Rising Wabash College sophomore and Journal Review intern Io Maeda interviewed Wabash College President Dr. Scott Feller for this Q&A feature.
Q. What is the current vaccination rate?
A. We have been working very hard over the past few weeks to get everyone’s vaccination documentation. We have nearly complete records for the faculty and staff. And I think we have records for more than 90% of the students. Although a few students are a little late with their homework, we expect to be a universally vaccinated campus in a couple of weeks when students arrive.
Q. I heard from other people that the vaccination rate of Wabash College was quite low two weeks ago. For example, I heard that one of the sports teams had only 30% fully vaccinated. What happened in the short term?
A. A few weeks ago, we were lacking many. However, over the last few weeks, the number has gone down by half each week. It is rapidly improving.
Q. Why is it happening?
A. It is happening because school is going to start soon. I think a lot of people have procrastinated in sending their documents in until it was closer to school. We are rapidly reducing the number of students without vaccination documentation.
Q. Are students required to use COVID monitoring application?
A. I would say I have not made a final decision, but we probably will not use symptom monitoring at the beginning of the semester. I would emphasize that we are still finalizing many procedures for the fall. We need to see what transmission is like in the community. That will influence which tools we use from our toolkit. We had a lot of tools last year and we added the most important tool this summer, which is universal vaccination. Now, I feel much better because we have a wide range of tools that we can choose from based on the current conditions.
Q. If we no longer use the COVID monitoring applications, how is it going to change next semester?
A. What I think will happen in the fall semester is there will not be nearly as many restrictions. Last year, there were many things we needed to do. I think it will be a small number of things we need to do this year. One of those things is to get vaccinated. And then maybe a couple of other things we need to do. But I do not think that we will not need nearly as many procedures in place because the vaccination is a big addition. However, I think we will certainly continue to wash our hands or do hand hygiene. I think we will review the size of groups. There would be conditions where it would be appropriate to wear masks, but I think it will be much more specific in certain situations. For example, if you had a group of 100 people we are probably going to have some different tools we need to use compared to two of us sitting together having a conversation.
Q. Is Wabash College going to adapt to the post pandemic world?
A. We will adapt to a new world where all of our communities are vaccinated. The tough part about today is it is a very new thing to be a completely vaccinated community. We are figuring out how to adapt a universally vaccinated college that exists within the county and the state where not everyone is vaccinated. That is the big challenge.
Q. Is Wabash College planning to give some prizes for those who get vaccinated like other colleges?
A. No. However, my hope is that the prize is that we have a more normal year in college. I am very proud of all of us. Not just students, but all faculty and staff are also being vaccinated. To me, it is something that we are all going to do to be a part of this community.
Q. What is the mask policy for next semester?
A. That is a final decision that has not been made. And it probably will depend very much on the local conditions and depends on variant virus. I expect that our policies on masking will change over time. That is what it looks like.
Q. What do you think about the Crawfordsville Community School Corp. board’s vote on masks?
A. I have not followed that discussion as closely because I do not have any children in the school. However, I would say one of the things that goes into our design of mitigation is the fact that many people at the college have someone in their home, who is unable to be vaccinated at this point. That is not really true for the college students because you are all going to live with each other since you will be vaccinated. However, many people in our faculty and staff have children who are too young to be vaccinated, or they may live with a family member who is at elevated risk. Those considerations certainly go into our design of COVID mediation, everything from distancing to masking, to our vaccination program, to symptom monitoring, kind of determining which of those tools we need to use is what we need to keep the students, staff and faculty safe.
Q. What is the story behind the process of the vaccination mandate?
A. We examined the possibilities for a campus where everyone is vaccinated and where part of the campus was vaccinated. And what we found was that if we took away the tool of universal vaccination, it was just going to be impossible to provide the quality of student experience that we wanted. It would require us to continue the modifications of our facilities and our procedures in ways that detract from the student experience. In the end, I just decided that it was not feasible to operate again, without universal vaccination. And of course, the vast majority of the students, staff, and faculty were vaccinated already.
Q. What should the students who cannot get vaccinated because of their religious belief or health condition do?
A. Any student who cannot get vaccinated has been invited to contact Heather Thrush, Associate Dean for Student Engagement. She has an application form students can submit and will be considered by the college. All those students have been informed of that option.
