Talking Points

The weird intersection of Ivy League pandemic policy and Bob Jones University purity codes

Brown University mandates COVID-19 vaccination for faculty, staff, and students alike, so over 95 percent of the campus community is vaccinated. And, as Brown's pandemic policy pages note, the vaccines are "proven to be highly effective" in preventing transmission and serious illness. So Brown is nearly back to normal, right?

So, so, so wrong. After a small spike in positive COVID-19 tests — 82 in a week, mostly among "asymptomatic undergraduate students," with "no indications of serious illness and no hospitalizations" — the university announced severe new rules. The restrictions are "short-term," but there's no firm timeline for lifting them. Now banned: social gatherings larger than five (even outdoors!), spending time with multiple friend groups, and going to indoor restaurants and bars. Students are required to wear masks in their dorm rooms with anyone but a roommate.

Brown isn't the only elite university with near-universal vaccination and extreme pandemic restrictions, as Reason's Robby Soave has reported. Soave describes these rules as "authoritarian," inviting comparisons to harsh regimes of fiction and history. I'm reminded of something closer to home: hyper-strict student life rules at fundamentalist Christian colleges.

I grew up in conservative evangelical circles, where — at my Christian high school, anyway — kids had a whisper network about colleges to avoid. We'd trade stories, some real and some embellished or apocryphal, about stickling rules at places like Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College. Don't let your parents make you go there, we warned.

I imagine an institution like Brown sees a vast gulf of prestige and cultural value between itself and these fundamentalist enclaves. But the student life rules are weirdly similar in effect.

Brown says no indoor restaurants and bars; at Bob Jones, "[s]tudents are not to patronize restaurants with a tavern or bar-like atmosphere or reputation or restaurants that do not have a dining room separate from live entertainment." Bob Jones has rules limiting how students can socialize, too: "Students may be together in any well-lit outside location from dawn until 10 minutes before curfew … Couples are not to socialize inside cars or inside the parking garage. ... Students, including mixed [sex] groups of at least three, may meet at or near the pavilions for fellowship until 10:20 p.m."

The elite and fundamentalist colleges have different aims, of course — precluding COVID-19 transmission and extramarital sex, respectively — but both have chosen purity codes as their tool. Perhaps the Ivy League will take a page from Pensacola's student handbook and start shuffling people into separate staircases so their bodies can't touch.