Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Pennsylvania’s state colleges say they can’t require vaccines. Some faculty think politics are at play.

Pennsylvania’s university system says it would need legislation to require vaccines. Some faculty leaders question that and say if that’s true, system leadership should be asking for it.

Millersville University president Daniel Wubah says he would require the COVID-19 vaccine if there was a law permitting it.
Millersville University president Daniel Wubah says he would require the COVID-19 vaccine if there was a law permitting it.Read moreBradley C Bower / For The Inquirer

Millersville University will require students moving into its residence halls this month to show proof they are vaccinated against COVID-19 or had a negative test result within the last 72 hours.

The university’s president, Daniel Wubah, wishes he could require vaccination for all students living on the campus in Lancaster County, where viral transmission is at a “substantial” level.

“As a microbiologist, I think that is one of the safest ways to prevent the spread of the pathogen in any community,” Wubah said.

But Millersville is one of 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which maintains that its schools would need legislative approval to require vaccinations. Their assertion is based on a 2002 state law that allowed the universities to mandate the meningitis vaccine. In addition, chancellor Daniel Greenstein said the 1982 act that created the state system does not give it authority to regulate public health, including mandating vaccines.

“The legal analysis appears to be robust, and it is what it is,” Greenstein said.

His comments come as faculty at state universities — as well as at Pennsylvania State University, which had thousands of COVID-19 cases last year — ratchet up pressure on their administrations to take a stronger stand on vaccines, with the delta variant surging. Some Penn State faculty are planning a rally Friday at University Park to call for mandatory vaccines for students and staff.

Meanwhile, the chancellor, board chair, presidents, and union heads on Thursday urged students, faculty, and staff to get vaccinated.

“The best way to protect everyone is through vaccination,” they wrote in a message posted to the state system website.

» READ MORE: The vaccination debate on college campuses. A mandate or not?

Some faculty leaders want more than encouragement. They want system leaders to advocate for the authority to require vaccines but fear politics may be at play: The Republican-majority legislature earlier this year passed a bill that would have prohibited any university receiving public funds from mandating the shots.

In July, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed that legislation. Nonetheless the legislature made its position known at a time when the cash-strapped state system is trying to build a relationship with it, in hopes of generating more funding. The 93,700-student system has lost more than a fifth of its enrollment since 2010 and voted last month to merge six universities into two. At the same time, the legislature has allocated $50 million in stimulus funds for the system, with the promise of $150 million more over the next few years.

“They’re afraid of the legislature and of getting sued,” said Mark Rimple, outgoing faculty union president at West Chester University. “That’s all this is.”

Rimple said he wants Wolf’s office to state that students and staff need to be vaccinated to come on campus or pay to be tested weekly for COVID-19. Wolf’s spokesperson said he “would be supportive of PASSHE implementing any legally sound and appropriate policies that help to increase vaccination rates” but did not answer questions about whether the governor thinks PASSHE universities should have the authority to mandate vaccines.

In a sign that the second-term Democrat may be wary of aggressive government action at this stage, Wolf last week said he won’t require masks in K-12 schools.

Michael Driscoll, president of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who chairs the system’s Commission of Presidents, said the issue has been discussed thoroughly within the system and with state Education Department officials. It’s not about funding, he said.

“The consensus has been that, really, we don’t have the authority,” he said.

» READ MORE: Penn State faculty push for mandatory vaccinations

He wishes they did, so that presidents could make the best decisions for their campuses depending on local virus conditions, but even then, they would have to proceed carefully, he said.

“With the political stuff around the virus and vaccines, you have to wonder what one could do without causing that sort of backlash that is negative,” he said, adding that he’s talking about backlash from the public, not just legislators.

Before the GOP-led legislature passed a new budget in June, Greenstein told lawmakers the state system would not mandate vaccines, according to Neal Lesher, a spokesperson for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor.

“To my knowledge that hasn’t changed,” Lesher said. Republicans are encouraging people to get vaccinated if they are eligible to do so, Lesher added but have been “reluctant to support a mandate-type approach.”

