During the University of Mississippi’s fall faculty meeting, Provost Noel Wilkin, a pharmacist and scientist, expressed his dismay over the public response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This pandemic has pushed me personally and professionally to limits I did not know I had. … Never in my life have I witnessed the incredible cost of political polarization and misinformation,” the UM administrator told faculty Aug. 27. Within 24 hours, news would break that Mississippi had surpassed New York to become second the nation in COVID-19 deaths.

“Perhaps more troubling, I am shocked at the level of anti-science thinking and anti-science sentiment,” Wilkin said during his speech, a copy of which the Crirec obtained through a public records request. “The mechanisms to generate, discover, create, and implement the very solutions that plague us as a society are brought to us by science.”

The UM provost gave those remarks hours after a majority of members on the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning ignored the advice of two physicians on the board as they voted against adding COVID-19 vaccines to the list of immunizations that universities and colleges in the state already require.

USM Faculty Senate Calls For IHL Reversal

On Sept. 7, the UM Faculty Senate asked administrators at the Oxford campus to act on their own, voting 54-to-6 on a resolution in favor of a vaccine mandate. Less than a week later on Sept. 13, the Mississippi State University Faculty Senate issued a similar resolution on a 20-to-15 vote.

Neither Oxford nor Starkville administrators acted on those requests at their respective universities, with the MSU president telling faculty IHL had “clarified” that its resolutions meant administrators did “not have the authority without board action on this topic.”

But the IHL trustee who made the motion at the Aug. 27 meeting, Chip Morgan, had simply described it as one to affirm that “it’s our view that we would not, we would not impose any requirement on the universities to mandate vaccination”; he did not mention banning vaccine mandates. IHL insisted, both in its minutes and through its spokesperson, though, that the Aug. 27 vote amounted to a prohibition on universities and colleges issuing their own vaccine mandates.

After the Crirec pointed out the discrepancy between that claim and Morgan’s language when he made the motion, the IHL held a sudden, unannounced vote on Sept. 17 formally prohibiting COVID-19 vaccine mandates. That vote came three days after Mississippi officially surpassed New Jersey, an early pandemic hotspot, to become No. 1 in the nation in COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people.

This month, the University of Southern Mississippi Faculty Senate joined those at UM and MSU by issuing its own call for a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The resolution, which faculty senators passed on a 33-to-5 vote on Oct. 1, also rebuffs IHL’s mandate prohibition, pointing out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for use on Aug. 23 following rigorous safety and efficacy testing.

In the resolution, senators at the Hattiesburg campus also highlighted standards issued by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the accreditation body in southern states.

“SACSCOC accreditation standard 13.8 requires all institutions under its purview to take ‘reasonable steps to provide a healthy, safe, and secure environment for all members of the campus community’ (The Principles of Accreditation, 2018 Edition, p. 31),” the resolution says.

“Therefore, be it resolved that the USM Faculty Senate calls on the IHL Board of Trustees to reverse its decision on prohibiting COVID-19 vaccine requirements, and be it further resolved that the Faculty Senate strongly supports that USM require all recommended doses of the COVID-19 vaccination for Faculty, Staff, and Students as the best long-term solution in ensuring the safety of the campus community, reducing infections to a level at which the University can function normally, and protecting Mississippians and society as a whole… .”

‘The Work Ahead Of Us As Educators Is The Same’

When Wilkin, the UM provost, gave his speech to the faculty on Aug. 27, he did not offer a definitive opinion on whether or not IHL should have mandated vaccines, but did expound on the importance of science and education.

“As scholars, as members of a community dedicated to the advancement of knowledge in society and educating an informed citizenry, our role should be clearly important to you all,” the provost said. “Now more than ever, our role in educating individuals as to the benefits of vaccinations is as important as anything that we have done in years. I know that there are many among us who believe the only path is to require it of everyone, and we may get there at some point.

“However, as a pharmacist, I can tell you that at this time this is a public health education challenge. Even if it was required, we would be faced with educating people to get the vaccination to prevent us from facing more serious challenges and consequences. So regardless, the work ahead of us as educators is the same. And I ask you all to join us in that effort by learning the myths and the facts of the COVID-19 vaccines, and engaging the people with whom you interact on this topic.”

Award-winning News Editor Ashton Pittman, a native of the South Mississippi Pine Belt, studied journalism and political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. Previously the state reporter at the Jackson Free Press, he drove national headlines and conversations with award-winning reporting about segregation academies. He has won numerous awards, including Outstanding New Journalist in the South, for his work covering immigration raids, abortion battles and even former Gov. Phil Bryant’s unusual work with “The Bad Boys of Brexit" at the Jackson Free Press. In 2021, as a Crirec reporter, he was named the Diamond Journalist of the Year for seven southern U.S. states in the Society of Professional Journalists Diamond Awards. A trained photojournalist, Ashton lives in South Mississippi with his husband, William, and their two pit bulls, Dorothy and Dru. Follow on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].