With summer in full swing and the COVD-19 pandemic hopefully in our collective rearview mirror, the upcoming fall semester may be the first “normal” semester most students, faculty, and staff have experienced since Fall 2019. With this return, colleges are sure to implement new public health policies that are designed to give us a sense of normalcy, but still attempt to keep everyone healthy and prevent outbreaks. These decisions and policies are sure to raise questions and cause disagreements. Previous public health recommendations and subsequent updates from the CDC regarding mask usage, social distancing, indoor vs. outdoor gatherings with vaccinated/unvaccinated individuals caused understandable public confusion and even accusations, from some, that the science and scientists themselves were inconsistent, so their findings and recommendations could be disregarded. Given how politicized the pandemic became and continues to be and how partisan and polarized our country has become, it’s reasonable to expect this cycle to continue and for these questions and disagreements to find their way into campus classrooms as local health officials and college administrators make adjustments to policies in an attempt to keep transmission of COVID-19 to a minimum. In the meantime, we can prepare for these conversations by remembering a few things. First, science isn’t always perfect, but it’s the best tool we have for understanding the world. Second, maintaining integrity will help us avoid some of the pitfalls that organizations, like the NCAA, have recently failed to navigate.

I first want to highlight some components of integrity that are key to our understanding of the successful communication of science and changing of public behavior and attitudes to reduce infection rates. These components are honesty, transparency, and consistency. The public, including college students, want to see consistency in words and actions and when new evidence emerges that demands changing public health guidelines, they expect an honest and transparent explanation.

We also need to understand that as individuals working in higher education, we probably have a different perception of the scientific method and the relationship between science and integrity. To quote Sir Peter Medawar (1915-1987), “[i]n terms of fulfilment of declared intentions, science is incomparably the most successful enterprise human beings have ever engaged upon.” Science is the light that is leading us out of an incredibly dark moment in the history of the world. Advancements in epidemiology, genetics, and communication technology allowed public health officials to detect and communicate about the spread of a novel coronavirus capable of triggering a global pandemic in order for public health policies to be put into place to slow the spread and minimize the human and financial cost. As bad as it was, it could have been much worse. Science also provided us the ability to map the virus’ genome and share this information almost instantaneously so that an international effort could be launched to develop vaccines. While the many variants of COVID-19 continue to spread and we don’t yet have a full grasp of how bad things were or how bad they could have been, it does seem as if, at least overall, the virus is abating and we have science to thank for that. However, that does not mean that science is perfect, that mistakes weren’t made, and that mistakes will not continue to be made. It’s understandable that in a climate where science seems to constantly be under attack, staunch defenders of science would want to overlook, ignore, or gloss over these mistakes and perceived inconsistencies. Yet, this is where we can remind students that these revisions and updates, that they view as inconsistencies, are proof of science’s integrity. Science may not always get it right and it’s always open to revision and criticism, but it's the best tool we have for understanding our world.

A recent example of an organization that found itself at the intersection of integrity and science-based public health policies is the NCAA. The NCAA’s decision to eliminate the NC State Wolfpack baseball team from the College World Series semifinals caused outrage among players and fans. I’m not connected to NC State in any way. In fact, I’m not even a big fan of baseball, but if this story caught my attention, there's a good chance it may be a topic of formal and informal discussion in our classrooms this fall.

For those who are unaware, the NCAA established clear guidelines for testing and vaccinations before the tournament started. Unvaccinated players were tested regularly and those that tested positive were not allowed to play. After 8 NC State players tested positive, NC State chose to not forfeit their third game against Vanderbilt despite only having an available roster of thirteen players. When even more players tested positive following that loss, four of which were vaccinated, the NCAA was forced to eliminate NC State from the tournament despite the fact NC State was leading the series 2-1 against Vanderbilt and one win away from the finals. NC State players, students, and fans were outraged and there is little doubt that, in the minds of many, there will always be an asterisk next to Mississippi State’s name in the record books. To be clear, players and fans may be upset, but the NCAA followed the established guidelines and the NC State coaches and administrators have publicly stated that they accept the NCAA’s decision.

However, let’s examine the optics surrounding the NCAA’s decision and how it hurts their integrity and credibility. While the decision itself followed their established guidelines, the NCAA also chose to allow unmasked/unvaccinated fans to attend these games and even posted photos to social media boasting of record attendance (Game 3 had 24,052 fans) which clearly show maskless fans not social distancing. A key component of integrity is consistency and here is where the NCAA’s integrity has fallen short. Players and fans are right to point out the hypocrisy of the NCAA posting photos with crowded maskless stadiums boasting of attendance records alongside news that the NCAA has also eliminated a potential national championship baseball team citing health safety concerns. It would be easy to shy away from this conversation in class or simply point out that the NC State players knew the risk they were taking in not being vaccinated. However, I believe this is an excellent opportunity to discuss why consistency and integrity matters and how the NCAA failed its players and fans. As educators, it’s our job to fully understand the facts surrounding the situation and address the responsibility of the players who chose to remain unvaccinated because there are numerous misunderstandings surrounding the NCAA’s decision. We should also point out the inconsistencies in the NCAA’s messaging and discuss how they could have maintained their integrity, regardless of their decision to eliminate NC State.

The science behind the NCAA’s decision to eliminate NC State was sound, but there is no science, except economics, behind their decision to also allow unmasked and unvaccinated fans to crowd into stadiums. Their silence and lack of transparency in how they arrived at two very different policies for fans and players hurts their integrity as an organization.

As we return to campus in August, we will most likely find ourselves dealing with new public health policies from college administrators and confused, possibly disgruntled students. Regardless of the discipline we teach, we need to be ready to have conversations with our students about the integrity of science and how it's the best available tool to help us understand our world. We may also need to guide discussions and conversations with students, both formally and informally, about some of the possible inconsistencies students see in the policies institutions implement, where the breakdown in integrity may have occurred, and what could have been done to prevent and/or repair the damaged integrity. In science, there is value to failure. The same can be said for public failures in integrity. There is always a lesson to be learned and I can't think of better place to learn these lessons than in our classrooms.