Two prominent university presidents are dealing with the fallout of COVID-19

Institutions in 26 states are still awaiting final word on the legality of some employee vaccine requirements.
By: | November 15, 2021
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS/FRED ZWICKY

Texas A&M University President M. Katherine Banks has tested positive for COVID-19, and Penn State University President Eric Barron has been forced into quarantine because of his potential exposure to coronavirus.

According to Penn State officials, Barron, 70, is fully vaccinated and has received his third dose of the preventive shot. Banks, 60, is fully vaccinated, although Texas A&M did not release whether she has received her third dose. She is isolating for the next week. Banks is among more than two dozen presidents of institutions of higher education who have tested positive for COVID-19 this year. All of them have recovered.

Both universities said the COVID-19 statuses for the two presidents interfered with busy schedules this past weekend. Among the big events were a pair of pivotal football games: Texas A&M’s loss to the University of Mississippi in Oxford and Penn State’s loss at home to the University of Michigan. Barron is a regular attendee of those games. He is also dogged about attending meetings but could not be at the last Board of Trustees meeting in person.

“President Barron is quarantining for five days until he can be tested for COVID-19 after having close contact with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19,” PSU spokesman Wyatt Dubois told PennLive. “Although he is disappointed to miss this week’s events, Dr. Barron is taking this step out of an abundance of caution in an effort to prevent spreading the virus further. He is asymptomatic.”

The news comes as the two university presidents are at divergent points in their careers. Banks recently took the helm as president of A&M in June after having served as Vice-Chancellor of Engineering and National Laboratories and Dean of its College of Engineering. Barron is set to retire from Penn State next June after what will be nine years in the position. The university’s board is in the process of finding a replacement.

Penn State has done well in staving off COVID-19 outbreaks on campus this fall. Its positivity rate has hovered well below 1% for the entire fall semester. Over the past seven days, there have been 29 positive cases among students and four among employees. A&M had more than 3,000 positive cases in three of the first four weeks of students returning (as it was conducting thousands of tests) but its numbers have dropped dramatically since, showing 23 positive cases from more than 1,800 tests in the past week (1.2% positivity).

Neither university has a vaccine mandate for students, but Penn State is requiring that all employees—regardless of whether they work on federal contracts to meet the Biden Administration’s mandate—are required to be vaccinated. Texas A&M and other institutions in the state are still weighing whether that mandate can supersede Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning vaccine mandates.

More than half of U.S. states are fighting those requirements from OSHA, which calls for compliance of workers who have ties to government contracts by Jan. 4, 2022. Florida is one of them, and its legislature is meeting today in a special session where it will weigh whether to impose fines against businesses who comply with the requirement. A federal appeals court ruled Friday to continue a pause on the Biden requirement, saying it is “staggeringly overbroad.”