Opinion: Regents’ campus policies on COVID don’t stand up to scrutiny

09/13/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Wendy Simonds holds a sign that reads “The [Georgia] Board of Regents Makes us Sick” during a demonstration at the Georgia State University Campus in Atlanta, Monday, September 13, 2021. Faculty members and students from about 20 public colleges and universities in Georgia started a weeklong series of demonstrations demanding tougher COVID-19 safety measures, such as a mask mandate, in all campus buildings. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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09/13/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Wendy Simonds holds a sign that reads “The [Georgia] Board of Regents Makes us Sick” during a demonstration at the Georgia State University Campus in Atlanta, Monday, September 13, 2021. Faculty members and students from about 20 public colleges and universities in Georgia started a weeklong series of demonstrations demanding tougher COVID-19 safety measures, such as a mask mandate, in all campus buildings. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Georgia State professor: Masks and vaccines enhance rather than diminish liberty

In a guest column, Georgia State University professor Peter Lindsay questions the credentials of the Board of Regents -- all political appointees in the service of the governor -- to manage the state’s 26 public campuses, especially during a pandemic.

Lindsay is a professor of political science and philosophy. He received his master’s and doctorate from the University of Toronto and his bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Before coming to Georgia State, he held positions at the University of Toronto, Harvard University and the University of New Hampshire. His research focuses on matters of economic justice, as well as pedagogy in higher education. He is the author of two books, “Creative Individualism: The Democratic Vision of C. B. Macpherson” and “The Craft of University Teaching.”

By Peter Lindsay

Imagine you own a business, one that makes, say, widgets. Now picture your top executives. Actually, I’ll give you two pictures and you decide which one you like.

Picture One: your executives are men and women who know nothing about the widget industry. In fact, they’ve never even worked in business, as they’ve spent their entire careers in education.

Picture Two: your executives all have extensive experience in the widget industry.

Easy choice, right?

So why, when we change the scenario from running a complicated business to running the University System of Georgia, an equally complicated organization of 26 public campuses across the state, has Georgia for so long come up with the wrong answer?

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Dr. Peter Lindsay

Dr. Peter Lindsay

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Dr. Peter Lindsay

A quick glance at the current Board of Regents, the 19 individuals appointed by the governor to set the policies for those 26 campuses, reveals a collection of people who we might best describe as the mirror image of Picture One. They run a massive system of higher education, and yet none of them (let me repeat that, none of them) has any experience working in higher education.

What might you expect the outcome to be? With the widget company we might predict disaster. (Although teachers are fast learners, so who knows?) In the case of the USG, well, here’s the executive summary: The BOR consistently hands policies down that show little or no understanding of just what higher education is all about.

Here’s the longer version: in academia, there is one test for the ideas that are discussed, researched and taught: do they stand up to scrutiny? Scrutiny in this case means that they conform to the standards of the discipline in question, be it a natural science like biology, a social science like sociology or something in the humanities, like history.

Were academics to run the university system, policies might be slow in coming (academics are notoriously fond of debate, and, in any case, proper scrutiny takes time), but in the end, the litmus test would be hard and fast evidence – evidence relevant to the issue at hand.

Let’s use COVID-19 as an example. We are in the midst of yet another wave of the pandemic, one clearly exacerbated by the low rates of vaccination. What to do? Were academics in charge of policy, the response would be guided by two requirements.

Requirement one: follow the science. We have a virus that spreads easily and that can sicken and kill its hosts. The science is clear enough: if you want to stop it, contain transmission by using masks, social distancing and vaccinations.

Now that’s an important element of the response, but for academics, it only takes us halfway. It tells us what needs to happen, but it doesn’t tell us how to get there. For that we need requirement two, one often overlooked: follow the ethics.

In this case, the ethical question is straightforward: are people obligated to get vaccinated, social distance and/or wear a mask, or should they be free to do as they please?

For guidance on this question, many academics (across the political spectrum) would look to John Stuart Mill’s famous argument that people should be free to do as they like…as long as they don’t harm others. For instance, you can throw your fist around wherever you like, except of course into my face. At that point (just before it, actually), your liberty ends, and the state can step in and restrain you.

So what does principle suggest about an ethical policy on masks and vaccinations? Before answering, consider the Regents’ response: in the name of freedom and “personal choice,” campuses in the system are prohibited from issuing mask or vaccine mandates, and professors cannot so much as ask students if they are vaccinated (for COVID-19, at least – I suppose they can ask about the dozen or so vaccinations the USG requires).

Is the science being followed? Well, masks and vaccines are encouraged, so science is creeping in there somewhere. Still, the response seems tepid, and it certainly falls short of the advice given by this country’s own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And what about the ethics? On Mill’s widely accepted view, personal choice is indeed at stake, but in the opposite direction from what the BOR suggests: mask and vaccine mandates would enhance rather than diminish liberty.

Yes, mandates would coerce those refusing to wear masks and get vaccinated. But they do so just as laws prohibiting assault coerce would-be assailants.

And here’s the upside: mask and vaccine mandates would give actual, real-world liberty to those of us who wish to walk in public without fear of dying from disease. They do the same for those who want to return to the life they had two years ago, the one with movie theaters, concerts, restaurants and, yes, schools.

Mask wearing and vaccination are not matters of personal choice. They are matters of social responsibility – precisely what allows for personal choice.

While a pressing one, COVID is just one example of how the Regents’ policies ignore the very standards that academics work so hard to develop – one example, that is, of how little understanding that body has of the institutions it governs.

As go widgets, so goes higher education in Georgia.

The author of this guest column, Peter Lindsay, teaches at Georgia State University in the area of political philosophy.

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