When will we be the University the World Needs?

On April 30, USFA Chair Allison Muri wrote to advise President Stoicheff that USFA members had voted resoundingly in favour of the following motion at the Association’s Spring General Meeting:

In the spirit of research excellence and discovery, and the need to show local, national and international leadership in vaccine development, education and use, the USFA endorses the following policy statement: That effective Sept 1, 2021, the University of Saskatchewan ensure that all faculty, staff, students and visitors be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before they are allowed on the University of Saskatchewan campus unless they have been assessed by a qualified health professional to be ineligible because of an underlying health condition or have a legally recognized right to be accommodated.

The letter emphasized that the rapid rise of new variant cases, the increase in hospitalization of younger adults, the fact that Saskatchewan has among the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 cases in Canada, the simple and straightforward reality that vaccines will protect us for some duration—if not from the disease itself at least from being hospitalized—all suggest that our university should take a leadership role on this issue. USFA members have real and legitimate concerns about the safety of returning to campus in the fall term. The letter urged the University to seriously consider adopting the strategy endorsed by USFA members to keep our campus community safe.

With great disappointment we learned through a CBC news story on May 2 that our University has chosen not to implement a policy that makes vaccination mandatory before the campus re-opens. University administration instead “expects” everyone who returns to campus this fall to be fully vaccinated, observing that “recent information indicates no other university has implemented such a policy.” 

The University of Saskatchewan, home to VIDO-InterVac—a world leader in developing vaccines against infectious diseases—should be taking a leadership role in Canada in mandating vaccinations before a return to campus. Our university has made significant investments in VIDO-InterVac’s efforts to create a COVID-19 vaccine and to build a vaccine manufacturing facility. Our university celebrates VIDO-InterVac’s efforts and those of other faculty members and students doing groundbreaking work in areas such as community health, infectious disease, respirology, and medical engineering. Does our university administration actually believe in VIDO’s efforts, in vaccines, in science? 

We know there are more infectious, more harmful variants that could be circulating on our campus in the fall. We do not know if our student population, usually more than 20,000 in number, will be fully immunized by then. We do not know whether those members of the campus community who have received or will soon receive their first dose of vaccine will be diligent about receiving their second. And yet we have had no confirmation that there will be adequate social distancing measures at the university in the fall when there might be more than 100 students in one classroom and significantly more moving through the hallways. Nor have we had any reassurance that there will be adequate ventilation in buildings on campus to help mitigate the risk. After being so careful, for so long, why would the university administration be prepared to take such risks? Stating “expectations” is not an adequate strategy.

The current institutional mantra is “The University the World Needs.” At a moment when our University could have been just that, boldly leading with a position that stands up for science in a post-truth world, it has failed miserably.