The deep divide over college vaccine mandates in one state

In Illinois, could red vs. blue counties be a factor?
By: | July 21, 2021
Photo courtesy of University of Illinois/Fred Zwicky

The Illinois Board of Higher Education and the Illinois Community College Board recommended this week that postsecondary institutions across the state mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for students. Citing Centers for Disease Control guidance, the two organizations said it is the most prudent way to ensure a safe reentry to campuses this fall.

“We know many things have been difficult during the pandemic,” said IBHE executive director Ginger Ostro. “Students should feel confident campuses will be safe when they return and know there are resources available to help them.”

The 14 institutions statewide that have installed requirements have at least some assurances. Students on the three main campuses at the University of Illinois, for example, will be submitting proof of vaccines 14 days before they arrive. The university is making accommodations for those who cannot receive doses, but others who fail to adhere will need to submit to regular COVID-19 testing and wear masks. The others with mandates, including the University of Chicago, DePaul University and Northwestern University, have similar policies in place for those coming to campus.

But a look to the south and west, and Illinois still has more than 125 institutions that have not installed a vaccine requirement. Many have also lifted mask mandates. With less than 48% of the state’s population fully vaccinated and no law against vaccine passports, why have some not already taken the step recommended by the IBHE and Community College Board? Do they believe campuses can return to ‘normal’ by strongly encouraging populations to get vaccinated? Do they fear repercussions if they require students get them? Do they believe that emergency use authorization is not a strong enough tag to enforce mandates? Neighboring Indiana University just scored a huge victory from a federal judge against students trying to sue the school for its requirement.

Whatever the reasons, Illinois presents a window into the complexities of getting all institutions within a state to sign on. Regardless of efficacy and safety, other factors can sway decision-making. Political divide and influence might be one impediment. A map of the 50 states shows a crystal-clear delineation between say liberal-leaning Rhode Island, which has all institutions mandating vaccines, and conservative-leaning Idaho, which has none. The same might be said for states such as Illinois, whose county map shows similar divides and where patterns start to emerge.

Of the 14 institutions making vaccines mandatory, 13 are located in counties that leaned blue in the last election. The lone exception is Knox College, which is in a red county but one that did not overwhelmingly favor the previous president. By comparison, all three state universities located in counties with conservative strongholds—Eastern, Western and Southern Illinois—are not mandating vaccines. But Northern Illinois, located in blue DeKalb County, is. Could it be mere coincidence that only one college in more than 80 conservative counties has a COVID-19 vaccine requirement? Or could it be that institutions are simply making decisions that are best for their communities?

“Throughout the country, universities have been determining whether or not to require students and employees to be vaccinated,” Austin Lane, Chancellor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, noted in a letter to students on campus safety measures. “As we weighed the complexities of this issue, we sought input from SIU constituency groups representing students, faculty and staff, and we received varied perspectives. … We understand people on all sides of this issue have strongly held views, and we urge everyone in our campus community to treat each other with empathy and respect. We made our decision in the best interest of our university and our students, faculty and staff.”

Just because a university falls within a state or county border doesn’t mean it will fall along party lines when it comes to vaccine mandates. Bradley University and Illinois State, in counties that cast more votes for President Biden than former President Trump, are not requiring them. And they too have their reasons. Many universities are quick to point out in any communication that they may alter plans depending on public health guidance.

“Several factors went into this decision, including the numbers of people voluntarily getting the vaccination and the positive impact it’s having on COVID-19 positivity rates throughout the state,” President Stephen Standifird told the Bradley community in a letter. “Although we don’t require vaccinations on campus, I remain a strong advocate of people getting vaccinated.”