Vaccine mandates are necessary to save our public universities

Vaccine mandates are necessary to save our public universities
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Intervention from the federal government is imperative if our institutions of higher learning are to survive the pandemic. As many universities are barreling toward the precipice, their presidents, boards of trustees and even state politicians are dismissing both the scientific data and commonsense approaches to dealing with COVID-19.

Without vaccine mandates, these institutions are not only endangering their faculty, students, staff and local communities; they are tarnishing their centuries-old reputations. As faculty at Penn State University, we are watching the system unravel before our eyes.

As scientists, we have been baffled by our university’s lack of leadership and poor decisionmaking throughout the pandemic. But we are also anthropologists, meaning we peer through time and space to better understand why we are the way we are. And unfortunately, time and again the answer to that question is heavily influenced by a shortsighted approach to acquiring resources. The leaders of many public universities throughout the country are choosing money over the health and safety of their students, faculty, staff and community. The consequences are becoming catastrophic. 

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Our public university system has been the cornerstone of American innovation since the late 1800s. Today there are 1,625 public universities scattered among all 50 states. These universities are currently educating about 15 million students while providing employment to more than three million people.

The State College area has a population of about 100,000 and is the home of Penn State University, a land-grant institution chartered in 1865. With more than 46,000 students and 22,000 employees, the community is proud of the university’s long history of excelling in research and teaching. But that is rapidly changing. The Penn State administration and the Board of Trustees have made it clear that they oppose a vaccine mandate even though 10 of the 14 universities in the Big 10 Conference have done so. 

The news on Aug. 23 that the Food and Drug Administration had granted the first full approval to the Pfizer vaccine gave us hope that a vaccine mandate was just days away. Several other universities quickly adopted vaccine requirements that take effect this semester, including Big 10 rival Ohio State, but not Penn State.

This same irresponsible approach is being implemented at Penn State's famed football games this season. There are no vaccine or testing requirements to attend, and there is no mask requirement for the stands. On Sept. 11, 107,000 fans will pour into Beaver Stadium (the second largest in the country), while another estimated 75,000 will tailgate, most without masks. The likely result will parallel what happened in early August at the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, a mostly outdoor event that ignited a surge in COVID cases in South Dakota. 

Even with mask requirements in place at Penn State, the return to campus this week included a return to packed classrooms. Kirk teaches the largest anthropology course in the United States with 726 students in a lecture hall with 726 seats. When seated, each student is surrounded by 18 others who are less than six feet away. It’s akin to being on an elevator with 18 others for 75 minutes. 

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How can a university without a vaccine mandate excel under these conditions? How can we excel as teachers if our classrooms aren’t safe? How can we excel at research if our labs and our libraries aren’t safe? How can our students excel at learning if our campuses and communities aren’t safe? We already know the answer. We can’t.

Faculty across the country are protesting and resigning, research is slowing and students are receiving a subpar education. To protect their unvaccinated children, some faculty are using research funds to buy out of teaching. 

We are tired as parents, as teachers, as staff and as researchers, but no one at the university or state level will help us.  

According to a recent letter by Penn State President Eric Barron, the continued threat by the Pennsylvania legislature to withhold state appropriations prevents him from enacting a vaccine mandate. This $350 million stick that Harrisburg is holding equates to roughly 4 percent of Penn State’s operating budget. Enough is enough. It’s time to find a bigger stick.

About 11 percent (roughly $700 million) of Penn State’s operating budget comes in the form of lucrative military contracts with the Department of Defense and the Navy, as well as funding for research from federal granting agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Department of Defense alone provides over $50 billion in revenue to over 900 universities across the country.

Today we are asking the Biden administration to extend the vaccine mandate recently imposed on all active military personnel and contractors, as well as all federal employees. We’re asking for that vaccine mandate to be required for all 900 universities that maintain military contracts and receive research funding from the federal government. 

We also suggest placing a moratorium on all federal grant proposals from research institutions that do not have a vaccine mandate. This would not only solve our problem at Penn State, but would benefit the over 1,000 communities with universities throughout the country. 

If our universities are safer, our K-12 schools, our businesses and our communities will be safer. We all benefit. Let’s get back to teaching, doing research, learning and living normal lives. If this happens now, we might be on the path to a normal spring semester. 

Kirk French, Ph.D., is a teaching professor of anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University. As an archaeologist and filmmaker, his work focuses on climate change and land use practices. Laurel Pearson, Ph.D., is an assistant teaching professor of anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University. Her teaching and research focus on the genetic contributions to variation in human traits and population genetics.