From the Office of the President, South Tennessee State College
Dear members of the college community,
I know that some of you are unhappy with my decision not to put in place a mandate for indoor mask wearing, regular COVID testing or vaccines at South Tennessee State. This decision, I assure you, was made after considerable thought and extensive consultation with several people I know. It is a reflection of my belief that the choice to receive a vaccine or wear a mask is a deeply personal one, best left to each member of our community, and that arguments about mandates should be avoided because, in the words of Georgia governor Brian Kemp, they “are causing people’s blood pressure to go up,” and the last thing we would want to do is endanger the health of anyone on campus.
Please know that we take the current pandemic seriously. We have acquired 60,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, several dozen COVID tests and enough masks for everyone on campus to wear one, in the event that they choose to do so. To quote another leader, Teresa MacCartney, acting chancellor of the University System of Georgia, “Everyone has the ability to get vaccinated. Everybody has the ability to wear a mask.” Whether they choose to take advantage of that ability is a matter beyond our concern or control.
Some have complained that our pandemic-related policies are inconsistent with other long-standing, freedom-restricting policies on campus, and I want to assure you that your voices have been heard. Effective immediately, therefore, I am making the following changes to campus guidelines and offices.
Smoking will now be allowed in all campus residence halls and classroom buildings. I hope that people will not smoke in those spaces, and I myself will not do so. But the decision to smoke and to assume the risks of smoking is, in the end, a deeply personal one, and it seems inappropriate to mandate that members of our community not smoke when and where they choose.
Driving while intoxicated on campus roads will be frowned upon but not cause for disciplinary action. Everyone on the campus has the ability not to drink and drive, and I hope they will take advantage of that ability. But really, once we have made that opportunity available, what more can we do?
The Debate Club is hereby officially disbanded. Nothing gets the blood pressure up more quickly than a heated argument, and what is debate, after all, but groups and individuals arguing with one another? Let’s all just calm down and stop worrying about whether or not we agree. Classroom debates and discussions of controversial topics, while not entirely prohibited, are discouraged. Faculty members should include on their syllabi as many subjects as possible about which everyone agrees.
The Title IX office will be converted to a combined coffee bar and workout room. We will continue to conduct rigorous education on the subjects of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and everyone on campus will have the ability not to engage in such behaviors, but since we are not formally prohibiting community members from engaging in some activities that harm others, it seems wrong to single out this area for any sort of mandate. As for federal regulations, well, we at South Tennessee State will not have our lives controlled by people in Washington, D.C.
Testing in classes may continue, but no tests may be required of students in any course. Forcing students to take an examination, or indeed to follow any rules in order to complete a course, is a patent violation of the individual liberties guaranteed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. All of us — assuming we are American — are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and I’m guessing that most of our students would pursue their happiness right out the door every time a test is given. It would be unpatriotic to restrict their freedom to say “no, thanks.” Plus, there’s that blood pressure thing again: nothing gets it going like a second-semester calculus exam.
Faculty members are required to teach all classes in person, regardless of personal circumstances or preferences or the prevalence of cases of COVID-19 on campus. While that might seem to be a restriction on individual freedom, we can, I think, all agree that we must draw the line somewhere.
I hope that these changes will mollify those who are concerned about the consistency of our policies and our respect for individual liberty. While we at South Tennessee State hope that people will not smoke in buildings, drink and drive, commit sexual assault, or skip exams, we don’t consider it our role to play Big Brother and tell them what to do.
And remember: we’re all in this together. Go Big Green!
Brian Rosenberg is president emeritus at Macalester College and president in residence at Harvard Graduate School of Education.