October 25, 2021

With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granting full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, more colleges and universities are enacting vaccine mandates for their campus communities. While requiring vaccines of students and faculty members will no doubt help to stem the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant across campuses, I question if such immutable mandates are the best approach.

For the record: I believe in the efficacy and safety of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. They are powerful tools in our toolbox to fight this deadly pandemic. Earlier this year, my wife, Jeanne, and I rolled up our sleeves to be vaccinated to help protect ourselves and others and to serve as examples for our campus community.

However, when it comes to strict vaccine mandates, colleges and universities are clearly at odds with the advice of leading psychologists, who say that presenting absolutes is the worst way to convince the vaccine hesitant to take the jab. In fact, following the science demands that we take the opposite approach: to move minds, you have to listen with empathy and respect, and if appropriate, to gently counter hesitation and fears with facts.

A deeper problem for higher education institutions is that vaccine mandates contradict our mission to cultivate critical thinking and decision-making skills in our nation’s next generation of leaders. We exist as incubators of thoughtful research and reasoned debate. After working in higher education for many years I’m still idealistic enough to believe that acknowledging dissent with respect and fostering discussion are the most effective ways to create positive change.

During my tenure in the U.S. Army, I taught leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point and at Vanderbilt University. Military leadership is greatly misunderstood in the civilian world. When you’re setting policy, the commander doesn’t just march in and dictate direction. Most high-level decision-making is participative. Experts collaborate on how best to meet objectives. If there’s no template, you go out and research the best ways to accomplish the goal. The ensuing discussions, and even disagreements, lead to stronger decisions and build the leadership team. When the Pentagon announced its vaccine mandate in August, a spokesperson noted that service members who refuse the vaccine would have the opportunity to sit with a physician and their military leadership to discuss their reasons for their decision and how it might ultimately impact them, their fellow soldiers, their units and the military.”

The military’s approach highlights the difference between management and leadership. Managers influence things, like budgets, payroll, calendars and organizational charts. Leaders influence people. In the case of vaccine mandates, most colleges and universities are exercising management: they tell students and employees to get a vaccine or don’t come to college. But as institutions of higher learning, we should be fostering leadership by motivating our students to research their options through credible sources, engage in thoughtful debate and recognize the consequences of their decisions.

At Centenary University in New Jersey, where I serve as president, we’ve taken a different approach perhaps influenced by my military experience when it comes to vaccine mandates. We announced our policy this summer, requiring that students, faculty members and employees be vaccinated. Like most institutions, we are providing for religious and medical exemptions. But we’ve taken the additional step of offering a third category, called conscientious objection.

All of the conscientious objectors, including students, faculty and other employees, whose vaccine concerns don’t fit neatly into the other two categories meet personally with me to discuss why they’re still hesitant. The latter category is by no means an “easy out.” To receive an exemption — signed by me — they must present a fact-based argument detailing why they haven’t been vaccinated.

The confidential discussions I’ve had with Centenary students in this category have been illuminating. Their reasons for refusing to vaccinate are varied — misinformation, fear, pressure from family and time constraints all play a role. We also discuss the consequences of their decision, including required safety protocols like masking and weekly testing for the unvaccinated, as well as the potential for them to spread COVID-19 to friends and loved ones.

While it’s time-consuming for me, these young adults are participating in a valuable learning experience. They leave my office with mixed results. Some pledge to be vaccinated right away. Others have promised to get the vaccine upon FDA approval, and I personally began to reach out to that group as soon as the vaccine was approved. While I’ve granted relatively few exemptions, everyone receives the courtesy of a respectful discussion with a person in authority who cares enough to listen. They leave my office feeling heard, and that induces many to get a vaccine.

With the Delta variant wreaking havoc throughout the country, colleges and universities have faced a delicate balance this fall. We must protect our campus communities as effectively as possible, and achieving high levels of vaccination is vital to achieve that goal. At the same time, we owe it to our students to provide them with the tools to develop into true leaders who can intelligently weigh the consequences of their decisions.

Bruce Murphy is president of Centenary University. A veteran, he retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel after a 23-year U.S. Army infantry career and then went on to serve eight and half years as the Air University’s chief academic officer, a U.S. Air Force senior civilian executive position.


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