Since 2009, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's Department of Journalism and Media Studies has hosted dozens of African journalists each year through a national program named for Edward R. Murrow. But a few days ago, word went out that this year's program is canceled. The given reason: Ebola. The real reason? Fear.
Last Friday, faculty and teaching assistants received an email with the announcement from Han Reichgelt, regional vice chancellor for academic affairs, who wrote: "Because of the border closings in some of the African countries, and medical surveillance and quarantines in the United States, I personally believe that the likelihood of USFSP introducing the Ebola virus into our community is extremely low." He continued: "However, it is also clear that, should we do so, the impact on our stakeholders, our students, faculty, staff and the community that we are a proud member of, would be devastating, and our first responsibility has to be to our stakeholders."
I am a graduate student in journalism at USFSP and also a teaching assistant in the department. I helped organize the program, and I think the decision to cancel is misguided. Why are academic institutions bowing to hysteria instead of reason? The speed at which the virus has spread and its unpredictable nature are not to be taken lightly. But when fear supersedes rational thinking, we all become victims, directly or indirectly.
The fellows who were scheduled to come to USFSP campus between Oct. 30 and Nov. 4 are from 14 countries, including two journalists from the Ebola-affected nations of Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Murrow program, part of the International Visitor Leadership Program of the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, has brought more than 1,000 foreign journalists to the United States since it began in 2006.
Even though three countries have been hit hard with a combined death toll rising above 4,500 since May, the affected nations have an overall population of about 22 million. To assume that everyone in those countries is carrying the virus is unfair, and to expand that fear to people coming from countries thousands of miles away from the outbreak makes even less sense.
An email from Dr. Deni Elliott, Eleanor Poynter Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy and department chair at USFSP, went out to the department. In it, Elliott explained the decision, saying, "It may be that some folks think that the decision to cancel the program was overreaction. It may be that some folks are relieved that they won't be interacting with visitors who are from a region where the Ebola outbreaks are not contained or from countries that share borders with affected countries."
USFSP isn't alone in grappling with this issue. But that doesn't make its decision right. We must not let fear overcome practical and rational threat assessments. There have been only a handful of cases identified in the United States. Certainly, caution is the right path during times of uncertainty, but the decision to cancel the visit appears to be driven by fear. If the USFSP succumbs to such hysteria, it endorses the overreaction of a few that borders on xenophobia. It is the role of higher education institutions like USFSP to set an example of how to combat fear and miscalculations of risk, rather than bowing down to the demands of a few.
Salem Solomon is an Eritrean-American journalist based in Tampa. She is the founder and editor of Africa-Talks.com, a multimedia news site tracking issues about Africa and the global African diaspora. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.