Do colleges have an ethical obligation to require vaccines?

One professor from an institution that just mandated COVID-19 vaccination for the fall offers his take and what campuses might look like.
By: | April 22, 2021
Workers prep samples to be tested for COVID-19 in the pooling room Duke University. (Photo courtesy of Duke University)

College and universities that have mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for the fall have largely split along two lines: publics vs. privates.

Only two that receive state funding – Nova Southeastern University in Florida and St. Edward’s in Texas – have bucked those trends and both were met with resistance through executive orders. Many publics have taken a guarded approach, either stating they won’t require them (yet) or have stood by statements that “encourage” their communities to get vaccines. Many are still exploring options.

The privates have been much more definitive, with more than 60 now on board, including Princeton University on Tuesday, Lehigh University and Emerson College on Wednesday and DePaul University and Stevens Institute of Technology on Thursday. Most do not see emergency authorization use as an obstacle to the vaccination mandate because they say they are leaning on results, medical expertise and science to make their decisions.

Lehigh officials, in fact, said in a statement that “any vaccine currently authorized for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will satisfy this requirement,” while New York University leaders said, “subject to guidance that comes from public health authorities, NYU intends to require vaccinations … while accommodating medical and religious exemptions.”

The lines have been drawn, but so many questions remain. Aside from the potential legal challenges and pitfalls, do colleges and universities have an ethical responsibility to make vaccines mandatory?

“I think there’s probably a significant ethical obligation here, which is to say, if you have a university with a large community living on campus, then you have an obligation to keep it safe,” said Gregory Morgan, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., who specializes in ethics and virology, and is currently working on a book entitled Philosophy of Virology. “This vaccine requirement is not even really a new issue since we require students to be vaccinated for other diseases already. From an ethical point of view, I don’t think it’s that controversial for a university to require that healthy students with no religious exemptions get vaccinated before coming back on campus.

“One wrinkle is that since the vaccines have been only given emergency authorization by the FDA, they’re in a slightly different category than the pre-existing vaccines. There’s some reluctance of some universities to require covid vaccination because they think that this policy might be legally challenged.”

And if they don’t require them?

“There could be lawsuits coming in the other direction,” Morgan says. “If someone catches COVID and dies, perhaps the family can sue the university if they haven’t done enough to keep the community safe. We typically only hear the other side: are we requiring someone to give up their liberty to be vaccinated?”

It is why decisions have been so difficult for many institutions. They almost have to follow legal guidance when it comes to policy decisions. As Morgan points out, some decisions may change, too, if emergency use authorization is eventually lifted.

Many decisions remain for campus leaders

The judgments made by institutions and the willingness of students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated might determine what campuses look like in September.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll have a semi-normal fall semester with students being back on campus,” Morgan says. “But I think we’re still going to be wearing masks and trying to social distance and maybe having to change large events, such as commencements, for a little while. Classes will be going back to normal or somewhat normal. I think administrators will be pushing for continuation of some hybrid classes because we can enroll more students online at the same time.”

That may not be the expectation of students as they hope to see their college and universities much more fully open in the fall. But if the institution they attend hasn’t mandated vaccines, if variants are still a factor and a large enough percentage of its population still remains unvaccinated, leaders may not have a choice but to keep some mitigation strategies in place. How could they, for example, justify a large, mask-free lecture or gathering?

“Not everybody is going to be vaccinated on campus, some people by choice, others for other reasons that they can’t receive the vaccine,” Morgan says. “So, we still might be mandating mask wearing on campus and certain situations when there is a congregation of people. I think it will still be a gradual opening, and there will still be some social distancing. Things like dining halls, that’s one area where we have to think about half capacity so you can spread people out.”

Despite saying his campus will be open fully in the fall, University of New Hampshire President James Dean also said some protocols will still be in place.

“We do not anticipate that COVID-19 will be eliminated by the fall,” Dean said. “While widespread vaccination is expected by early summer, some precautions will likely remain in effect including testing and any decreased density or face coverings as recommended by CDC and state public health officials.”

Any reopenings will be complicated at institutions that have populations of students coming from outside the U.S.

“Some of our students won’t have the same access to vaccines that we do in the United States,” Morgan says. “What do we do with the students who are coming from China and India? There are a lot of countries around the world that will not have the vaccine in place. I’m from New Zealand and they’re not planning to get the vaccines until September or October.”

One of the biggest questions is how remote learning options may be handled for students abroad or for those on campus who might have some reluctance to enter classrooms they might feel are unsafe.

“Are colleges obligated to give more online classes for student that don’t want to go back to the classroom for one reason or another?” Morgan asks. “I think the answer is probably yes, especially where you have larger classes that normally have hundreds of students in one lecture hall. They might still be done online or in a hybrid format. The one thing that is a variable is whether we get further mutations that would require a booster vaccine. No one knows. I think that the pandemic will not have a sharp end point. At some point in time, we will all basically agree that we’ve got to get back to normal as much as we can.”