Universities’ Vital Role in the Pandemic Response
Universities responded to the pandemic with sound science and advice. We can still do more.
In 1915, a year before the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health launched, William T. Sedgwick—one of Hopkins’ earliest PhDs and an elder statesman of epidemiology—wrote that if the new school was to distinguish itself in the firmament of higher education and public health, it had to “keep in vital contact with the traditions, customs and spirit of American Democracy.”
Three years later, Johns Hopkins—and other universities like it—got their chance to make good on this aspiration. When a deadly flu pandemic overwhelmed the world, academic researchers and clinicians chased the virus down in laboratories, treated it in army camps and cities, and advised health officials at all levels of government. The modern research university had truly made contact with democratic life in ways that advanced human flourishing.
Now, as we confront a pandemic on a scale not experienced since the 1918 flu, universities are once again playing the role of a trusted agent in combating this crisis. Around the world, they are conducting and sharing essential research into the nature of COVID-19, reporting data about its spread and impact, and coordinating with governments to shape policies that will spare lives and hasten economic recovery. They are training their research, clinical service, and policy analysis on staunching the tragic human loss.
Johns Hopkins is at the heart of these efforts. At the same moment that our University made the difficult decision to suspend all but essential in-person activities, Hopkins researchers launched an emergency, cross-divisional COVID-19 research program to investigate a broad range of issues from the underlying biology and treatment of the disease to its community impacts. In addition, the Bloomberg School has been partnering with faculty across the institution to shape debate around the efficacy and ethics of digital contact tracing and illuminate the health disparities faced by marginalized communities that are, once more, being exposed by this virus. And through the University-wide effort embodied in the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center website—alongside numerous briefings on Capitol Hill and at city halls—we have ensured that the public and policymakers are apprised in real time of the spread of the virus, testing, and tracing.
All of this work has been instrumental in stemming the tide of the virus and saving lives. But American universities cannot—and should not—take a victory lap just yet.
Sometimes, our best facts and most earnest recommendations simply aren’t heeded or believed. The answer to these difficulties is not to retreat from our mission to create and disseminate knowledge but to recommit to those obligations in a spirit of humility and persistence.
Despite the evidence that we have provided sound data and advice to guide the global response to this virus, we continue to see among the public a troubling distrust of institutions of higher education, one fueled by the same forces of partisanship and polarization that have been renting our polity for more than a generation. Sometimes our best facts and most earnest recommendations simply aren’t heeded or believed.
The answer to these difficulties is not, however, to resile from our core obligations nor to retreat from our mission to create and disseminate knowledge but to recommit to those obligations in a spirit of humility and persistence, and continue the hard work we have always done.
To do this, however, we must also carry forward the lessons of this moment.
The first is to engage more closely with policymakers and communicate our best insights to citizens and to the media in a clear and accessible manner in order to ensure that our research is informing democratic life and governance. The second is to redouble our commitment to our educational obligations and vest the next generation of thinkers, researchers, and democratic citizens with the ability to discern truth from fiction and the desire to use their knowledge for the benefit of their fellow humans and the sustenance of more resilient, safer, and more just societies.
We must, in short, maintain that “vital contact” with the spirit of democracy that has for so long been at the core of our enterprise.