The University of Chicago has a storied reputation for free academic inquiry and informed skepticism. Indeed, the core of its academic brand is that people have debates here which would be off-limits and over the heads of people elsewhere. But in dull synchrony with America’s other prestigious institutions of higher learning, the UChicago administration has adopted a heavy-handed response to COVID-19 and ceded the school’s status as “contrarianism central,” both literally and figuratively. Unsurprisingly, other schools—namely, George Mason University—are picking up UChicago’s forfeited crown.
The Commonwealth of Virginia’s GMU recently nullified its vaccine and booster mandates, a dramatic shift from the booster decree that the school promulgated just a month ago. Conversely, UChicago has persisted with its vaccine and booster mandates, despite the heterogeneity of medical thought on teen boosters and the dangers inherent to mandate implementation.
Simultaneously, GMU announced that it will phase out the school mask mandate on March 4 if the campus positivity rate remains below 4%. This is a 180-degree shift from George Mason’s sentiment on New Year’s Eve: “Masks remain important tools for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and continue to be required at Mason as they were in the fall semester. Some health experts are calling for the public to upgrade from cloth masks to at least surgical masks or even higher protective masks (i.e., N95, KN95, or KF94).”
For comparison, UChicago has a strict mask mandate that bans students and professors from even lowering them to make themselves heard in class. Yet the COVID positivity rate among UChicago students and staff is just 2.15%, per the latest UChicago Forward update.
The vice president of GMU attributed the administration’s about-face on COVID inoculation to shifting state policy. Granted, as an NBC News affiliate reports, “On Friday, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares issued a new three-page opinion that stated universities ‘may not require vaccination against COVID-19 as a general condition of students’ enrollment or in-person attendance.’” But there is more to the story.
Miyares’ opinion was only advisory, as the NBC affiliate notes, and secondary to judicial interpretation. Crucially, Miyares’ words were buttressed by the New Civil Liberties Alliance’s vow to litigate against GMU’s booster mandate.
As the NCLA’s litigation counsel notes in a statement forwarded to the Chicago Thinker, “The threat of litigation, and knowledge that the Virginia Attorney General would not side with the University, evidently caused GMU to cave within hours of receiving both our demand letter and a copy of the AG’s advisory letter to Gov. Youngkin.”
Even then, GMU went above and beyond NCLA’s demand by rescinding the vaccine requirement in addition to the booster mandate. George Mason’s administration shows that some members of the Ivory Tower still have the capacity for independent thought in an era where mandates are the supposed sine qua non for combatting COVID.
GMU adapted to evidence showing the fallibility of masks and the reduced efficacy of vaccines in countering COVID spread. Thus, they are picking up the crown of free academic inquiry and informed skepticism that UChicago forfeited in adopting an authoritarian approach to COVID.
However, UChicago can reclaim its status as “contrarianism central” with a handful of policies that would again set it aside from the herd. First, the administration should immediately end the indoor mask mandate, as Professor Rachel Fulton Brown and I have pushed for relentlessly. Second, the school should do away with COVID vaccine and booster mandates, leaving this fraught issue to individual choice. Third, UChicago should suspend asymptomatic testing, given that South Africa—described by Dr. Marc Siegel as being “at the forefront of genetic surveillance and viral structural analysis”—recently exempted COVID-positive asymptomatic people from isolation.
If the UChicago administration carries on with its heavy-handed COVID program, free-thinking students may rightfully opt for schools like George Mason and Hillsdale College.
After all, George Mason—GMU’s namesake and one of our Founding Fathers—pinpointed the root of the 2020-22 medical hysteria in 1788: “Considering the natural lust for power so inherent in man, I fear the thirst of power will prevail to oppress the people.”
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.
Declan Hurley is the Chicago Thinker’s Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. A rising third year at the University of Chicago who is studying Economics and History, Declan is also a small-business owner, the editor of FDL Review, and an active participant in the politics of his home state, North Carolina. He loves to partake in the battle over ideas, and in his free time, he likes to exercise, read, and review public-opinion polling.