To be a college student is to be political. American students protested and marched in the 1920s, the 1960s, and the 1990s, and they continue to bring their idealism and enthusiasm to public debates today.
I am the chief COVID-19 officer for the College of DuPage in Illinois, the largest community college in the state. I also support our students’ free speech and applaud their passion. Campus discourse teaches students to argue, think critically, and even change minds.
But today we’re faced with an issue that must not be politicized on campus because it threatens the success of our educational mission: COVID-19. Rarely has a public health crisis become so politically divisive and wreaked so much havoc within our institutions.
Regardless of where you stand on mask and vaccine mandates, there is no doubt that the protests, misinformation, insults, and sanctimony swirling around them have rattled our faculty and distracted our students from learning.
The nationwide political atmosphere has resulted in bizarre twists on free expression. At Stanford University, a student journalist documented many dozens of cyclists wearing masks but no helmets. At Indiana University, a group of students challenged a vaccine requirement in court, arguing that the rule violates medical ethics. And at Washington State University, the football coach chose to be fired rather than vaccinated.
Political speech is about exhibition. And sometimes the relationship between belief and action gets muddled. But turning a public health emergency into exhibitionist politics is having a direct impact on the health and physical safety of everyone in campus communities. And safety is a prerequisite for learning.
That’s why students and staff alike must leave COVID-19 politics off campus.
College and university administrators like me must make sure education remains our institutions’ focus. We must honor the intentions of those who returned to campus this fall, after a year of quarantines, canceled classes, and lost opportunities. That’s why, following guidance and legal requirements from state and federal authorities, many colleges and universities require masks, COVID-19 vaccinations, and testing of students and staff. The rules apply equally to all, whether young or old, healthy or infirm, and regardless of race or ethnicity.
Our colleges and universities cannot flourish if students, faculty, or staff embrace today’s poisonous politics around public health. If colleges and universities don’t flourish, neither will our economy. The pandemic has decimated businesses and left gaping holes in our country’s workforce.
Two million more people retired during the pandemic than expected. We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of working adults to the disease itself. Employers have increased hiring (and in many cases wages), but a lack of skilled workers means that crippling vacancies prevail across industries as diverse as health care, hospitality, and manufacturing.
Meanwhile, college enrollment has declined nationwide during the pandemic, with students stressed by financial difficulties, illness, and isolation. We can’t afford to lose another class to “gap years” that never end. Our country needs more students graduating, not fewer.
Students should absolutely bring their opinions to debates on campus. Learning through civil discourse is a time-honored tradition. But the politics of COVID-19 have become toxic, counterproductive, and dangerous to public health. Therefore, pandemic politics must be left outside campus gates so that the learning can continue inside.
Jim R. Benté, RN, is the chief COVID-19 officer and vice president of planning and institutional effectiveness at the College of DuPage.
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