Campus workers to Regents: You’re following orders rather than science

Board of Regents shirks responsibility to keep Georgia campuses safe

Decades ago, when I first began to cover education issues, I attended a Board of Regents meeting where I noticed few members demonstrated any expertise in higher education. I asked my colleague Jim Wooten, editorial page editor then of The Atlanta Journal and an authority on state government, about the qualifications for an appointment to the Regents.

Wooten explained Regent posts went to generous donors or political allies. In Georgia, you either want an appointment to the Regents or to the Georgia Ports Authority board, he said. The former assured you great seats to college football games, and the latter offered seats on airplanes to great places.

So, I understand the 19 political appointees to the Board of Regents were never expected to inspire or innovate the 26 public campuses under their management. But I did think they would, at the very least, ensure the safety of the 317,000 students and 48,000 employees of the University System of Georgia.

They have not done so in this pandemic, refusing to mandate masks and vaccines even while faculty, staff, students and parents plead with them. The Regents are ignoring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has advised masks for students in classrooms, and the American College Health Association, which has recommended vaccination for all on-campus students this semester.

They are putting lives at risk because Gov. Brian Kemp has turned masks and vaccinations into political hay, and the Regents aren’t going to countermand their benefactor.

With that said, here’s another appeal by campus workers to the Regents to do the right thing. This should not be a hard call for the Regents or a matter of debate. (It has not been in most states that have focused on safety rather than politics.) On one side is the inconvenience to those students who don’t want to wear masks. On the other is the risk of illness or even death to faculty, students, staff and their families if they’re exposed at school to COVID and carry it home.

Open Letter to the Members of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia from Paul D. Grant, Ph.D, Co-President, United Campus Workers of Georgia:

I appreciate the fact that you, as members of the governing board of the University System of Georgia, have the very difficult job of making important decisions affecting tens of thousands of students, staff, and faculty. These decisions also impact Georgia’s economic viability. Our colleges and universities are thriving institutions and are a major reason companies, not-for-profits, and other organizations “keep Georgia on their mind” and continue to locate here from all over the globe.

Georgia and the capitol city, Atlanta, are special places. Leaders have frequently succeeded in promoting the state’s success ahead of other considerations. This did not occur in most of the other states in the region. In challenging times, Georgia leaders have been able to make wise decisions that have made the state’s capitol a world class city. As Georgia leaders during this crucial time in our state’s history, your continued successful governance of our colleges and universities is essential to the future success of Georgia.

However, the Board of Regent’s current policy of refusing to make masks and vaccinations mandatory is contrary to previous wise decisions that have increased our state’s viability. A policy putting the health and lives of students, staff, faculty, and their family, friends, and neighbors in jeopardy is troubling, and in a broader sense, it threatens the success of all USG institutions as well as the continued economic success of Georgia.

Though many are disappointed with your decision, people remain hopeful. When the pandemic began, you were wise to follow the science. In March of 2020 you suspended in person instruction in the interest of promoting public health and safety. You made a similar pro-health policy just before the start of the fall 2020 semester when reversed your policy on masks and thus required face covering on all 26 USG campuses. Now, given the rapidly rising number of cases in the state due to the delta variant, with numerous unmasked and unvaccinated individuals on campuses, students, staff, and faculty may actually be more vulnerable to COVID this fall.

Therefore, I fervently believe that the University System of Georgia’s requirement that the students, staff, and faculty function in environments where masks, vaccinations, and COVID testing are not required is neither prudent nor safe. I fear all who are complicit in carrying out a policy likely to cause additional illness and death will be held accountable. That puts those who personally oppose the policy in the painful position of having to say, “We are/were only following orders.”

Based on your thoughtful past actions noted above regarding COVID policies, I will remain hopeful you will again reexamine the facts and reflect on current circumstances, and craft policies providing greater protection from COVID for the students, staff, and faculty of the University System of Georgia.