Mississippi trustees ban vaccine mandates at public universities

Dive Brief:

  • The Board of Trustees overseeing Mississippi’s eight public universities voted last week to prevent them from being able to mandate the coronavirus vaccine for students and employees. 
  • This appears to be the first case of a public college governing board prohibiting a vaccine requirement. The news was first reported by Mississippi Today.
  • The decision spurred criticism from the American Association of University Professors, which told the publication it was a “slap in the face” to those who sought health protections and a safe learning environment. 

Dive Insight:

Despite the coronavirus persisting across the U.S., policymakers in several conservative states have moved to curtail health and safety protections, restricting either mask mandates or vaccine requirements through new laws or executive orders.

Republican lawmakers present these actions as protecting civil liberties, but college leaders nationwide have pressed for more autonomy in making decisions to help impede the virus’s spread. Dozens of higher education groups, led by the American College Health Association, called out legislators in early August for passing public health restrictions and urged them to allow colleges to combat the virus using every available tool. 

The Mississippi State Institutions of Higher Learning’s board action seems to be the first time a higher ed governing body, and not state policymakers, has officially blocked vaccine mandates. 

The trustees voted 8-1 at a retreat last week to prohibit the vaccine as a condition of attendance or employment, except in clinical settings, Caron Blanton, a spokesperson for the board, said in an email. Three trustees were absent. 

At a meeting last month, the trustee board declined to mandate the vaccine for students and employees at eight public universities. But the details of that vote created confusion about whether individual institutions were permitted to issue their own vaccine requirements, Mississippi Today reported. 

A summary of that meeting states the board voted on a motion that “institutions are directed to refrain from mandating the COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of enrollment or employment” except in clinical scenarios.

Blanton said the most recent vote was intended to clarify the board’s position. The board also rescinded the motion from the August meeting. 

All Mississippi public universities require masks to be worn indoors and have directed symptomatic students and employees who have been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus to isolate and be tested. 

“The universities in our system continue to work very hard to encourage, incentivize, and enable members of the campus communities to get the vaccine and are having greater success at vaccinations than the state of Mississippi at-large,” Blanton said. 

Blanton noted that guidance from the Mississippi State Department of Health issued in early August recommends that students, faculty and staff be vaccinated, but it did not suggest that colleges implement vaccine mandates. 

The president of the AAUP’s Mississippi Conference did not respond to a request for comment.

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