Faculty at Some U.S. State Universities Protest for More Safety Measures

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JJ Weeks, 19, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., earlier this month.
Credit...Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Stephanie Saul

  • Aug. 17, 2021, 12:48 p.m. ET

At Pennsylvania State University, the faculty senate passed a resolution expressing “no confidence” in the school’s plan to bring back students without requiring them to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

At Mississippi’s public universities, the pleas of hundreds of professors to require vaccinations have been drowned out by a politically conservative drumbeat against mandates.

And at Clemson University, the faculty plans to stage a protest on Wednesday, the first day of classes, to call for mandatory masks.

As thousands of students begin returning to campuses around the United States for the fall, more than 500 universities have said they will require coronavirus vaccination this year.

But at dozens of universities with less stringent health requirements, from Ohio to Iowa to North Carolina, professors are using protests, petitions and even resignations to press their demands for tighter coronavirus prevention methods. Much of the protest is coming in states where politicians, virtually all Republicans, have fiercely opposed vaccine or mask requirements, leaving universities with few tools to combat the spread of the virus.

A vast majority of counties across the United States are experiencing either “substantial” or “high” transmission rates that call for indoor mask-wearing even among the vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Orientation at Clemson University prompted the faculty protest. The university asked students to protect themselves from the Delta variant by wearing masks, but few students did so at a convocation for freshmen last week, judging by a photo of the event that circulated online.

“When I see hundreds of students packed together, and you can’t find a mask, I thought, ‘we are in trouble,’” said Kim Paul, a biologist at Clemson, a public land-grant university in South Carolina with about 20,000 undergraduates.

“We had a mask mandate spring semester,” Dr. Paul said. “I would like to see that reinstated. That’s what we need to do.”

A spokesman for Clemson, Joe Galbraith, said that after seeing unmasked students at the last freshman convocation on Friday, the university placed masks at every seat on Monday during a similar meeting of transfer students. “Participation was quite different,” Mr. Galbraith noted.

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Credit...Clemson University

South Carolina bans both vaccine and mask mandates. “I think the university needs to show real leadership and push back against the governor and say, ‘No, we are an institution of higher learning,’” Dr. Paul said. “We need to follow the science.”

In Mississippi, hundreds of faculty members signed a petition demanding that the university system require vaccination.

The petition was started at Mississippi State University, where classes are set to begin this week. Professors there are also pressing the school to move to remote learning until the pandemic is brought under control.

Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, has encouraged the state’s residents to get vaccinated, but the state has declined to require vaccines on university campuses.

A spokesman for Mississippi State, Sid Salter, said that about 52 percent of the student body has reported being vaccinated, a rate higher than the state population as a whole.

Penn State, with 40,000 undergraduates at its main campus in State College, Pa., decided not to require vaccination, even though Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that would have banned vaccine requirements. The school has imposed a mask mandate.

In a letter to the Penn State community last week, Eric J. Barron, the university’s president, blamed the decision on “political realities.”

“State funding of our university requires a two-thirds vote of the Pennsylvania legislature, meaning that our funding relies on strong bipartisan support,” Dr. Barron wrote.

As if to reinforce that concern, the president pro tempore of the Pennsylvania State Senate, Jake Corman, a Republican whose district includes State College, expressed concern on Monday that state lawmakers might retaliate against the university if it mandated vaccines. Mr. Corman said he would not support funding cuts.

A survey of Penn State undergraduates in State College found that 83 percent were fully vaccinated, a rate the university called “promising.”

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