overall. “It definitely makes sense due to the influx of students and rise in cases,” she said. “I believe the restrictions are necessary in order to keep students safe and allow us to continue to have in-person learning (and) activities in the future.”

There has been widespread student criticism of the administration’s policies and the event being held in the midst of increased restrictions, most notably expressed through social media. One of the primary outlets for student discontent is Instagram page @browumemes, a meme page with more than 6,000 followers. Chas Steinbrugge ’24, who runs the account, has made a number of memes poking fun at the administration’s actions in recent days.

“What’s motivated me to make so many memes about the new guidelines is mostly just how it seems that the administration doesn’t follow them themselves,” he said. “I understand lowering the group sizes for students but then to see these massive gatherings put on (by) the administration just seems hypocritical.”

The meme account, Steinbrugge said, has been a space for he and classmates to air mutual frustration about the University’s recent action. “Having such strict guidelines in the student body with an administration that doesn’t seem to follow the practices they’re preaching has angered the student body,” he said. “I think the meme account is giving people an outlet to sort of vent their frustration.”

Steinbrugge points to levity and responsiveness as key factors in the popularity of memes amid changing circumstances for students. “The most important aspect of a meme account versus a more formal news source is that meme accounts can be more responsive. When a new guideline is announced, I can create a meme (much) faster than” a formal student publication could publish an announcement, he said. “I also think it adds a little bit of humor to the subject. People are more comfortable sharing a meme than they might be sharing an article.”

Madye Arundale ’25, who was not associated with the dinner, also sees the University’s actions as hypocritical. “Brown being so lenient with themselves but not with student organizations is hugely hypocritical and very frustrating,” they said. “The outcry could have been lessened if they didn’t ban club gatherings and required masks for both school-sponsored events like the athletic dinner and club gatherings. (The University) should have encouraged more outdoor interaction in their email as well.”

Part of the controversy stemmed from the Athletics Department’s promotion of the event on their official Instagram page. A since-deleted post shows a video of large numbers of student-athletes mingling and taking pictures, almost entirely unmasked, with the caption “It is PAR-TAY time for our student-athletes here at Brown!” The post was deleted within a few hours of its posting, but it was screen-recorded and reposted by @brownumemes with the caption, “Brown deleted this video of their massive in-person party today. It was their first event since banning student-organized events.”

Calhoun said that she was unaware of the video. “I have no knowledge of that video nor of it being taken down,” she said.

Still, the @brownumemes post was shared and re-shared a number of times, and for Steinbrugge, the deleted video was a major sticking point. “One big driving factor behind the meme was that a school Instagram account posted a video of the party and celebrated it,” he said. “That just made it way more frustrating. They can’t own up to their big gatherings and they try to delete evidence” of them.

Steinbrugge further cited the social consequences of the restrictions as a reason for student anger, especially among members of the class of 2024. “It’s really disappointing because we were so close to having a more integrated, more connected Brown community. The club fair was a moment when a lot of sophomores finally realized how we can connect with people across campus and form bigger networks, and then just three days later, to have all that tugged away was pretty disappointing,” he said. “The five person gathering limit is such a drastic change of plans for many students who were expanding their networks.”

Josephine Miller ’24, a Theatre Arts & Performance Studies concentrator, criticized the dinner as an example of Brown prioritizing athletics above other extracurriculars. “As somebody whose entire life and career kind of revolves around shows, (this) looks to me kind of like (a) replication of the common high school trope of money being poured into athletics while the arts are completely disregarded. Brown is going to keep the things that bring them revenue running, while things like the arts that aren’t as lucrative to Brown — but that they’re going to talk about publicly when marketing their school to prospective students — just aren’t given the attention,” she said. “Athletic (practices) were allowed to continue all throughout the pandemic last year, whereas this is supposed to be the official beginning of the arts coming back to Brown.”

Calhoun disputed these statements, pointing to stoppage of athletic competition. “We shut down athletics for more than a year. We were the only conference in Division I to do that,” she said. “I would certainly contest that sentiment on the basis (that) that’s not what our track record is.”

She also reiterated that the University is focused on outdoor, supervised events. “We’ve really focused on University-sponsored (events), the reason being because then you’ve got people there whose job is make sure people are following the rules (and) being safe and to break things up if not.”

Miller expressed greater concern about the mental health impacts the University’s policies could have on students. “I feel like (the University) just botched it every step of the way, bringing the (Class of 2024) in in January and telling people that they would be breaking the school’s Code of Conduct if they attempted to make friends in any way and then providing us no virtual avenue through which to form connections. (This) set everybody up for mental health crises.”

University spokesperson Brian Clark acknowledged the difficulties posed by ongoing restrictions. “We fully appreciate that for students and many others, the vigilance and flexibility required to successfully navigate the COVID-19 pandemic is causing considerable fatigue,” he wrote in an email to the Herald. “At the same time, the ability to be flexible and adjust course as required by a continually evolving pandemic remains essential.”

However, he rejected the idea that the University’s policies have been inconsistent or unwarranted. “What might feel like ‘flip-flopping’ is in reality effective management of a fast-evolving public health situation, grounded in and guided by science and data,’’ he wrote. “We continue to strive to maintain as close to normal operations as we can at Brown, while also protecting the health and safety of everyone who lives, works or learns here.”

Clark expressed optimism that the restrictions would be short-lived, permitting on-campus Covid-19 conditions. He cited other institutions who have implemented comparable policies. “It’s important to note that the limitations put into this place are temporary and targeted specifically to the settings in which we’ve seen evidence of COVID-19 spread,” he wrote. “The experience of other university campuses is instructive; they experienced similar spikes at the beginning of the semester, imposed similar temporary restrictions, and saw their positive rates come back down in a couple of weeks. We hope to accomplish the same here at Brown if we can work together to curb the uptick in cases.”


Peter Swope

Peter Swope is the senior editor of digital engagement for The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board. He previously served as a Sports section editor and has also written stories for University News. Peter is a senior from New Jersey studying history. 

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