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Wisconsin Spotlight | Sept 16, 2020

MADISON — The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater could expel students for attending gatherings off campus, according to the university’s recent COVID-19 “Notification of Student Non-Academic Disciplinary Procedures.”

As a precaution against the spread of COVID-19, UW-Whitewater’s letter states, all students, regardless of where they live, “must follow UW-Whitewater safety guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

In addition to disciplining students on campus, the university claims administrative code gives it the authority to “discipline students for non-academic conduct occurring off-campus when the conduct adversely affects a substantial university interest.”

“A student’s conduct adversely affects a substantial university interest when it presents a danger or threat to the health or safety of the person or others or seriously impairs the university’s ability to fulfilll its teaching, research, or public service missions,” the notice states.

So students who attend gatherings in public or perhaps at a friend’s home would be subject to investigation and disciplinary sanctions “up to and including suspension and/or expulsion.”

Sara Kuhl, the university’s assistant vice chancellor for Marketing and Communications, says administrators are asking students to “be vigilant” in helping stop the spread of COVID-19.  Doing so will allow them to remain on campus until Nov. 20, after which time UW-Whitewater plans to move to all remote learning.

Kuhl says the university is asking students to limit their activities to “essential ones,” leaving to the discretion of individuals to define “essential.”

But the notice makes it clear that students need to follow safety guidelines, or else. That means wearing a mask — inside and outdoors. Maintaining a 6-foot social distance, no matter where they are. And calling a school hotline if they or others they have come in contact with tests positive for the virus.

“If students do not follow these guidelines both on and off campus they will be subject to investigation and sanction, up to and including suspension and/or expulsion,” the notice warns.

What does the university have to say about the civil liberties issues such an all-encompassing disciplinary policy presents? 

Kuhl refers to state law, particularly Chapter 17 under the University of Wisconsin System, which she says allows the university to investigate situations where individuals or a group may have put the safety of others at risk. The spokeswoman says the policy “does not include worship services or family gatherings,” but it could include off-campus events where COVID-19 “guidelines” may not be as strictly followed.

“UW-Whitewater is committed to protecting everyone’s civil liberties. We also want to keep our university and our community members as safe as possible,” Kuhl said

While state law includes language related to discipline for off-campus activities, spokesman Mark Pitsch said UW System delegates to universities responsibility for student code and conduct oversight.

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