Under Social Distancing Compact, Students Confront Dual Roles — Peer and Potential Informant


As the COVID-19 pandemic transforms on campus living, Harvard students are confronting a novel ethical dilemma: whether and how to inform on peers who violate public health guidelines.

Though the College has praised students for largely adhering to social distancing norms, reports of large social gatherings in house courtyards and along the Charles River earlier this month invited indignation from fellow undergraduates and administrative rebukes.

Last week, the College announced a new online form through which Harvard affiliates can report infractions of the Community Compact, a set of social distancing and pandemic safety guidelines.

Filing a report can trigger a formal review of the alleged perpetrators by the Community Council, a body founded this fall to arbitrate breaches of the compact. The outcome of such a review may range from a warning, to “community responses” like education, to removal from housing.


When asked about the ethical considerations of students reporting their classmates’ transgressions in a Friday interview, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana called on students to perform “an ethical calculus.”

“There are moments in which good values can feel like they’re in tension with each other,” Khurana said. “The challenge of COVID-19 is that while the immediate awkwardness could be felt in the short term, the not saying something or doing something actually has very long term consequences and medium-term consequences — and often on people who didn't agree to be the recipients of one's consequences.”

Khurana said that Harvard’s dining hall workers, shuttle drivers, “intergenerational staff and faculty community,” and students with underlying conditions are among those for whom students’ negligence could have severe ramifications.

“Leadership is really about learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he continued. “Learning to speak out when you see something that's challenging is probably the most difficult thing, but probably one of the most important things that leaders can do.”

Still, Daniel Shen ’24, who is living on campus, said that few of his friends have availed themselves of the reporting form thus far.

“I think all the students know about this form,” Shen said. “But not a lot of people are actually reporting things.”

“If you're generally a chill person, you don't want to go out of your way to incriminate somebody else, even though it is a very bad decision on that person's part,” he explained. “This further increases the standard it would take for an average person, like maybe me, to submit something on that form.”

Shen said that he thinks a serious infraction — like a party exceeding 20 to 30 people — would merit a report. On the other hand, he said he is more skeptical of the need to report groups of five to six students eating together, which technically exceed the current limit of four.

“Smaller infractions are reasonable because I think, to an extent, almost everybody has had those,” he said. “If you are going to do something, you shouldn't hold other people to a standard above that.”

James Rose ’22 said he opposes “outsourcing” enforcement of the community compact to authorities like the Community Council and Harvard University Police Department. Instead, he said he believes social pressure, “hard conversations,” and sometimes “naming names” are necessary and effective means by which students should hold one another accountable.

Rose criticized students who urge “unity” as an excuse to avoid challenging their peers, but ultimately defer enforcement to administrators and the police.

“It's not that we inherently ought not to have authorities, it's more that we betray our own lack of faith in our ability as a community to uphold those values when we bring in authority,” he said. “If we refuse to challenge each other to uphold our values, we say, ‘Well, we'll never be able to get people to comply. We don't have the strength of character of relationships and bonds holding this community together to survive us critiquing each other.’”

Khurana said that students can avoid confronting these difficult conversations and ethical issues by simply committing themselves to the Community Compact in the first place.

“We should all be in a situation of individual responsibility and mindful of our individual conduct so as not to put our friends in that position,” he said. “I think that's just one of the first things we can do is that we can prevent and not put people we care about in an awkward position.”

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.