COVID on campus: UGA faculty rebel against ‘bad USG policy’

Professors: We are willing to risk our jobs to protect our University of Georgia community

Two key factors have contributed to the rise of the University of Georgia in national rankings, the quality of its faculty and its students. That stands in peril as some of the top life science professors — including biology, biochemistry, genetics, immunology, botany, neuroscience, pharmacology, virology — intend to enforce masking in their classes, thus violating Board of Regents policy. That puts them at risk for censure and discipline.

More than 55 UGA life science faculty thus far have signed a letter informing the Regents they intend to require masking, an effort co-organized by Jeff Bennetzen, who has been the Giles Professor in the Department of Genetics at University of Georgia since 2003.

Bennetzen came to UGA after serving 20 years on the faculty at Purdue University. He teaches the genetics of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and viruses to undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral scientists. His research on plant and microbial genomics has brought in more than $18 million in grant support to UGA from federal funding agencies and corporations. He is one of 16 elected members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in Georgia.

Bennetzen is an academic that UGA needs to retain, as are all the signatories on the letter citing the science behind the efficacy of masking in preventing the spread of COVID-19. These researchers know how infectious diseases spread. They know what needs to be done to prevent COVID-19.

So do members of the Board of Regents, but they are putting politics ahead of the health of students and staff at the 26 public campuses they pledged to protect and promote. Their optional mask policy does neither, as Bennetzen explains in this guest column.

By Jeff Bennetzen

As a first-generation college student, my experiences as an undergraduate surprisingly attracted me to the possibility of becoming a biologist and a college professor. The discovery of previously unknown facts about how biological systems function, while surrounded by energetic students and colleagues who are driven toward bettering the world, is a career path that has no equal.

Upon arrival at the University of Georgia in 2003, I found just such an ideal community in Athens, and my perception is that UGA has been on an unbroken upward trajectory for decades as a better and better place to pursue studies, to teach and to conduct research.

Hence, when COVID-19 first reared its murderous head in the United States early last year, my first thoughts were for the safety of family, friends and community. The biggest part of that community are the students I teach, the staff that I supervise and the faculty colleagues that I work with at UGA.

Fortunately, after a rough start, doctors, public health experts and scientists quickly identified methods to minimize the negative effects of COVID-19. Had these recommendations been generally adopted in the early summer of 2020, hundreds of thousands of American lives would have been spared.

Right now, we can argue about whether we are in the third, fourth or fifth wave of this epidemic, but even with effective vaccines and established protective public health strategies, it is not clear how many more waves are yet to come and how many more lives will be needlessly lost. One unnecessary death is a tragedy, pure and simple, so arguments that we are cutting our death rate down a bit offer very little reassurance to me.

Our UGA students should have long, fascinating and productive lives ahead of them, but even those who recover from COVID-19 may suffer enduring debility. We just do not yet know. Any disease that causes lung damage and brain damage, as does COVID-19, has the potential for worrisome lifelong effects.

Last year, UGA instituted a series of measures to minimize COVID-19 exposure, largely following the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, starting this fall, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, which has ultimate oversight of all 26 state colleges in Georgia, passed a series of regulations that decreased the ability of Georgia universities to minimize COVID-19 transmission.

These regulations included a ban on requiring students to wear masks or be vaccinated and even a ban on asking students whether they are vaccinated. Many faculty across the USG were shocked by these prohibitions. Numerous faculty petitions, many with hundreds of signatures, were quickly generated and sent to the Regents, whose 19 members are appointed to seven-year terms by the governor. I’ve signed quite a few of these petitions, and more are in the works, but none has had any discernible effect on Board of Regents policies.

About two weeks ago, several faculty at UGA were discussing by Zoom what we could do to ensure the safety of the UGA community we love so much. Moreover, how could we teach students to follow the science, seek out the facts, and to make objective decisions that affected their lives if we provided passive acceptance of bad USG policy that ignores the type of science we teach? A few of us felt that a petition that was made available for public release might be more persuasive, particularly if it stated that we would violate USG policy to protect the UGA community.

So, Dr. Andrea Sweigart and I worked with a group of colleagues to produce a letter that was sent to tenured UGA faculty in the life sciences on a Friday afternoon, asking for signature by the next Tuesday morning (two days ago). We chose tenured faculty because the process for firing tenured faculty is a bit more involved than that for firing untenured faculty.

In that time frame, 53 signatures arrived, from a group greatly enriched for the most productive and well-known scientists at UGA. Many scientists without tenure and others that were not in the life sciences also asked to sign, but we felt this was inappropriate, both for their career security and to indicate that the signatories had relatively high levels of expertise in understanding epidemic disease.

The letter states that we will require masks in our research laboratories and in the classes we teach despite the fact that this violates USG policy. We chose the very minimal step of a mask requirement because we know that masks work to decrease viral transmission, that they have no negative effects on any but a few with special medical issues (which we will accommodate), and that we can easily see whether the students are complying. This latter point, in particular, is something we cannot do for vaccination, although we know this is also a vital step toward vanquishing COVID-19.

As of this writing, signatures continue to come in, and we hope that producing and releasing this letter will encourage the BOR to reconsider its policies and, if not, for other faculty across the USG to consider similar actions. Protecting our students, our staff and our colleagues must be the highest priority for any faculty member in Georgia, or anywhere, so I think we all hope that this attitude and the defeat of COVID-19 will win the day.

The author of this guest column, Dr. Jeff Bennetzen, is a University of Georgia genetics professor.