Penn State's lack of transparency regarding the rising number of coronavirus on campus should leave us all flustered.
On Friday, March 26, after two weeks of constant emails and pleas for particular East dorms to seek testing, the university formally recommended that the entire East bloc spits in a receptacle. In order to make this recommendation more practical for students, a pop-up testing center was established just outside Bigler Hall.
While Penn State's initiative is admirable in some aspects — especially the drive to keep students informed and make it that much easier for them to find testing — other aspects of the university’s approach leaves something to be desired.
And the single thing most desired is greater transparency between administration and the student body.
As previously mentioned, Friday’s decree was the culmination of several smaller decrees in the past few weeks. First, the residents of Beaver, Geary and Packer Halls received the email encouraging testing, and then this list expanded to include Snyder Hall and its residents last week.
With the expanded encouragement for East, a clear and disturbing pattern is emerging: The student body experiences an uptick of infections and positive cases, and the university unveils the bare minimum amount of necessary information about this upswell.
The behavior most damning is the strange refusal to categorize East as a cluster zone. And if East does indeed bear little resemblance to a cluster location, then the university's exclusive focus on the locale seems even stranger.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a cluster as "an aggregation of cases grouped in place and time that are suspected to be greater than the number expected, even though the expected number may not be known." When applied to COVID-19, the concept solidifies and becomes two or more cases among individuals within a two-week interval.
Some universities have developed their own definitions of a “cluster.” For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill defines a cluster as five or more cases in close proximity, and provides students with information about housing clusters as they occur on its coronavirus dashboard.
At Penn State, there has seemingly been an uptick in positive cases among East-bound students — otherwise, the university would not have issued so many warnings and recommendations targeted for the area.
According to Penn State administration, the increase does not meet the standards of any sort of “cluster.” In a webinar hosted by university officials, Matt Ferrari, who heads the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, said the East Halls situation is not indicative of a cluster scenario, but rather points to a wider increase in cases among the entire Penn State community.
Cases are indeed on the rise across the board, that much appears true. But assuming Ferrari is right and East Halls merely evinces a wider problem, why is the university limiting these emails and recommendations to this one group of students?
If cases are creeping up in every corner of the community, why not email the entire student body and recommend similar measures?
There are two possibilities here. Either Penn State is willingly concealing East Halls' true identity as some sort of cluster — and thereby willfully endangering all the students who reside there — or it is showering East Halls with unequal attention and neglecting all other dutiful responsibilities.
Perhaps there is a third possibility, but the university is providing little information about its decision-making processes.
Penn State has an obligation to increase transparency and open the flood gates of information. Secrecy is never appreciated nor warranted, especially when the lives of so many individuals are at risk. Treating student health and safety as mere numbers worthy of concealment, when human life is anything but a numbers game, attests to a warped perception of the common good.
Rather, the information should flow easily and freely. The university has a Timely Warning system set in place, informing students of potential or ongoing threats that occur on campus.
Why not establish a similar system in this era of disease and distress? Why erect walls around more specific data and details?
In the words that preluded the fall of authoritarian hubris nearly three decades ago: Penn State, tear down these walls.
Daily Collegian Opinion Editor David Tilli can be reached at email@example.com.