For more than 400 colleges and universities, it is being billed as the ticket to a normal year on campus: Require all students to be vaccinated for the coronavirus before they can matriculate next fall.
From just one university in March to a dozen by the first week of April, the trickle has become a tide over the past month — depending on just where students are attending school.
In a divided nation, college vaccine mandates are mostly following familiar fault lines. As of this weekend, only 34 — roughly 8% — are in states that voted for Donald Trump, according to a tracker created by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Nine of those were added Friday, when Indiana University and its satellite campuses became rare public universities in a Republican-controlled state to mandate vaccines. Although the 400 campuses are only about 10% of the nation’s roughly 4,000 colleges and universities, experts say the political gap is likely to persist.
With many colleges facing falling enrollments and financial pressure, the decision whether to require vaccinations can have huge consequences. Particularly in Republican-controlled states, college presidents are weighing a delicate equation — part safety, part politics, part peer pressure and part economic self-interest.
On weekly conference calls with presidents of other colleges, the subject has become a frequent topic of discussion, said Katie Conboy, president of Saint Mary’s College, a private, all-women’s college near South Bend, Indiana.
College presidents, worried that students might respond to a mandate by enrolling someplace else without one, described a feeling of safety in numbers.
“People are waiting for a tipping point,” Conboy said. “They’re not saying, ‘We’re going to be out on the leading edge of this,’ but we are watching and waiting and hoping it will make sense for us.”
Indiana, a state where sheriffs in multiple counties refused to enforce the governor’s mask mandate, now has at least 14 campuses that are requiring the immunization, the most of any Republican-controlled state.
A total of 15 conservative-led states, including Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Mississippi and Alabama, do not have a single university that has announced a vaccine requirement.
A mandate is seen as the easiest step to protecting students, and for many colleges, the decision is an easy one — especially since many already require other immunizations for the flu or measles, mumps and rubella.
Because the Food and Drug Administration has authorized only the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, many universities have added a caveat to try to protect themselves from liability. Their mandates are contingent on one of the vaccines obtaining final regulatory approval, but they would allow students to return to campus after receiving any of them.
“The vaccine is one of the best things we can do to help us get back to normal life,” said Michael V. Drake, a physician and the president of the University of California system.
At the University of Idaho, in one of the nation’s most conservative states, it is also an easy choice — not to have mandatory vaccinations. Not a single college in the state has announced a vaccine requirement, and the immunization rate there is among the lowest in the country.
“We definitely have political ramifications of things we do as a public institution, and we want to be good partners with our state Legislature and with our Board of Education,” said Jodi Walker, a spokesperson for the University of Idaho.
Public universities — and to a lesser extent, private ones — in conservative states are feeling the squeeze from all sides, say college officials and experts on academia.
Desperate to reopen successfully, college presidents want as many students as possible to be vaccinated but worry about facing a backlash from conservative state governments. They fear losing funding at a time when many universities have seen a dip in tuition revenue, as well as running afoul of state politicians, whose goodwill and budget largesse they rely on.
“If you are a public college president, getting on the wrong side of a governor or state Legislature can be a career-ending action,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education.
Even so, Michael A. McRobbie, president of Indiana University, whose flagship campus is in Bloomington, said he did not feel pressure to decide either way.
“Less than 50% of the university population has been vaccinated,” he said. “The medical advisers who were involved in this don’t see how we can return to a normal state of affairs without the mandate.”
Long before any university had announced its plans for the fall, Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers’ campus in Newark, New Jersey, remembers getting a weekend call from the university’s chief operating officer, who wanted to know if she would support a vaccine requirement.
“One of the first things I thought was, ‘Oh, thank goodness,'” Cantor said. “We wanted to put our arms around our students.”
On March 25, Rutgers became the first major university in the country to announce a mandate, according to university leaders and the tracker.
As a public university, however, requiring immunization was tricky because none of the three vaccines has yet received full licensure.
The Rutgers policy allows some wiggle room, with students able to apply for a religious or medical exemption, a move copied across the country. And vaccination is only required for students, not staff members, a reflection of the legal difficulty of imposing it on employees. Now about one-third of colleges that have announced a mandate are applying it to both students and employees.
Some university presidents have cited the lack of FDA approval — which Rutgers did not include as a prerequisite for its mandate — as a compelling reason not to make vaccines mandatory.
“I think that those that are in the blue states are not following the law,” said Tommy G. Thompson, the University of Wisconsin system’s interim president, who previously served in George W. Bush’s Cabinet as secretary of health and human services, which includes the FDA. “All those individuals that have mandated it are really on thin ice.”
Along with needing to be on the right side of the law, universities are very aware of being on the right side of state politics.
In Florida and Texas, the governors have issued executive orders prohibiting businesses from requiring customers to provide proof of immunization. Whether the same rules apply to schools is not always clear, but the signals from state government are hard to miss.
One of the first colleges in the country to adopt a vaccine mandate was Fort Lauderdale-based Nova Southeastern University, which issued its announcement a week after Rutgers on April 2. That same day, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the order, cutting off state grants and contracts to local businesses that required customers to provide proof of vaccination.
A month later, the university did a U-turn, rescinding the mandate, presumably because it was seen as conflicting with the new law.
The university’s flip-flop has served as a cautionary tale to other colleges in Republican-led states. In Florida, there are currently no campuses that require a vaccine. In Texas, there are only two, both of them private.
But some college presidents in conservative states who have broken with the pack and mandated vaccination are pointing to the particular vulnerabilities of their student bodies.
“We are a historically Black college that represents a segment of the population that has been disproportionately affected by this,” said Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, a private institution in Dallas. “Our reality is a very different reality.”
Tom Stritikus, president of Fort Lewis College in the mountains of rural Colorado, described how representatives of the nearby Southern Ute Indian Tribe approached the campus to arrange the vaccination of their members who are enrolled at the university. Then, in an effort to create a protective bubble around those students, the tribe’s medical team went one step further and offered vaccinations to the students’ roommates and professors.
Seeing that kind of commitment made it easy to announce the requirement for the campus as a whole. “Any political blowback we would get, we think it’s worth it,” he said.
For the most part, the colleges choosing to enforce vaccine mandates in Republican-controlled states are private, name-brand schools not worried about meeting enrollment targets. The list reads like a roster of the most prestigious universities in those states: Tulane University in Louisiana, the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and Duke and Wake Forest Universities in North Carolina.
Most others are still trying to figure out what is best for their students and what is best for them.
Ronald S. Rochon, president of the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, said many of his students were local in a county where only 38% of the population has been fully vaccinated. The university has seen a 2% drop in enrollment during the pandemic, he said.
“That number tells me something significant about my community,” he said of the vaccination rate. “Enrollment does not drive all decisions, but I need to be mindful of that element.”
Regarding a vaccine mandate, he said there was still time: “I have not ruled it out, and I have not ruled it in.”