Q. Are you worried about some parents and students going to oppose the vaccination like in other universities?
A. Certainly, some people are opposed to vaccination and some people are opposed to the idea of a required vaccination. Those are both concerns I have heard. I have talked to a lot of people and so have others who work at the college. I hope we have gotten to a place where their concerns have been addressed. I suspect that a small number of students may not return in the fall and that is unfortunate. However, on the other hand, if I cannot get everyone vaccinated, it puts the experience for all students at risk.
Q. What do you think about Indiana University having been sued?
A. Indiana University did address a lawsuit brought by some students who felt that the vaccination requirement was not appropriate there. As a private institution, we do have somewhat more flexibility in what we can do. I am sure that the president of Indiana University worries about many of the same things I did. I know that there are people who oppose mandatory vaccination and I have tried to be a good listener and to explain my view to them. I think the vast majority of individuals understand that being vaccinated is really a pretty small price to pay to come and be part of such a great college. And some will not see it that way. They will perhaps find another college or university and I am deeply troubled by that, but at this point, there is not a lot more I can do. It is the student’s choice where to go to school, and some students may make a choice I do not agree with. That choice would be to transfer to another college. I really hope no one does that, but I do know that it will happen. Perhaps, some students will decide they want to transfer to Wabash college, because they want to be part of a college community where everyone is vaccinated.
Q. Are you worried about lawsuits happening at Wabash College like at the IU?
A. At this point, I am not overly concerned about litigation. I think everything that we have done is well established in terms of following the recommendations of health professionals, so I think that is important. What we are doing is consistent with what our other peer colleges are doing. In our Great Lakes College Association, the vast majority of colleges are requiring vaccination. In our sports leagues, most of the colleges are requiring vaccination. We are really not out of the mainstream. There are a large number of colleges that have come to the same conclusion, which is that to fulfill our missions as educational institutions we need a universally vaccinated campus.
Q. What will you do if the outbreak happens again?
A. I fully expect that we will see cases of COVID-19 this year. While the vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death, they are not 100% effective. We should expect as a community with about 1,100 members between students, faculty, staff, living and learning and working together that from time to time someone will probably get COVID-19. However, everything suggests it will be mild and the probability that it is transmitted to another person will be dramatically lowered. The college is going to enter into the period where this is a manageable virus. My concern is the rest of the world outside the college where it continues to be an unmanageable virus.
Q. If students are going off campus, what are the expectations?
A. I would hope that students would be thinking the same things as me, which is every time I go somewhere where I do not know that everyone is vaccinated, I do take precautions such as wearing a mask. I would generally wear my mask when I am not with my family or small group of friends who are all vaccinated. When I go out in the broader community where there is a mixture of people, I follow the CDC guidance which is to wear a mask when out in public. In those circumstances, we should wear a mask because what we do not want to do is bring back a case of COVID-19 to our campus.
Q. What do you think about students going off campus to dine out?
A. I suspect that dining will remain a challenge. I have not eaten in a restaurant for a while. I think those are the kinds of things where we will need to continue to think about getting the meal to go so that we can interact in a safer way. I wish these are not things to worry about at this point in the pandemic. However, unfortunately, things have gone back to where any time that we are going into a crowd or a public space, we are going to need to think about which of our tools we use from our personal tool kits.
Q. Are students able to eat together at the Sparks Center?
A. I am not too worried about the Sparks Center because everyone who eats there will all be vaccinated. I trust that the students will distance themselves appropriately. We do have the tent set up again outside the center, so we will have outdoor dining, which is always a good choice. I think people will have more choices, but they are still going to have to think about their choices.
Q. What is going to happen in winter?
A. Since the beginning of the pandemic, what we have noticed is that things change pretty rapidly. Things are often changing every three or four weeks. When I think about winter, November and December, there are a lot of weeks between now and November. While I plan for that in the most general sense, I am not really thinking much about the specifics yet. I still think that being a universally vaccinated campus will be the number one thing we can do to be ready for November. It would have been nice if we did not need to be ready until November. Unfortunately, we have to be ready in August. We have to continually adjust our plans.
