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A professor at a university in Michigan is on paid suspension after he referred to his students as “vectors of disease” and wore an astronaut helmet, in a strange video posted to YouTube requesting his students not come to class.
The professor, Barry Mehler, teaches at Ferris State University in Big Rapids. The school of just under 15,000 students is one of a number of holdout campuses that have refused to institute vaccination mandates for students returning to campus for spring 2022 amid the surge of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 around the country.
In a video posted to his YouTube channel, Mr Mehler wore an astronaut-style helmet and declared that the universe was worried about the collapse of society on Earth resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.
He is a professor of sociology and the humanities, specialising in racism and the study of eugenics practices through history. Mr Mehler is also the founder of the Institute for the Study of Academic Racism.
“I just got in from Rigel VII, the intergalactic internet is all abuzz about this planet. I don’t know if you people have noticed, but it’s dangerous to breathe the air,” said Mr Mehler in the video.
The use of the helmet appeared to be intended as a joke, as he quipped that he had just flown in from “Rigel VII” - an apparent reference to the show Star Trek. A few seconds into the video, he takes the helmet off before continuing the rest of the address without the headwear.
Later in the video, he requested that his students only contact him via Zoom, out of a desire to guard against disease transmission. Mr Mehler is 74, and noted his age as a reason for his higher risk of suffering dangerous symptoms from the virus.
At one specific point, he joked that if his students don’t care “whether Grandpa lives or dies, by all means, come to class”.
He kept his joking manner throughout the video, although at one point he suggested somewhat seriously that his students were little more than opportunities for him to catch Covid-19 at work.
“You people are just vectors of disease to me, and I don’t want to be anywhere near you,” he said.
Despite the seemingly humorous tone of the video, the joke was not well-received by Ferris State University’s administrators, who placed Mr Mehler on paid suspension. The school’s president, David Eisler, claimed he was “shocked and appalled by this video”.
“It is profane, offensive and disturbing and in no way reflects our university or its values,” Mr Eisler told The New York Times.
The Times reported that Mr Mehler originally uploaded the video on 9 January, however, it appeared to have been re-uploaded this Sunday, 16 January.
Mr Mehler responded in a comment to The Associated Press, flatly stating that Mr Eisler “never liked me”, and added that the video was a “performance”.
“If a professor comes in and he’s all high and mighty and using words they don’t understand — that doesn’t help them relax and think. ... It was a performance,” he said.
The Independent has reached out for further comment from Mr Mehler.
Ferris State University does not require students to receive a Covid-19 jab before returning to in-person instruction. The university’s website does note, however, that administrators “strongly encourag[e] everyone to receive it, as we know this is the best way to assure community health and to avoid the disruptions seen across the country this past year from COVID-19”.
Students are required to provide a negative Covid-19 test administered within the past 72 hours before returning to campus from the winter holiday break.
Like many schools, public spaces and businesses around the country, Ferris State is also requiring all students and teachers to wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status, while in indoor settings on campus.