A growing number of University of Minnesota professors and staff are calling for the state's flagship institution to require COVID-19 vaccinations this fall as the delta variant fuels a surge in new COVID-19 infections.
With the start of the semester only a month away, many faculty members say they are growing increasingly anxious about returning to the classroom without a vaccination mandate and other safety measures. More than 500 people have signed a letter in support of a vaccination requirement for U students and employees, and a faculty group on Wednesday discussed steps it would take to pressure the university.
There is "broad frustration and deep anger among faculty at Twin Cities that has been building over the summer about the unsafe reopening policies put forward by the administration," the University of Minnesota chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) wrote in a statement Thursday.
The U is among just a handful of colleges in the Big Ten Conference that are not requiring COVID-19 vaccinations. Minnesota's other public college system, Minnesota State, is not requiring vaccination, either, but nearly a dozen private colleges in the state and hundreds of institutions nationwide are.
The university implemented a mask mandate at its five campuses this week, but it does not currently plan to enforce social distancing policies or require students to undergo regular COVID-19 testing.
Several dozen faculty chapter members emerged from a Wednesday meeting in agreement that the university should mandate vaccinations and require those who cannot be vaccinated or seek exemptions to be tested for COVID-19 regularly. The university's AAUP chapter also expressed desire for greater teaching flexibility to accommodate employees with large classes, health conditions or children too young to be vaccinated.
While U faculty got to choose whether to teach in person or online in the previous academic year, those wanting to teach remotely this fall must seek approval to do so. The university is planning for a return to normalcy, with about 80% of fall classes at the Twin Cities campus slated to be taught in person.
Twin Cities faculty members say they are planning to write newspaper op-eds and work with student organizations to increase pressure on the university, hoping the public scrutiny will give administrators cover to change their policies before the semester starts Sept. 7. The faculty chapter said a local news report suggesting U professors were threatening a work stoppage was not true, however.
"It's not that faculty don't want to be in the classroom, it's that we want the university to make our classrooms safe so that we and our students are safe," said U political science Professor Teri Caraway, treasurer of the AAUP chapter.
Caraway questioned why U leaders have not held an open forum with students and employees to discuss possible COVID-19 safety measures. "They would rather just sit in a closed room with their hand-picked advisers," she said.
University leaders have said a vaccination mandate would be difficult to enforce because Minnesota's immunization law has a "broad exemption clause" for people who hold beliefs against it. A mandate could also be "legally problematic" since the vaccines have been authorized for emergency use but do not yet have full Food and Drug Administration approval, administrators say.
Michael Osterholm, director of the U's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and an adviser to President Joan Gabel, said he does not believe a vaccination mandate would result in the entire campus community being immunized. Those adamantly against vaccination could simply apply for an exemption, Osterholm said, and a mandate could push people who are hesitant about getting the shots to become even more resistant.
"If the law wasn't there like this … I would be shouting from the rooftops, yes," Osterholm said, stressing that he's generally supportive of vaccination mandates. "We have to be very careful in not just doing something because it looks like it's politically correct."
Amy Pittenger, a professor in the U's College of Pharmacy, said she, too, is unsure if a mandate would have the intended effect of boosting vaccination rates. "I trust in the people who are advising President Gabel. We've got great minds thinking about this," she said.
U History Department Chair Ann Waltner, who is set to teach in person this fall, criticized the university for not taking enough precautions to protect students and employees from catching COVID-19. She is in favor of a vaccination mandate, which she thinks would "make it possible for us to be relaxed and happy in teaching face to face."
Waltner also denounced the university's plan to hold an in-person convocation ceremony for several thousand new students indoors at 3M Arena at Mariucci on Sept. 2. U leaders encouraged faculty to attend the welcoming ceremony in a message Wednesday, noting that masks would be required.
"If it were super important to have it, why not have it in the football stadium?" Waltner said. "It flies in the face of everything we know about the situation."