California passes pro-vaccine bill, protects children

In a victory for children’s health, California passed a new law this week removing the “personal belief” exemption from the state’s vaccine requirements for children. Assuming that Governor Jerry Brown signs the bill this week–which no one is certain about–California will be transformed from a haven for anti-vaccine demagoguery to a state that protects children instead.

How this came to pass is a long tale, but the immediate impetus was the outbreak of measles in Disneyland in January–the worst outbreak in 20 years–which spread mostly through unvaccinated children. During that outbreak, we learned that in some areas of California, anti-vaccination hysteria had grown so widespread that more than half the children in some schools were unvaccinated.

And just three years ago, California had the worst whooping cough epidemic in 70 years, thanks to the anti-vaccine movement.

After the recent measles outbreak, California state Sen. Richard Pan, who is also a pediatrician, introduced SB 277 to remove personal and religious exemptions from vaccines in the state. In February, he and I were guests together on an episode of NPR's On Point with host Tom Ashbrook discussing this issue. Senator Pan spoke passionately and from direct experience about the need to protect children from disease. 

All states in the U.S. require children to be vaccinated in order to attend public schools, a policy that has been the foundation of our national effort to control infectious diseases. Under California’s current law, parents can opt out of vaccines for their children for almost any reason, simply by claiming a “personal belief” exemption. Anti-vaxxers have encouraged parents throughout the state to use this law to withhold vaccines from their children.

With this new bill, California moves back into the modern age. Without vaccinations, hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. would get sick every year with measles, mumps, whooping cough, chicken pox, and other diseases. Thousands would die, and tens of thousands would be permanently injured. School-based vaccination policies have essentially eliminated these diseases from the U.S. in recent decades. I should add that SB 277 still allows medical exemptions, for those (rare) cases where a child has a legitimate medical reason (for example, because he/she is undergoing chemotherapy to treat cancer) to forego vaccination.

Ironically, vaccines’ very success has allowed anti-vaccine propaganda to spread. Vaccines have been so successful that most people don’t even remember the era when these diseases were a constant fear of childhood. Thus when anti-vaxxers spread (erroneous) claims that vaccines cause harm–most notoriously, that vaccines cause autism–new parents sometimes become convinced that the potential harm isn’t worth the benefit. Vaccines are safe, as the Institute of Medicine explained in a detailed report not long ago, and they are enormously beneficial.

Anti-vaxxers will continue to make extreme, and erroneous claims about vaccines. Just two months ago, the noted anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was in California campaigning against SB 277, calling vaccines a “holocaust” – perhaps the most extreme scaremongering I’ve seen on this issue. An anti-vax group called A Voice for Choice announced Thursday, after the vote, that they are “pulling out all the stops” and will try to challenge the new law in court.

Let’s hope that reason wins out–that Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill and that California’s children are once again protected from vaccine-preventable diseases. We shouldn’t need another measles or whooping cough outbreak, or any more children dying of preventable diseases, to convince people once again that vaccines save lives.

Governor Scott Walker's attack on academic freedom in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker really doesn’t like professors. He seems to have a special grudge against the University of Wisconsin, against which he has launched a two-pronged attack this year.

It’s rare for a governor to attack the flagship university in his own state. Governors usually do just the opposite, promoting their universities to the rest of the world whenever the opportunity arises. 

What's more, Walker is currently campaigning for the Republican nomination for President. Presidential candidates usually try to make new friends and influence voters. It’s rare for a candidate to single out a large non-political group (other than foreign enemies of the United States, or other obvious bad guys) and systematically go after them.

Thus it’s surprising–startling, really–to observe how Scott Walker is waging a war on academic freedom in his home state of Wisconsin. Let's look at what he's doing, and then ask why.

First, back in January he proposed an enormous $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin’s budget, at a time when other state universities are finally recovering from the recession. Now he’s proposing to get rid of academic tenure, not only threatening faculty jobs but also destroying academic freedom for professors at the University of Wisconsin.

Walker’s attack on tenure was just endorsed by a major committee in the state legislature, which voted 12-4 to eliminate tenure from state law. The Wisconsin faculty responded that this new policy, if implemented,
“will inflict lasting damage on a highly successful institution that was built and nurtured with major investments by Wisconsin taxpayers over a period of 167 years.... It would be difficult to overstate how destructive and unnecessary the [legislature's] proposed changes to tenure and shared governance are.”
Why is Governor Scott Walker (aided by his legislature) attacking his own state’s leading university? One could hypothesize that he harbors some resentment over the fact that he himself never graduated from college: he quit school in his senior year at Marquette University. Susan Milligan at US News argues that this disqualifies him as a candidate; perhaps this criticism bothers Walker. But plenty of people succeed in demanding careers without a diploma–just look at Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Perhaps the reason behind Walker’s dislike of academia is that he thinks that professors are too liberal. If true, this is deeply disturbing: it means he wants to stifle speech that he disagrees with. This kind of repression of scholarship is one of the most important reasons for tenure in the first place. One doesn’t have to look far–hello, Vladimir Putin?–to find examples of how powerful politicians can suppress speech, to the detriment of their societies. As UC Irvine’s Mark Levine wrote this week,
none of academia’s core functions could occur without tenure and the assurance of academic freedom it enables.”
I wrote to Governor Walker's office to ask the question above, and also to ask if he thinks his actions will weaken the University of Wisconsin. His press secretary, Laurel Patrick, didn't answer directly, but responded that 
"the Governor’s original budget proposal removed all references to the UW from state statute in order to allow for the proposed authority to create its own policies.  This would allow the UW Board of Regents to address the issue of tenure going forward."
The leaders of a national university governing board association disagreed, pointing out that under Walker's proposed new policy,
"decisions about a tenured faculty member's service could be based less on performance and institutional finances and more on the political or personal views of board members."
I’ve observed the benefits of tenure directly many times, both at Johns Hopkins University and at my previous academic home, the University of Maryland. While at UMD, for example, I wrote several articles highly critical of the university president for his boneheaded decisions about the football coach. Many of my colleagues expressed similar views to me in private, but the untenured ones were unwillingly to speak openly. If we want scholars to speak truthfully, they need to be free of fears of retribution.

Governor Walker’s actions make even less sense when viewed from outside the state, where the University of Wisconsin is considered one of the nation's top public universities (currently ranked 13th among public schools). With his draconian budget cuts and his assault on the tenure system, Walker is sending a message that professors at Wisconsin should sit down and shut up. Some of them–those most able to move, which likely includes some of their best talent–might now be looking for greener pastures elsewhere. Come to think of it, we are recruiting for 50 new endowed professorships at Hopkins, thanks to Michael Bloomberg; perhaps I should be thanking Governor Walker.

It’s disturbing that Wisconsin's governor is using his power not only to weaken one of the state's biggest assets, but also to attack the free expression of ideas. I can't come up with any explanation for his actions that doesn't appear vindictive and short-sighted. This isn’t the kind of behavior I want in any politician, and certainly not in someone who wants to be the most powerful politician in the nation.