Compelled consent or informed dissent: which will best serve Columbia University?
Guest Post by Spiro P. Pantazatos
In order to produce accurate judgments and optimal decisions, full consideration of opposing perspectives is essential. This openness to discourse is especially important in public health, where policies set by a few directly impact the many. Suppressing dissenting views might increase compliance with compulsory interventions such as lockdowns, mask mandates, and vaccine requirements. But if such policies are misguided, they may lead to unintended consequences that outweigh their benefits.
Notably, universities that prioritize and encourage free speech were less likely to initiate and continue COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Only four of the top 25 highest ranked U.S. colleges and universities for free speech climate on the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s 2023 ranking currently have primary series or first booster mandates. Columbia sits at last place in that ranking. Reflecting on Columbia’s own COVID-19 policy, and my own efforts to change it, serves as an important opportunity to determine whether the University should continue to prioritize compliance with compulsory measures, or instead encourage informed dissent.
The risk-benefit profile of the vaccine, which some studies have found to be unfavorable, especially in young adults, is what motivated my campaign to discontinue Columbia’s vaccine and booster mandates. In August 2021, I shared my initial findings with President Bollinger and the executive leadership of both the National Institutes of Health and Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and in August 2022, I circulated an open petition letter throughout the Columbia community. A major goal of the petition was to prevent Columbia from mandating the bivalent booster in the fall of 2022, which it was actively considering as of early September. Another goal was to provide the Columbia community with up-to-date data on the risks and benefits of booster shots to inform recipients’ decisions and to demand that the administration update its health guidelines accordingly.
Many responded to my email campaign by expressing their support and appreciation. Some shared their distress and trauma of having to receive a novel therapeutic in order to keep their job and livelihood. Despite these affiliates’ concerns, I was told that at Columbia’s virtual COVID-19 updates, the public Q&A feature on Zoom was turned off, meaning participants could not ask questions of administrators. The administration has also made life unnecessarily difficult for Columbia affiliates who objected to vaccination. I failed to receive a medical exemption after preparing an application and an appeal to the initial denial, despite being encouraged to apply for medical exemption. While applying for this exemption, I supplied numerous documents from various personal doctors who are more familiar with my medical status than the medical panel who evaluated my application.
The difficulty associated with securing a medical exemption was not limited to just me; I have also heard from Columbia affiliates who experienced extreme side effects to the vaccine that their requests were also denied, despite demonstrating how the vaccine could have been potentially harmful to their health.
Religious exemptions require a supporting signature from a religious leader, and my request was ultimately approved in November 2022 after providing many attestations from religious leaders. The vaccine policy was eventually applied to remote workers such as myself despite the email originally announcing the mandate stating that it only applied to those “present on campus,” consistent with its stated goal to reduce COVID-19 transmission.
In light of these events, can we really claim that academic freedom and informed dissent are valued at Columbia? In December 2021, I sent my preprint on data-driven, age-stratified risk-benefit analysis of COVID vaccination to Columbia COVID director Dr. Donna Lynne. Since then, I have been on the receiving end of inconvenient administrative actions. While some may have been in response to my status with respect to the vaccine policy at Columbia and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, the timing of other actions makes me believe they may have been a counter to my anti-mandate advocacy. In early January 2022, my paychecks were inexplicably paused, with health insurance ending in February, and even after I followed up many times, it was weeks before I received a response from administrators. I never learned why, though my paychecks and insurance were eventually reinstated in March.
In late August, shortly following the circulation of my petition at CUIMC, a decision was made to remove my Columbia faculty page. Later, at least one of my Columbia emails was disabled, and my requests to allow me to set up automated messages and mail forwarding on the other were not granted. Shortly after the dissemination of my second, much larger email campaign in late September, I received word that I needed to move out of my office to make it available for an incoming faculty member, as Columbia at the time had still prevented me from receiving either of the exemptions I applied for.
So, what can Columbia do going forward?
First, policy decisions should not be based solely on making people feel safe, “groupthink,” or blind trust in medical journals or public health agencies that are known to be financially conflicted. Decision makers should instead invite opposing views to the table and formally and transparently debate the pros and cons of each policy path. I believe Columbia should have experts independent of the President’s COVID-19 Task Force, such as myself, help guide and inform future policy decisions in an official capacity.
Second, Columbia should cultivate an environment that promotes disagreement and the free exchange of ideas. I created a listserv called “Columbia University for Science Based Policy” to circulate the petition and to announce other initiatives that facilitate informed and constructive disagreement on various Columbia policies. However, I was removed as an administrator and was subsequently unauthorized to view the listserv. Additionally, when reaching out to a department administrator for clarification as to why this occurred, I was informed that technological services would not send out any of the messages originating from the listserv account.
A good first step would be for Columbia to reinstate that listserv. We should no longer tolerate any administrative actions or policies that are meant to censor dissent and debate, because our health and well-being depend on it.
Spiro P. Pantazatos is a former assistant professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. He has a background and training in biomedical data science, health informatics, and computational neuroimaging. You can contact him at email@example.com. Twitter: @spiropantazatos; Substack: telemimesis.substack.com.
This OpEd was originally published by the Columbia Daily Spectator. Spiro was not given the opportunity to approve final edits and some sections turned out very differently than he had originally written. Spiro will post the original article on his Substack at a future date. Please click here if you would like to post comments in support of his article posted on the Website of the Columbia Daily Spectator.