When Furman first announced its COVID-19 policies in the summer of 2020, the Paladin Promise was at the center of the response. Students, faculty and staff agreed to behave in certain ways — to wear masks, to limit close contacts — in the knowledge that doing so would enable campus to remain open in person. Though I was critical of aspects of the Paladin Promise at the time, the relatively low case counts on campus are evidence that it did pretty well at keeping Furman as COVID-free as possible. 

In the summer of 2021, it’s time for a new Paladin Promise. The administration should follow in the footsteps of Wofford and Wake Forest (and Harvard and Duke) by adding the COVID-19 vaccine to its list of vaccines required for all students. In return, they should promise that campus will fully reopen. No more mask mandate. No more social distancing. No more “hygiene theater.” No more limits on student gatherings.

Since early March, the increasing number of vaccinated students helped contribute to a dramatic reduction in cases on campus. This is not surprising: these vaccines are incredibly effective at preventing severe illness, death, and transmission. As David Leonhardt put it in the New York Times a few weeks ago, “if you’re vaccinated, Covid presents a minuscule risk to you, and you present a minuscule Covid risk to anyone else. … About 100 Americans are likely to die in car crashes today. The new federal data suggests that either zero or one vaccinated person will die today from Covid.” In an environment where few, if any, people are vaccinated, masks and social distancing are necessary measures to prevent the spread of this unpleasant and potentially deadly disease. Widespread vaccination totally changes that calculus.

There are legitimate reasons for students and their families to ask questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, and the university should do everything it can to meet people where they are and address those concerns. One approach would be to make the vaccine requirement contingent upon full approval of the vaccines by the FDA. The Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines all went through the necessary regulatory steps and are currently covered by Emergency Use Authorizations. Some institutions — including the U.S. Army — have signaled that they will encourage vaccination but not require it until after full FDA approval is obtained, which will likely happen next month.

The South Carolina General Assembly may present other challenges. Per the Furman Focused website, “some South Carolina lawmakers are proposing legislation that would prohibit organizations from requiring employees to get vaccinated,” and it is unclear “how that [would] apply to private educational institutions and college students.” While Furman references this lack of clarity as cause for hesitation, our rivals in Spartanburg have recognized it as an opportunity for action. Even if this bill becomes law and even if it includes language prohibiting private universities from requiring vaccines from students, Furman could always change its policies after the fact. 

Requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for all returning students would be the simplest and cheapest way for Furman to promote the health and safety of its students and recover financially from decreased enrollment in 2020. As a small liberal arts university, our business model relies on offering an in-person learning experience to every student. Last year, we made temporary but significant sacrifices that limited our ability to provide that experience, and we were right to do so. But now that vaccines are available to all Americans 16 and older (and soon to kids aged 12-15), people are going to be loath to fork over tens of thousands of dollars if the Furman Advantage is not restored in full.

Even as the rest of the country and the rest of the world struggle to reach herd immunity, requiring the vaccine would instantly guarantee herd immunity on campus and make masking and distancing regulations obsolete. Universities tend to be slow decision makers, usually for good reason. But dealing with this pandemic effectively has always meant taking a nimble, proactive approach and adjusting to new evidence. The evidence is now clear: widespread vaccination is our ticket out of this mess, and the available vaccines are demonstrably safe and mind-blowingly effective. Furman should feel no qualms about requiring them.