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For colleges, coronavirus vaccine mandates often depend on which party is in power

For more than 400 colleges and universities, it is billed as an entry ticket for a normal year on campus: All students must be vaccinated against the coronavirus before they can enroll next fall.

From just one university in March to a dozen in the first week of April, the trickle has turned into a flood in the last month – depending on where students are currently attending school.

In a divided nation, college vaccine mandates tend to follow familiar fault lines. According to a tracker created by The Chronicle of Higher Education, only 34 – roughly 8 percent – are in states that voted for Donald J. Trump this weekend. Nine of those were added on Friday as Indiana University and its satellite campuses became rare public universities in a Republican-controlled state to commission vaccines. Although the 400 locations only make up about 10 percent of the country’s roughly 4,000 colleges and universities, experts believe the political divide is likely to persist.

With many colleges facing declining enrollments and financial pressures, deciding whether to have vaccinations can have huge ramifications. In Republican-controlled states in particular, college presidents weigh a delicate equation – part security, part politics, part peer pressure, and part economic self-interest.

The subject became a frequent topic of discussion during weekly conference calls with presidents of other colleges, said Katie Conboy, president of Saint Mary’s College, a private college for women near South Bend, Ind.

College presidents, concerned that students might respond to a mandate by enrolling in a different location without one, described a sense of security in numbers.

“People are waiting for a turning point,” said Dr. Conboy. “They don’t say, ‘We’ll be at the top of it’, but we watch and wait and hope it makes sense to us.”

A total of 15 conservatively-led states, including Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Mississippi, and Alabama, don’t have a single university that has announced a need for vaccines.

A mandate is seen as the easiest step in protecting students, and for many colleges the decision is easy – especially since many already require other vaccinations against flu or measles, mumps, and rubella.

Since the Food and Drug Administration has only approved emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, many universities have added a restriction to protect themselves from liability. Their mandates depend on one of the vaccines receiving final regulatory approval, but they would allow students to return to campus after receiving one of the vaccines.

“The vaccine is one of the best things we can do to get back to normal life,” said Michael V. Drake, doctor and president of the University of California system.

At the University of Idaho in one of the most conservative states in the country, not getting any compulsory vaccinations is also an easy choice. Not a single college in the state has announced mandatory vaccination, and the vaccination rate there is among the lowest in the country.

“We definitely have political implications for the things we do as a public agency and we want to be good partners with our state lawmakers and our education committee,” said Jodi Walker, a spokeswoman for the University of Idaho.

Public universities – and to a lesser extent private ones – in conservative states are feeling pressure from all sides, college officials and academic experts say.

Desperate to reopen successfully, college presidents want as many students as possible to be vaccinated but are concerned that the conservative state governments will have a backlash. They fear that at a time when many universities are seeing a drop in tuition fees, they will lose funding and run counter to state politicians, on whose goodwill and budget they rely.

“If you’re a public college president, putting yourself on the wrong side of a governor or state legislature can be a career end,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president, American Council on Education.

Even so, Michael A. McRobbie, president of Indiana University, whose flagship campus is in Bloomington, said he felt no pressure to choose either way.

“Less than 50 percent of the university population has been vaccinated,” he said. “The medical advisors who were involved do not see how we can return to normal without the mandate.”

Long before a university announced its plans for the fall, Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers’ Newark campus, recalls a weekend call from the university’s chief operating officer to see if she would support a vaccine request.

“One of the first things I thought was, ‘Oh, thank god,'” said Dr. Cantor. “We wanted to put our arms around our students.”

On March 25, Rutgers announced a mandate as the country’s first major university, according to university directors and the tracker.

However, as a public university, it has been difficult to request a vaccination as none of the three vaccines have been fully licensed.

The Rutgers policy allows a little wiggle room, whereby students can apply for a religious or medical exemption, a measure that is being copied across the country. And vaccination is only required for students, not employees, which reflects the legal difficulty of imposing it on employees. Around a third of universities that have announced a mandate now apply it to both students and staff.

Some university presidents have cited the lack of FDA approval – which Rutgers did not include as a prerequisite for his mandate – as a compelling reason not to make vaccines mandatory.

“I think those who are in the blue states are not following the law,” said Tommy G. Thompson, the interim president of the University of Wisconsin system, previously in the George W. Bush cabinet as secretary for health and health human services, the FDA includes “Everyone who hires it is really on thin ice.”

Not only do universities need to be on the right-hand side of the law, they are also aware of the right-hand side of state policy.

In Florida and Texas, governors have issued executive orders that prohibit companies from requiring customers to provide evidence of vaccination. It is not always clear whether the same rules apply to schools, but the signals from the state government can hardly be overlooked.

One of the first colleges in the country to pass a vaccination mandate was Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, which made its announcement on April 2 a week after Rutgers. On the same day, Governor Ron DeSantis signed the order, cutting off government grants and contracts with local businesses that required customers to provide proof of vaccination.

A month later, the university made a U-turn and revoked the mandate, presumably because it was viewed as a violation of the new law.

The university’s flip-flop has served as a cautionary story to other colleges in Republican-led states. There are currently no locations in Florida that require a vaccine. There are only two in Texas, both private.

However, some college presidents in Conservative states who have broken with the pack and ordered vaccination point out the particular weaknesses of their student body.

“We are a historically black college that is a segment of the population that has been disproportionately affected,” 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 from the nearby Southern Ute Indian Tribe approached campus to arrange the vaccination of their university enrolled members. To create a protective bubble around these students, the tribe’s medical team went a step further and offered vaccinations to the students’ roommates and professors.

Given this kind of commitment, it was easy to get the requirements out for the entire campus: “We think any political setback we would get is worth it,” he said.

The colleges that elect to enforce vaccine mandates in Republican-controlled states are largely private, branded schools, not concerned about meeting enrollment goals. The list reads like a list of the most prestigious universities in these states: Tulane University in Louisiana, University of Notre Dame in Indiana, Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and Duke and Wake Forest Universities in North Carolina.

Most of the 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 at Evansville, said many of his students are based in a county where only 38 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. The university saw a 2 percent drop in enrollments during the pandemic, he said.

“This number tells me something important about my community,” he said of the vaccination rate. “Enrollment doesn’t determine all decisions, but I have to take that element into account.”

Regarding a vaccine mandate, he said there was still time: “I haven’t ruled it out and I haven’t ruled it out.”

Jack Begg contributed to research.

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