State universities join vaccine mandate with more than 200 institutions

Nova Southeastern in Florida backtracks, will not require vaccinations for students; Oregon State, RIT, Muhlenberg are the latest to sign on.
By: | May 5, 2021
Getty Images, Andriy OnufriyenkoGetty Images, Andriy Onufriyenko

Several more state universities and private colleges announced in the past 24 hours that they will be requiring vaccines for students who are returning to campuses for the fall 2021-22 semester.

The University of Delaware on Wednesday officially joined the 200-plus colleges and universities nationwide that already have mandated vaccination. Delaware State University went a step further, as some institutions have, in requiring that employees also have preventive COVID-19 shots. Both said they will accept religious and medical exemptions.

“This requirement is consistent with the recommendation provided by the American College Health Association for all students planning to attend college for the fall of 2021 semester,” University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis said in a statement.

For state universities, there have been questions about the legality of mandating vaccines that have not surpassed the emergency use authorization threshold for full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, several are moving forward to try to protect their populations and following guidance from public health leaders, including the ACHA. That includes Portland State University and Oregon State University, which made the decision to mandate doses for employees and students, except for those who do not come to campus.

Interim President Becky Johnson and Provost Edward Feser wrote in a letter to their community: “This decision is in keeping with our April 23, 2021, announcement that a COVID-19 vaccination requirement at OSU was a possibility, pending findings from consultations with health authorities and our review of state and federal policies, advice from public health experts, and guidance from other organizations, such as the ACHA.”

Other state university systems that have pushed forward with vaccine mandates include Rutgers University, the University of Maryland, the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Michigan and University of Colorado. Both the California State University and University of California systems have also required them once the FDA fully approves of one of the vaccines – Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson.

For private universities, decisions have come much swifter, although still with great consideration. On Wednesday, the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, the University of New England in Maine and Muhlenberg University in Pennsylvania all signed on.

“Vaccination is our ticket to the future. Vaccination will allow us to achieve a level of normalcy that has been missing from our lives for more than a year,” RIT President Dave Munson wrote to his community. “In addition, the well-being of our community is a shared responsibility. Vaccination helps not only you; it helps to protect all in our community.”

The pressure to vaccinate

Within the past two weeks, scores of institutions who were waiting for guidance have pressed forward. They are now in a group that includes some of the most notable research universities in the United States – Johns Hopkins, Duke, Emory, Stanford and MIT – as well as Ivy League schools Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Princeton and Yale. Still, there are thousands of others who are still weighing options or have chosen to encourage, rather than mandate vaccines for their population.

But as the semester closes and with only a small percentage of students age 18-24 fully vaccinated already, there is concern about the potential for institutions to fully reopen safely in the fall. Dozens of states and locales already have lifted mask mandates, banking on improving COVID-19 numbers and vaccinations. However, because of the threat of variants and potential spread among those who haven’t received doses, it may be necessary to keep protocols such as mask wearing, social distancing and restrictions on gatherings still in place.


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Perhaps the most intriguing element between the public universities that have made them a requirement and those that haven’t is that those decisions have largely fallen on political lines. Only a very few, including the University of Massachusetts and Cleveland State University, have mandated vaccines in states with Republican governors. In fact, Nova Southeastern University in Florida, which had held out as the lone representative of vaccine requirements of any institution in Florida, backtracked on Wednesday under pressure from a new executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis eliminated all COVID restrictions in the state (save for businesses and schools).

Most, like Rutgers, the California and Colorado schools, have done so under leaders who are from the Democrat party or states that leaned blue in the last election, including Delaware. They likely will not face opposition and have been able to present science-based reasoning for their decisions.

It is also possible that in the near future, one or more of the vaccines might get full approval from the FDA.

“For several months, teams of UD experts — including members of our Health Advisory Committee and Coronavirus Operations Group, composed of research and health experts, epidemiologists, and emergency management personnel — have convened to assess the research and public health guidance so that we may determine the best path forward,” Assanis said in his statement to the community. “UD has also continued its close consultation with public health experts in the state of Delaware and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In short, we know from nationally reported data that vaccinations are successfully preventing COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. For this reason, it is more critical than ever that our community works together to ensure that this progress does not stop.”