Community in Crisis: Southwestern and the AIDS Epidemic

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By Elaine Goulden

While many universities have a responsibility to educate their students in practicing medicine, they all have the responsibility to provide medicine. The set of services present in a student health center on college campuses has evolved enormously, primarily due to new discoveries in the field of medicine as well as changes in the social dynamics of the United States. Putting Southwestern University in the context of the historical development of medicine and social justice establishes the university as an institution willing to acquiesce to change and generally providing the best possible resources for its students. Southwestern is also communicative and responsive to medical developments that best benefit its health services. A very current issue related to the development of medicine is the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and the changes being made everywhere to try to control the pandemic. Southwestern University officially moved the Spring 2020 semester to distance learning on March 19th, with school services (including the health center) being provided remotely. Southwestern’s response to this presently evolving case opens up questions to historically similar situations. The best way to historically observe Southwestern’s measures for adjusting to social change and developing needs of students is through the university’s handling of the HIV/AIDS crisis during the 1980s and 1990s.

Over time, there has been a significant improvement in treatment in the sphere of sexual health on college campuses in the United States. Beginning under the euphemism of “social hygiene,” prevention and treatment of sexual health issues on college campuses began during the World War II era. Due to the increasing number of women attending college as well as evolving degrees of sex positivity and freedom, treatments for sexual health became less taboo and conversations became more open. Since college campus demographics are mostly made up of young people, this movement could be seen in American universities. Unfortunately, one side of this conversation is significantly less positive than others.

The outbreak of HIV/AIDS raised questions about health that were never explored before, notably regarding the nature of the epidemic and how separate groups could be disproportionally affected by disease. AIDS, formally known as acquired immune deficiency syndrome, emerged as a “leading cause of death among young adults in the United States” in the 1980s. Somewhat surprisingly, college students attending school at the height of the HIV scare were a relatively low-risk group, to use the terminology of the time, for contracting the virus. This was due in part to the proportion of heterosexual students to non-heterosexual students, since the primary reason that heterosexual adults would be at risk was associated with conditions of poverty. Therefore, most students of universities were “not in sexual networks that will include a significant proportion of heterosexual partners who have HIV.” This is not to say that a low risk level meant no action was taken. In a conference held at Southwestern regarding the outbreak, assistant professor of sociology Edward L. Kain emphasized the impact that diseases could have on a population, and warned against developing an “us vs. them” mentality. Kain made it clear that just because you “don’t fall into a high risk group, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to get it.”

The low-risk environment of college campuses could be partially attributed to the response universities had to the outbreak in terms of education and prevention. Once information about the issue became more accessible and de-stigmatized, many institutions developed non-discriminatory policies towards students with HIV, experimented with peer education programs, and implemented risk assessment in health centers. It also became essential to prevent the spread of misinformation and harmful rumors. Edward Kain discussed this problem through research he conducted with his sociology students at the time of the outbreak. He concluded that rumors are born from panic, created to fill in gaps where knowledge is lacking. Kain found this to be important because the public’s attitude towards AIDS would “determine how effectively the disease is treated medically and educationally.” It was of great consequence that the knowledge cultivated by a community (in this case, Southwestern University) was accurate and easily transmitted to the public.

Since the sole purpose of a university’s health center is to make medical knowledge and practice readily available to its students, the AIDS epidemic is an appropriate lens through which to assess Southwestern’s care of its students. At the height of the epidemic (and once it had become clear that this was a health threat that went beyond sexual orientation), it became vital for universities to “sponsor programs that inform students about the disease and advocate for measures to prevent transmission of the virus.” While there are no records indicating the presence of HIV antibody testing on campus at Southwestern, a 1987 issue of the Megaphone contains an article written by health center employee Jan Pickett about the issue of testing. The article gives general information regarding the importance of at-risk individuals being tested, what a test entails, and various locations and phone numbers of testing institutions. Pickett notes the importance of practicing safe sex and adopting any changes necessary to protect from the virus, making it clear that receiving a negative test result is not protection in and of itself. Additionally, there is an issue of the Megaphone published the year prior containing an article titled “Let’s talk about AIDS.” The article not only gives basic information on the AIDS crisis, but it also announces a panel discussion to take place on campus in which professionals with broad knowledge and perspective on the issue would inform students and answer questions. The panel was to include a nurse specialist, the director of the Austin AIDS Project, the Deputy Director of the Williamson County Health Department, and an AIDS patient. This event especially showcases Southwestern’s willingness to adapt and provide necessary aid to its students.

In tandem with societal attitudes of the time, mentions of the gay liberation movement or the AIDS epidemic in the 1970s and 1980s in Southwestern publications were made with a tendency towards anonymity. The aforementioned article by Jan Pickett emphasizes locations for anonymous testing and promises to protect the secrecy of students visiting her office for HIV/AIDS-related questions. The first article found in the Megaphone that directly discusses the gay rights movement is from 1973, titled “Suppressed Minority: A Concerned Student Speaks Out.” The anonymous student writes to the readers, pleading for equality and understanding on campus and implying that they had faced discrimination while attending Southwestern. Therefore, it would appear it was not until the mid-to-late 1980s and the breakout of AIDS that homosexuality became a topic of sincere conversation on Southwestern campus and something under the eye of health services.

The health center, in this case, acts as a middleman in the transmission of medical knowledge, though in some cases more quickly and effectively than in others. While it can be assumed that those employed within the health center are aptly qualified for their position, the changing nature of medicine requires communication of knowledge both within the field and beyond it. The evolving breadth of services provided and medical standards of the student body at Southwestern implies that this communication has been constantly occurring throughout the school’s history, as shown through samples of blank student health records from 2004 and 2018 (actual student records are not attainable due to confidentiality), requiring more and more immunizations and stamps of approval from physicians prior to attending the university. Since Southwestern does not have its own practice of medical research, discoveries, treatments, and anything else that could benefit the student body is presumably acquired from outside, credible sources. The university has done its part to remain up to date on medical developments and has adjusted its policies accordingly

The history of medicine, and more specifically of medicine on college campuses, reveals a great deal about the nature of social dynamics both within a student body and within the institution itself. The liberal arts environment of Southwestern has lent to its increasingly open attitude towards change in social justice, and the relationship between these changes and medical issues can be observed through the history of health services. There have been areas in which the university’s health center has found itself behind the times, such as in the case of the delay in providing women’s health services. But otherwise, there has been a general urgency to keep up with the evolving medical needs of students.

Barrera, Martha. “Let’s talk about AIDS,” The Megaphone, January 30, 1986, https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth634603/.

Cohen, Elliot D., and Michael Davis, eds. AIDS: Crisis in Professional Ethics. Temple University Press, 1994. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt14bt3gc.

Franki, Marie. “Health Services adds new doctors,” The Megaphone, September 21, 2006, https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth634759/.

“Health Record,” Form. Georgetown, TX: Southwestern University, Special Collections, May 2004.

Pickett, Jan. “Living Well at Southwestern,” The Megaphone, October 30, 1987, https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth634509/.

Rollins, Laura. “AIDS: from SU to the World,” Williamson County Sun, November 14, 1987, 12.

“Southwestern seminar eyes AIDS and society,” Williamson County Sun, November 1, 1987.

“Student Health Record,” Form. Georgetown, TX: Southwestern University, Special Collections, 2018.

“Suppressed Minority: A Concerned Student Speaks Out,” The Megaphone, May 4, 1973, https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth634200/.

Turner, H. Spencer, and Janet L. Hurley, eds. The History and Practice of College Health. University Press of Kentucky, 2002. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130j9xw.

Community in Crisis: Southwestern and the AIDS Epidemic