“Shake off the fear, and be the Phoenix,” Medieval studies professor Rachel Fulton Brown tweeted on January 13, sharing a letter calling for a change in UChicago’s current COVID-19 policies and narrative. Addressing President Paul Alivisatos and Provost Ka Yee C. Lee, Fulton Brown warns against “[falling] in step with everyone else over fear” and the collapsing reputation of UChicago as a consequence. She invokes the University’s practice of asking “the Big Questions” and calls for UChicago to “stand out” and set trends. “SAVE OUR SCHOOL,” she pleads. It’s a passionate denunciation of existing University precautions, one that takes advantage of the fluctuating public opinion regarding Omicron’s spread and on-again, off-again restrictions. The letter, posted onto her blog Fencing Bear at Prayer (what an image that is!), has amassed over 700 likes and 200 retweets on Twitter. The Chicago Thinker also composed an article highlighting the letter. Fulton Brown, moved by the engagements to her tweet, declared that “something is shifting.”
Indeed, something is shifting. It’s not Twitter’s public opinion on COVID-19 safety measures, as Fulton Brown posits, or the University’s mask and vaccination policies, as she hopes. Rather, I suspect that many—myself included—have simply become tired of hearing the same rhetoric of anti-masks, anti-lockdowns, anti-vaccinations, anti-expertise, and so forth that has dominated COVID-19 conversations since March 2020. It’s exhausting to listen to and pointless to engage in, but alas, here I am. Although Fulton Brown is perfectly within her right to believe what she wants about COVID-19 and the efficacy of safety measures, her publicized rhetoric—elevated by her position as a professor at an esteemed university—undermines scientific consensus and helps legitimize and fuel conspiracy.
Fulton Brown puts forth the idea that we should get in front of the “mainstream narrative” as it shifts, and she reprimands this thread of following trends throughout the letter. Now, I recognize the University’s reputation of “quirky,” outside-the-box thinkers, but that distinction should be relegated to admissions essays or classroom discussions, not public health measures. The implications of pandemic safety precautions as simply a mindless following of the masses subverts authentic, research-backed safety recommendations. By brushing aside general consensus and reducing it to blind “trend-following,” Fulton Brown dangerously erodes at the expertise of, well, experts. With her platform and prominent position as a University professor, she can reach a wide, susceptible audience. It’s dangerous and, frankly, embarrassing to have the UChicago brand attached to this rhetoric.
In fact, Fulton Brown justifies her demands by citing a concern for UChicago’s “branding.” She highlights a list of immediate points of action the University should take: make public that there are those who received vaccination exemptions for refusing to get the vaccine, make public the faculty signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration (a statement arguing against COVID-19 lockdowns), and make public that the University has students “intelligent enough to see through the gaslighting and fear to ask the real questions we should be asking about what it means to be a great school.” The thing is, such information is already publicly available. A Google search of UChicago’s vaccination rate shows that more than 91 percent of employees are vaccinated, meaning just under 10 percent have exemptions. Fulton Brown wants the University to make public that they’ve granted exemptions, and indeed, there is information readily accessible regarding medical and religious exemptions. The demand further refers to vaccines as a “giant experiment” that has been “compromised by politics and haste.” This type of rhetoric ignores the numerous academic and scientific sources that have attested to the safety of vaccines and disregards the historical role our federal government has played in funding scientific research and development. And, if I’m being honest, it’s plain exhausting and almost futile to argue against. I can point to articles upon articles, statistics upon statistics, but in the end, someone can still refuse to believe proven facts. Nevertheless, such denial is something I envisioned on Reddit forums and comments by Internet trolls, not a reputable University professor.
Mentions of the Great Barrington Declaration reinforce the absurdity of the letter’s claims. The Declaration, drafted by medical professors from University of Oxford, Stanford University, and Harvard University back in October 2020, argues against lockdowns and advocates for “focused protection,” wherein those with less risk of dying from COVID resume their daily activities with no restrictive measures in place, thus building immunity to eventually protect those of higher risk. The World Health Organization, American Public Health Association, and 13 other public health organizations in the U.S. strongly condemned the strategy as unnecessarily dangerous and in defiance of public health expertise. However, Fulton Brown says, “We should have been the ones signing” the Declaration in the first place. Our current situation is widely different from our situation in 2020. A milder variant, widespread vaccinations, and deepened knowledge of the virus have reduced deaths significantly, allowing herd immunity to become a slightly more tangible reality than it was two years ago. Fulton Brown’s references to the declaration only serve to invalidate public health policies and sow distrust in public health experts. She cherry-picks the “SCIENTISTS and DOCTORS who have been willing to risk their careers” in order to legitimize conspiracies the majority of scientists and doctors have debunked. Of course, these scientists and doctors must be trustworthy—the all-caps certainly highlights their credentials. This disregard of scientific consensus is dangerous for a University professor to propagate. When such beliefs get repeated and validated back and forth in the social media echo chamber, they only become further entrenched and increasingly difficult to overturn.
The students “intelligent enough to see through the gaslighting and fear to ask the real questions we should be asking about what it means to be a great school.” an unmistakable reference to my peers at The Chicago Thinker, seem to be doing a great job of publicizing their distaste towards the “gaslighting” institution that is UChicago—if their Fox News interviews and verified Twitter retweets are anything to go by. I’m certain they don’t need the University’s help with that.
Professor Fulton Brown believes that our school and our very brand needs saving, that we no longer ask the “Big Questions” and instead rely on mass trends. Her letter—reading a lot like a patriotic call to arms (very fitting for her Medieval studies concentration, complete with a “NOW is the time”)—includes exaggerated, charged statements that easy Google searches can discredit. But the safety protocols we have aren’t the result of us jumping in front of a shifting mainstream narrative. Rather, it’s our willingness to remain flexible amid changing circumstances and surfacing scientific evidence, to empathize with our peers and colleagues and their varying levels of discomfort regarding an in-person campus, and to selflessly participate in a collective community.
Irene Qi is a first-year in the College.