Kristin Phillips-Hill (R., York), who sponsored the legislation that would have prohibited universities from requiring proof of vaccination for entry, said people who want the vaccines should have access. But she noted that the vaccines still only have emergency-use authorization. Requiring them, she said, would be wrong.

“It’s major government overreach,” she said.

Earlier this year, Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, had been the only public college in Pennsylvania to have announced a vaccine mandate. After the legislation, it rescinded that policy.

“It shines a spotlight on the support by the Pa. General Assembly and their constituents across the Commonwealth to legally limit mandates for the COVID-19 vaccine in organizations throughout Pa.,” the university says on its website.

Jamie Martin, president of the state system’s statewide faculty union, said the system should be calling loudly and publicly for legislation if that’s required for a vaccine mandate. “It’s become a political issue, and a public health crisis should never be political,” she said.

» READ MORE: Community College of Philadelphia will require vaccines

In Harrisburg, legislative leaders of both parties say PASSHE hasn’t asked for a change in the law, according to the lawmakers’ spokespeople.

Greenstein said he hasn’t asked, but added: “I have made my position clear with the administration that mandatory vaccinations would have certain advantages to our operating capabilities.”

He said he hasn’t been pressured by lawmakers to refrain from pushing for mandatory vaccines, though some have made their positions known.

“I understand arguments which say the state should not mandate, and I understand arguments which say the state should,” Greenstein said.

Last week, the American College Health Association, which has recommended that colleges mandate the COVID-19 vaccine, and the American Council on Education called out politics in a statement signed by about 30 other organizations. The groups noted interference in a number of states (they didn’t specify which ones) that have forbid universities from asking for vaccination proof or requiring it, among other restrictions.

“These restrictions prohibit higher education institutions from taking responsible and reasonable public health measures and ultimately threaten the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and neighboring communities,” the groups said.

Across the country, vaccination has become a highly charged political issue, including whether colleges and businesses should require vaccines. A Quinnipiac poll showed that 49% opposed university mandates, while 48% favored them. Nationally, more than 600 private and public universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Villanova, Rutgers — New Jersey’s public flagship ― and the Community College of Philadelphia, a public institution, have announced vaccine mandates for students, staff or both. Indiana University, a public institution in a Republican-majority state, also set a mandate. Late Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned aside a challenge to that requirement.

» READ MORE: Should colleges mandate COVID vaccines for the fall semester? | Pro/Con

Penn State, which is partially public, continues to strongly urge vaccines and will require regular testing of those who don’t provide proof. But it has resisted a mandate, despite urging from faculty and student groups. There is a stark difference of opinion on its board of trustees, with some advocating as recently as last week for a mandate and others ardently opposed, said a source close to the board.

Penn State president Eric J. Barron in an email to the community Thursday night defended the university’s approach to encouraging high vaccination rates, asserting that vaccine mandates have met with legal and enforcement challenges.

“Our actions at Penn State are designed to achieve the desired outcome, with as little polarization as possible,” he wrote, also noting that Penn State’s state funding requires a two-thirds vote of the Pennsylvania legislature and “strong bipartisan support.”

Penn State board chair Matthew W. Schuyler said the board as a body supports the administration’s approach.

Temple University students, faculty, and staff who do not provide vaccination proof will be tested at least once a week and subject to other restrictions.

The 14 state universities are taking different approaches. Some, including Bloomsburg, Slippery Rock, California, Millersville, Mansfield, Cheyney, and Edinboro, are requiring proof of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test, or proof students had COVID in the last three months to move into residence halls. East Stroudsburg University will require random weekly testing for students living in residence halls, using the recreation center, or participating in club sports if they have not shared proof of vaccination.

Others, including West Chester, Clarion, and Kutztown, have not made those requirements. West Chester president Christopher Fiorentino said he would require vaccines if he could.

At Millersville, the college is providing as much access to vaccines as it can, president Wubah said. The school held a clinic on campus last week and will hold more.

Wubah said some parents have requested that their children be placed in dorm rooms with other vaccinated students.

“That’s what we would like to do,” he said. “Every step that we are taking is to assure that we mitigate the spread of the pathogen.”