For more than 400 colleges and universities, it is being billed as the ticket to a normal year on campus: forcing all students to get vaccinated against coronavirus before they can enroll next fall.
From a single university in March to a dozen for the first week of April, dripping has become a tide over the past month, depending on where students attend school.
In a divided nation, university vaccine mandates follow primarily family fault lines. As of this weekend, only 34 (approximately 8%) are in states that voted for Donald J. Trump, according to a tracker created by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Nine of these were added Friday, when Indiana University and its satellite campuses became rare public universities in a Republic-controlled state to demand vaccines. While the 400 campuses are only 10 percent of the nation’s approximately 4,000 colleges and universities, experts say the political gap is likely to persist.
With many schools facing falling enrollment and financial pressure, the decision on whether to make vaccines can have huge consequences. Particularly in the states controlled by the Republic, university presidents weigh a delicate equation: part security, part politics, part peer pressure, and part economic interest.
Katie Conboy, president of Saint Mary’s College, an all-female private college located near South Bend, Ind.
University presidents, concerned that students might respond to a warrant by enrolling elsewhere without one, described a sense of security in numbers.
“People are waiting for a turning point,” Dr. Conboy said. “They don’t say, ‘We’ll be at the forefront of that,’ but we’re looking and waiting and hoping it makes sense to us.”
A total of 15 conservative-led states, including Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Mississippi and Alabama, have no universities that have announced the need to vaccinate.
A mandate is considered the easiest step to protect students, and for many schools, the decision is easy, especially since many already require other flu or measles vaccines, mumps and rubella.
Because the Food and Drug Administration has only authorized the emergency use of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, many universities have added a warning to try to protect themselves from liability. Their mandates depend on one of the vaccines getting final regulatory approval, but they would allow students to return to campus after receiving one.
“The vaccine is one of the best things we can do to help us get back to normal life,” said Michael V. Drake, a physician and system president at the University of California.
At the University of Idaho, in one of the nation’s most conservative states, it’s also an easy option: not having mandatory vaccinations. Not a single state university has announced the need for vaccination, and the immunization rate there is one of the lowest in the country.
“We definitely have political ramifications of the things we do as a public institution and we want to be good partners with our state legislature and our Board of Education,” said Jodi Walker, a spokeswoman for the University of Idaho.
Public universities (and, to a lesser extent, private ones) in conservative states feel pressure from all sides, according to university officials and experts in academia.
Desperate to reopen successfully, university presidents want to vaccinate as many students as possible, but worry about facing a backlash from conservative state governments. They fear losing funding at a time when many universities have seen tuition fees fall, as well as being affected by state politicians, on whom goodwill and budget reach depend.
May 22, 2021, at 9:26 p.m. ET
“If you’re president of a public school, putting yourself on the wrong side of a governor or a state legislature can be an action to end your career,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the Council. American Education.
Still, Michael A. McRobbie, president of Indiana University, whose flagship campus is in Bloomington, said he felt no pressure to decide in any way.
“Less than 50 percent of the university population has been vaccinated,” he said. “The medical advisers who took part don’t see how we can get back to a normal state of affairs without the mandate.”
Long before any university had announced its plans for the fall, Nancy Cantor, the chancellor of the Rutgers campus in Newark, recalls receiving a weekend call from the university’s chief of operations, who wanted to know if she would give support for a vaccine requirement.
“One of the first things I thought was, ‘Oh, thank God,'” Dr. Cantor said. “We wanted to put our arms around our students.”
On March 25, Rutgers became the first major university in the country to announce a mandate, according to university leaders and the tracker.
As a public university, however, requiring vaccination was tricky because none of the three vaccines have yet received the full license.
Rutgers’ policy allows some students to apply for a religious or medical exemption, a movement copied nationwide. And vaccination is only necessary for students, not for staff members, which reflects the legal difficulty of imposing it on employees. Now, about a third of colleges that have announced a mandate apply it to both students and employees.
Some university presidents have cited the FDA’s lack of approval – which Rutgers did not include as a prerequisite for his tenure – as a compelling reason not to make vaccines mandatory.
“I think those in the blue states don’t follow the law,” said Tommy G. Thompson, interim president of the University of Wisconsin system, who previously served in George W. Bush’s cabinet as secretary of health and services. human, which includes the FDA “All those people who have forced it are really on thin ice.”
Along with the need to be on the right side of the law, universities are well aware of being on the right side of state policy.
In Florida and Texas, governors have issued executive orders prohibiting companies from requiring customers to prove vaccination. It’s not always clear if the same rules apply to schools, but state government signals are hard to miss.
One of the first colleges in the country to adopt a vaccine mandate was Fort Lauderdale-based New Southeastern University, which released its announcement a week after Rutgers on April 2. That same day, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the order, cutting state subsidies. and contracts with local companies that required customers to provide vaccination evidence.
A month later, the university made a change of direction, overturning the mandate, presumably because it was considered to conflict with the new law.
The university’s flip-flop has served as a warning story to other state-run colleges in the Republic. There are currently no campuses in Florida that require a vaccine. In Texas, there are only two, both private.
But some conservative state university presidents who have broken the package and forced vaccination point to the particular vulnerabilities of their students.
“We are a historically black college that represents a segment of the population that has been disproportionately affected by this,” said Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, a private institution in Dallas. “Our reality is a very different reality.”
Tom Stritikus, president of Fort Lewis College in the mountains of rural Colorado, described how representatives of the nearby South Ute Indian tribe approached the campus to organize the vaccination of its members enrolled in the university. Then, in an effort to create a protective bubble around these students, the tribe’s medical team went one step further and offered vaccinations to the students ’roommates and teachers.
Seeing this kind of commitment, it was easy to announce the campus requirement in general: “Any political bounce we would get, we think is worth it,” he said.
For the most part, the colleges that choose to enforce vaccination mandates in states that voted for Trump are private, branded schools that are not concerned with achieving enrollment goals. The list can be read as a list of the most prestigious universities in these states: Tulane University in Louisiana, Notre Dame University in Indiana, Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and Duke and Wake Forest universities in North Carolina.
Most others still try to figure out what’s best for their students and what’s best for them.
Ronald S. Rochon, president of the University of Southern Indiana at Evansville, said many of his students were local in a county where only 38 percent of the population has been completely vaccinated. The university has seen a 2% drop in enrollment during the pandemic, he said.
“That number tells me something significant about my community,” he said of the vaccination rate. “Enrollment doesn’t drive all decisions, but I have to keep that element in mind.”
Regarding a vaccine warrant, he said there was still time: “I have not ruled it out and I have not ruled it out.”
Jack Begg contributed to the research.