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Maurice Hilleman is perhaps MSU’s most revered alumnus. The famed virologist from Miles City helped develop dozens of vaccines, including a majority of those on the CDC’s Immunization Schedule. The lives he is responsible for saving number into the hundreds of millions. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, “If you look at the whole field of vaccinology, nobody was more influential.”

What, I wonder, would Hilleman—a scientist who lamented that politics, rather than science, often determined vaccine development and policy—think about the number of Montanans refusing to be vaccinated? And what would he have to say about his alma mater not requiring vaccines among its students?

MSU currently requires all students to have been immunized for MMR (available thanks to Dr. Hilleman) and to be screened for TB. These four diseases are rare in the U.S., and our vaccinations keep them this way. By contrast, the vaccine for COVID-19, a disease that has killed more than 1,500 Montanans, 600,000 Americans, and 4 million people worldwide, is only “highly encouraged.” To put this another way, the home university of Maurice Hilleman (“the father of modern vaccines”) is not requiring vaccines that have the power to end a global pandemic when it easily could.

We take a lot of pride in our STEM programs at MSU. Rightfully so. They’re strong programs that challenge students to learn and think and grow. But are we serving these students when we shrug at the very products of STEM research we’ve promised them can change the world for the better?

I have always understood the university’s primary function to be education in a broad but easily articulable sense: namely, to teach students to reason carefully and dispassionately; to be open to evidence; to employ logic; to resist superstition and tribalism; to take an interest in the larger world; and to concern themselves with the well-being of society. These are values, yes, but they are the values without which meaningful education is not possible.

And they are values that, I was pleased to learn, are reflected in MSU’s vision, which states “its commitment to address the world’s greatest challenges” and establishes its ambition “to improve the human prospect through excellence in education, research, creativity and civic responsibility.”

While COVID-19 vaccines offer MSU an opportunity to protect its students and the surrounding community from risk, they more profoundly offer it an opportunity to embody its own stated values and demonstrate that education is about something deeper than credentialing or expected future income. Of course, the response to this proposition is so loud I can already hear it. “Nobody tells me what to do.” “Don’t forget who pays your salary.” And so on.

If MSU is calculating that a vaccine mandate is politically unfeasible in Montana it might be calculating correctly. Nevertheless, the university might also calculate that this is an opportunity to remind the MSU community that good leadership is not a matter of doing what is popular but, rather, a matter of doing what needs to be done in accord with our highest values and responsibilities. We don’t assign Plato’s Apology to our freshmen because Socrates cowered to the will of the majority in the face of what he knew to be right; quite the opposite. As the delta variant surges across the country, MSU is in a position to protect its students and the surrounding Bozeman community—including children who cannot yet be vaccinated—from the worst-possible outcomes at the minimal inconvenience of treating COVID-19 like we treat measles, mumps, and rubella.

While House Bill 702 prevents MSU from requiring vaccines for faculty and staff, the bill “does not apply to vaccination requirements set forth for schools,” [section 1©(2)]. According to title 20, chapter 5, part 4 of the MCA, “The governing authority of a postsecondary school may impose immunization requirements as a condition of attendance that are more stringent than those required by [state law].” But even if MSU were to encounter state opposition beyond HB 702, it should nevertheless announce its intention to require vaccination. Let it be known which state institutions hold respect for science, civic responsibility, and the human prospect, and which do not; which state institutions are worthy inheritors of Dr. Hilleman’s legacy, and which state institutions are not.

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Scott Parker is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of English at Montana State University.

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