When Northeastern University dismissed 11 students last week without refunding their $36,500 tuition as punishment for socializing together in a hotel being used for temporary student housing, the move reverberated across higher education as swift and aggressive, perhaps extreme.
But quietly, many schools around the region, desperate to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak that could topple their carefully orchestrated reopening plans, are cracking down on students who violate strict new regulations for gatherings.
At Boston University, nine students face suspension if they break another rule after they were caught socializing in a dorm without masks, and 15 others may be punished for similar violations. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Wentworth Institute of Technology, and the College of the Holy Cross have issued sanctions or launched disciplinary proceedings against students for breaking coronavirus directives. Other institutions, including New York University and West Virginia University, have suspended dozens of rule-breaking undergraduates.
Most campuses are allowing only a handful of students to gather at a time depending on the size of the space, have limited the number of visitors who can enter dorms, and are requiring masks in most common areas.
While some students and families applaud the discipline as a public health imperative, there are growing fears that the expectations for students are unrealistic and that the sanctions are so severe they could open universities to legal challenges.
“There’s been nothing like this,” said Peter Lake, director of the center for higher education law and policy at Stetson University in Florida. Colleges were forced to create new rules and tough sanctions to respond to the requirements of operating a campus in a pandemic, but in the process have left themselves open to a raft of criticisms, he said.
“You lured people back to campus and dropped a hammer in a way that’s unfamiliar,” Lake said.
Emma Wells, a parent from Maryland with two sons in college, one a sophomore at WPI, said she feels misled by the school. Over the summer, WPI emphasized the welcoming environment it would create despite the challenges of social distancing, but downplayed the severity of the rules and their consequences, she said.
“I’m not going to say a high-end prison, but it’s really strict, you can’t hang out with anybody,” Wells said.
Her son was recently asked to leave WPI housing after he and four of his roommates were found socializing and drinking in their on-campus apartment with five female classmates. The five male students were kicked out of housing, while the women were asked to write an essay, she said. The school, which said it could not comment on the matter, has allowed Wells to appeal the decision and she is waiting for the response.
Her older son, at Boston College, reported that some students have moved their parties off-campus on the weekends, including to New Hampshire. They may not be breaking any rules but could pose a greater risk for spreading COVID-19, Wells said.
“What is the lesser of the two evils?” she said.
WPI spokeswoman Colleen Wamback said the school provided students and parents many documents explaining the rules this semester and students signed forms acknowledging they understood. Parents received a copy of the housing and dining contract, which states the school may terminate the agreement if the student represents “a threat to the health or safety of anyone.”
The situation underscores how much has changed since the pandemic began. Traditionally, universities doled out suspensions, which can delay graduation and leave a permanent mark on a student’s academic record, for the most severe cases: students caught in serious cheating violations, distributing drugs and alcohol, or hazing their peers.
At Northeastern, sexual assault or behavior involving drugs or violence would typically be grounds for dismissal, a spokeswoman said. The 11 students who were violating social distance rules were suspended for the remainder of the semester.
But in the era of COVID-19, behaviors that are integral to college life, from having friends over to meeting new people at a party, have become grounds for harsh punishment.
Boston University, for example, has said that students caught at a party of 25 or more people will be suspended for the remainder of the semester and their tuition won’t be refunded. Such large gatherings haven’t been a problem yet, but students have been caught gathering in slightly smaller groups, said Kenneth Elmore, the university’s associate provost and dean of students.
Nine BU students already have received a deferred suspension, meaning any other violation this academic year and they will be kicked out of school for the semester and lose any tuition and room and board costs they’ve paid. Elmore said he is reviewing another case involving a 15-student gathering in a dorm room.
Several BU students also have been caught trying to skirt the university’s strict guest policy and bring friends into the residence halls who aren’t allowed. University officials are considering whether those students could be removed from housing and forced to take classes remotely, Elmore said.
The university will sometimes give refunds to students if they’re suspended, but isn’t doing so for COVID-related infractions to ensure the rules are followed, he said.
“We’re in a situation where there’s not a lot of room for error,” Elmore said. “We’re in a different environment, and we’ve got to employ different approaches. Nobody wants to be shut down. If we drag our feet . . . we run the risk of exposing people unnecessarily.”
Governor Charlie Baker said that in the Northeastern case, “the rules are the rules."
"They were established up front, everybody attested to them, and they broke them,” he said. “I feel terrible for the kids and I feel terrible for their families, OK?”
As long as universities are clear and transparent about acceptable behavior and give students the right to due process, they are on solid legal ground, higher education legal specialists said.
But some say it’s not clear that’s always the case.
“It’s a suspend-first, expel-first, and ask-questions-later response,” said Will Creeley, legal director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech advocacy group.
Creeley said the organization received a half-dozen complaints over COVID-related cases last weekend — an unusually high number — and a similar number the weekend before.
“There should be some element of mercy and patience here as we navigate the pandemic,” Creeley said.
Universities also are relying on students to monitor each other and using tip lines and photos on social media to catch violators, an approach that raises ethical and legal questions about surveillance.
“There’s a difference between one being their brother’s keeper and an informant,” Creeley said. “We don’t know how long it will last, or the effects of it long term.”
At Wentworth, in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, a new anonymous tip line for COVID-19 rule violations has been used frequently.
Most students have acted responsibly, a university spokesman said. But some have not complied with the guest, mask, or distancing policies and have been kicked off campus pending a disciplinary hearing.
Luke Bassett, a first-year Wentworth student from Westbrook, Conn., said he appreciates that the school made the new restrictions and guidelines clear. The president sent the campus an e-mail warning that students who jeopardize the health of their peers will “lose the privilege of being a Wentworth student,” and that those who host gatherings on or off campus that violate city, state, or campus rules will be suspended or expelled, he said.
But regulating thousands of students, especially when they are with friends, is sure to be a challenge, he said.
“The struggle isn’t to make the rules,” Bassett said. “It’s enforcing the rules.”