The old elite universities are easily recognized by endowments in the tens of billions, gargantuan research budgets, and faculties boasting multiple Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners. Tiny acceptance rates add to their prestige. Stanford University accepted only 4.3% of its applicants in 2020. I have personally had the honor of being rejected by Harvard four times. The institution’s prestige increased in my eyes on each occasion. As Groucho Marx put it “I wouldn’t dream of joining a club that would have the likes of me as a member.”
There is a second type of elite educational institution. It is the college or university that has truly decided who it serves, has carved out a mission, and accomplishes what it has set out to do every day. Consider the highly respected Musical Instrument Repair And Construction program at Minnesota State College Southeast at Red Wing. (Yes, it’s the same town where they make the famous work boots.) Their graduates make a good living doing something they love.
A moment of personal privilege: one of my students was recently hired as an Instructional Designer at the new United States Space Force!
This fall, there will be another type of elite institution. It will be the college or university that requires full vaccination against Covid before any student is allowed to step on campus, with a small list of narrowly defined exceptions. So far about 400 or 10% of all colleges and universities have taken this step. Many more are waiting to see what kind of momentum emerges behind this trend before taking action.
The 400 elite institutions are almost all in blue states but this should not be a political issue. Leadership is more than scanning poll results and doing whatever your local majority wants based on their possibly partial or incorrect information. Our system is not that type of pure democracy. We are a republic, in which our leaders are charged with examining all the available evidence without prejudice and then making informed decisions on behalf of the constituencies they serve. Real leaders sometimes need to educate those they serve on why a local majority opinion might be foolish, dangerous, or just plain wrong.
The so-called Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919 may shed light on the present moment. The pandemic hit hard and fast in 1918. Communities responded with the closing of public gathering places, mask requirements, and social distancing. But as infection numbers declined, public officials worried about the economy and were pressured to get things back to normal. Not wanting to take further responsibility for unpopular restrictions, officials decided that future compliance would be a matter of “individual responsibility” rather than public policy. Predictably, many people took this to mean that the danger was over. But the flu that seemed over in the early summer of 1918 came back much worse in the fall of that year, before a third wave in 1919. A total of 50 million deaths are estimated world-wide. That is more than the total casualties of World War I !
Of course, there was no vaccine at that time. Current science suggests that our vaccines work well, even on the new variants that have emerged. This creates hope that they will also work on the even newer variants that are likely to emerge in places like India and Brazil where infection rates are off the charts. But vaccines can only protect if they find their way into arms.
We know from experience that only firm requirements, with significant and seriously enforced penalties for non-compliance, gets the unconvinced to even wear masks properly and consistently. Any vaccination mandate must also be vigorously enforced or it will accomplish nothing.
We should not consider recent happy talk from the Centers for Disease Control as a declaration that all danger is over. Everyone understood that the CDC was a political entity under former President Trump. Its statements were part of a larger political response to the pandemic that was closely coordinated with the “keep-it-open” policies of herd immunity theorist Dr. Alex Azar, former Secretary of Health and Human Services. CDC did not suddenly become 100% apolitical and science-driven on the day that President Biden arrived. It is still part of a larger government response which has to consider public resistance to compliance, economic impact, and where things will stand when the Congressional elections roll around in 2022. One could make the case that this is as it should be. We want our government officials to be responsive to the views of the people, though not necessarily responsible to slavishly follow those views.
But parents of university students will have only one concern. Will my loved ones really be safe going to school through the long winter of 2021-22 with largely unmasked, unvaccinated peers in classrooms and dormitories that are not set up for social distancing? University administrators and the state officials who provide them with direction might also consider: “Will we lose more students to other institutions if we require vaccinations or if we don’t?”
Within state higher education systems, it is unrealistic to expect local leaders to defy their state governors regardless of how they may personally feel. We can only hope that the dialogue that has already begun due to the steps taken by the courageous 10% will reach a tipping point in public awareness and many more institutions will be asked to require vaccination.
Dr. Richard Rose is the program director for instructional design and technology at West Texas A&M University. The comments here represent his own opinions and not those of WTAMU.