Don’t Ask Questions. Just Do What We Tell You.

by James A. Bacon

Walter Smith, a University of Virginia alumnus, was miffed when UVa leadership mandated that all students must be vaccinated if they are to return to the university in the fall. His daughter, a UVa student, had caught the COVID-19 virus, lived through 10 days of quarantine, acquired natural immunities, and was at near-zero risk of spreading the virus. He saw no purpose in exposing her to whatever dangers might be associated with taking the vaccine. Moreover, he had concerns about health-privacy violations as well as philosophical objections of a civil-liberties nature.

You may disagree with Smith’s characterization of the vaccination mandate — which has been adopted at most other Virginia public universities, incidentally — as “un-American, un-scientific, [and] totalitarian.” But if you believe in transparency, then you should be concerned about what happened when Smith tried to ascertain UVa’s reasoning for the requirement.

News reports were worthless. In May Smith wrote UVa President Jim Ryan and Rector James Murray to ask the justification for the mandate. Ryan did not respond, but Murray did. He wrote:

The University’s vaccination policies were developed by the administration closely following advice from doctors, infectious disease specialists and public health experts at the UVA Medical School and Health System. We appreciate that you might have made different decisions.

To Smith, that wasn’t much of an answer. He fired back to Murray: “Persuade me why the vaccines are superior to her natural immunity. Persuade me why the [Emergency Use Authorization] vaccines are known to be safe — you can’t because they are not known to be so — you suspect so, and I deserve- – every parent deserves — some display of the calculus that led UVA” make its mandate.

Smith received no answer.

Determined to find out what advice the doctors, infectious disease specialists and public health experts at the UVa medical school might have provided, Smith filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

The response from UVa’s FOIA officer, Jennifer Mackrous: “Records responsive to the portion of your response requesting ‘advice, in all forms’ have been determined to be working papers of the President of the University.”

Smith was irate. He had not requested Ryan’s working papers, which are, properly defined, records prepared by or for a public official subdivision for his personal or deliberative use. Smith wanted to know what advice Murray and fellow members of the Board of Visitors were following when they approved the mandate.

“Does the BoV not need to see any paperwork and just accept President Ryan’s recommendations as Holy Writ?” he asks.

“Parents and students deserve to know how this decision was made and if it makes sense,” Smith says. “My child is my child, not UVA’s. I do not believe it is medically warranted or necessary on a public health basis, and I do believe it is illegal under federal law. … If President Ryan and the BoV and the [Attorney General] are so sure of the propriety of the vaccine mandate decision, why not let this history major try to shoot holes in it? Prove me wrong. Why not appear to believe in a fair process and the rational pursuit of truth?”

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m not as agitated as Smith is about the vaccination mandate. But the decision to require vaccinations is a significant judgment call affecting thousands of students, and I do believe parents and students are entitled to know the thinking behind it.

Why would the university shroud its reasoning? COVID-19, after all, is a public health emergency. Shouldn’t the public be informed of the thinking behind public health measures? Isn’t transparency all the more called for at a university that prides itself on its Jeffersonian tradition of open inquiry?

Just because his working papers are protected doesn’t mean Ryan cannot release them if he chose to. Why would he not want to explain the thinking behind this most consequential of decisions? Wouldn’t everyone be better off knowing the reasons?

Full disclosure: Smith and I both serve on the board of The Jefferson Council, an organization devoted to preserving the Jeffersonian tradition at UVa.