The recent rise in COVID-19 cases has raised fears that mandates will be reimposed. In this context, it is important to assess the justifiability of university mandates. The COVID-19 vaccine mandates — whether imposed by governments, employers, or educational institutions — have been controversial for many medical and ethical reasons. A question specifically relevant to many colleges and universities, including the University, is whether the mandates are compatible with a liberal education.
Penn’s College of Arts & Sciences mission statement offers a classic expression of such an education’s aims: “to offering a broad education that will lay a durable foundation for critical and creative thinking…to develop the skills of analysis and communication that will enable them to perceive pattern in complexity, render reasoned judgments, make wise choices under conditions of uncertainty … to nurturing honest, eager, and critical minds.”
One can encapsulate these aims in the ideal of intellectual freedom. A liberal education does not merely seek to produce skilled workers and managers who will do what they’re told. It aims to cultivate well-rounded citizens who can think for themselves. This aim is echoed in Penn’s motto, "Leges sine Moribus vanae," or “laws without morals are useless.”
But the University vaccine mandates made thinking for oneself irrelevant.
The reason is simple. They replaced reasoned argument with a threat of force: Take the shot or lose your access to higher education, or your job. For those future “critical minds” interested in logic, the mandates were an instance of the known "ad baculum" (literally, “to the stick”) fallacy, which can be summarized as, “You should take the shot, because otherwise you’ll get kicked out.”
Penn imposed its first vaccine mandate in August 2021, and rescinded it nearly two years later, in May 2023. At Penn, the role of this threat, besides being obvious in practice, was reflected in the University’s public relations by the extremely thin justifications it provided for its draconian mandate policy. True, the first mandate was imposed on Penn by the Philadelphia Department of Health via an emergency regulation issued in August 2021. But the booster mandate, announced by former president Amy Gutmann and senior administrators in an email published on Dec. 21, 2021, was not required by the city, and indeed the city regulation was not referred to in Gutmann’s message to the Penn community.
This fact demonstrates that Penn institutionally endorsed the mandates, regardless of the initial imposition by the city. No medical justification was offered by the administration, except the following vague hand-waving in another email: “Your health and safety remain our top priorities, and we are committed to continually altering our public health guidance based on current data and the advice of our Penn Medicine colleagues, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, and state and federal agencies. In this spirit, the University will now require all eligible students, faculty, post-docs, and staff to receive a COVID-19 booster shot by January 31.” Failure to comply, for students, was punished by registration holds, which would prevent students from continuing their education at Penn. Faculty, staff and post-docs were threatened with disciplinary action, including termination, should they not take the booster.
We should recall that the booster shots, as well as some of the primary course vaccines, were only under emergency use authorization at the time. And needless to say, cutting people off from employment and education can have devastating consequences. Penn wielded a big stick indeed.
Perhaps the administration believed that trust in the institution would be sufficient justification. Penn community members were enjoined to believe that "your health and safety" were the administration's "top priorities," and that the various experts and civil servants they consulted shared those priorities and knew what they were doing. But even under that interpretation, the intense pressure mandates put on trust were bad for at least five reasons.
First, it created a paternalistic relationship with the administration, who are now entrusted with deciding what is in the individual’s and the community’s interest. This ran counter to the ideal of creating citizens who can think for themselves and freely choose their own medical procedures.
Second, it ignored the material reality of what Penn is. Penn is one of the foremost developers of the mRNA vaccines, and has made millions off royalties via the patents it holds. This created a massive conflict of interest for the University when it made those vaccines mandatory for its students and employees.
Third, to demand trust without transparency was self-undermining. People are more likely to trust a policy if the rationale and decision-making process behind it are transparent than if they are simply imposed.
Fourth, the resort to force may have covertly relied on informal “persuasion” through the media and social pressure. But surely a university that counts on media hysteria and the animosity of coworkers to do its job for it is not to be trusted.
Fifth, anecdotal reports indicate that, in at least some cases, the administration did not follow up on its threats to suspend registration. But even if Penn was more bark than bite on the mandates, this suggests something disturbing about the administration's chosen tactics: Penn was either trying to manipulate people's emotions in order to get them to do things to their bodies that they might not otherwise do, or the administration did not actually believe the very fear mongering it relied on to support its vaccine mandates in the first place. Either way, Penn's threats had a chilling effect on campus discourse and undermined trust in the administration.
Going forward, the Penn community must learn from these grave mistakes to prevent the administration from further eroding our freedom to think and act for ourselves.
GEORGE BORG is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
VINCENT KELLEY is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Music. His email is email@example.com.