Q. Even though you said that the future is unpredictable, you still think about the future?
A. It is a good question. How we operate the college, it does depend in many ways on what is happening in the outside world. It is possible that we have a much higher rate of vaccination in our country before November. That would help. Many are speculating that we will see full FDA approval of one of the COVID vaccines in early September, which could move some people to get vaccinated. It is unclear when we might have the vaccine approval for the under 12 age group. However, if that happened, that could impact our plans because that would be one less thing that we need to worry about. I am actually watching the outside world pretty closely because I know what we want to plan for, which is a fairly normal Wabash college experience. At this point, my job is often watching the outside world to see how it could stop us from what we already plan to do. We plan to have a very great year with many of the traditional experiences. Mostly, I have to watch for what things could happen that might impact those. We will hope that the impact we are currently feeling from the delta variant subsides in a way that is helpful to us. Or perhaps, it does not and we have to keep adding more tools to our toolkit to make campus safe. I hope it subsides.
Q. Do you think the students can inherit the traditional Wabash culture because it was discontinued by the pandemic?
A. This year’s seniors will be the only one who had a full year before the pandemic. The juniors had about three quarters. That is so worrying. I talked with another college president about this last week. In college, the freshmen and sophomores often learn a lot from the juniors and seniors. As an example, we would have had a lot of juniors study abroad last year in normal times. They would have come back as seniors and they would tell freshmen and sophomores about their study abroad experience. We missed some of that. We will all have to work to make sure that these kinds of experiences get transmitted to other classes.
Q. Do you think Wabash College will be different after the pandemic?
I think our whole society is different from two years ago. I think the college is not immune to that. Unfortunately, COVID will at least be on our mind this year. It does not matter how many mitigation tools we apply, we are still going to be thinking about it. If we went back two years ago, nobody would have thought about a viral pandemic. I think we have all been changed, some for the good.
Q. What kind of environment do you want to have from August?
A. I mostly want an environment where people feel comfortable with one another again. The idea of distancing is a bit antithetical to our campus culture. Distancing is hard in a small residential campus, so I am hoping that we are able to enjoy the company of others again.
Q. How will the Gentleman’s Rule be going to apply for the next academic year?
A. I do not think there is any change. Everyone will be expected to behave as a gentleman and responsible citizen both on and off campus. The beauty of the Gentleman’s Rule is that it is timeless. It works before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and after the pandemic.
Q. Do you think the Gentleman’s Rule was less influential last year because there were additional rules due to the pandemic?
A. I think we have always called students to be responsible. Over the last year, we all, students, faculty and staff, took on new responsibilities. It seems to me to say that the Gentleman’s Rule is stronger than we might have given it credit for. I think the Gentleman’s Rule proved its value and its longevity.
Q. Do you think that the college was able to overcome the pandemic because of the Gentleman’s Rule?
A. I think that the community has a shared culture of personal responsibility. I think that was an important component of what got us through the year. I do not know that we will ever know exactly what got us through the past year. However, I put a culture of personal responsibility high on the list along with an excellent test, trace, isolate program, and a lot of other well thought out procedures for the year. If you do not have a committed community, I do not think those other tools would have done much.
Q. Are students still required to participate in the weekly tests?
A. I think we keep coming back to the same answer. We have a number of tools, but I am not sure which ones we will use. However, the one tool I know we are going to use besides universal vaccination is isolation. If students get COVID, they are going to move into another house. I am positive about those two tools. If someone was exposed to an individual, we will certainly conduct tests. The need for surveillance testing is still to be determined.
Q. What do you think of the medical staff?
A. I am very grateful for our medical professionals and healthy campus task force. Both groups have been working overtime for a year straight to make sure that we have a solid plan for the next academic year. I am also grateful that students, faculty and staff, stepped up to get vaccinated, especially those who might not have been particularly happy about it and I am glad that they are doing that as a commitment to be part of this community.
Q. Do you have some comments or thoughts you want to share with the Journal Review?
A. We hope to be welcoming people to campus this year, but we will also all be watching the course of the pandemic to see what that means for our events. Right now, we are planning to have fans at football games in the fall.