Story updated at 5:35 p.m. Thursday:
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to progress, one of the issues most pressing to higher education institutions around the country is quickly becoming whether or not to require vaccines of its campus community members ahead of the fall semester.
Though he didn’t say definitively Thursday, University of Kansas Chancellor Douglas Girod told a virtual meeting of KU faculty, staff and students that the university currently isn’t planning on requiring COVID-19 vaccinations.
“The question about requiring vaccines is a very hot topic right now … I think we’ll find ourselves in a very different place in August than we do right now, but the challenge right now is that none of these vaccines are FDA approved,” he said. “And it’s actually fairly hard from a legal perspective to require something that doesn’t carry an FDA approval.”
While it’s true that the three vaccines currently on the marketplace — Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — don’t have a full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, they are approved for use via an Emergency Use Authorization. An EUA is the same status given to the COVID-19 tests KU uses for its community and has required for the last two semesters.
“We also recognize there is a subcomponent of our population that is still fairly hesitant … We have done quite well in Douglas County and I hope to continue to push that, but we’re also hearing from some corners some hesitancy around (getting the vaccine), so you know we have to think about how we’re going to address that,” Girod said.
So far, Cornell University in New York, Rutgers University in New Jersey, Fort Lewis College in Colorado, Nova Southeastern University in Florida, St. Edward’s University in Texas and Roger Williams University in Rhode Island have said their students must be vaccinated before the fall term begins, according to the New York Times. That report also cited legal experts who said that as long as exceptions are granted to a vaccine mandate for those with legitimate medical or religious reasons, there is nothing legally dubious about requiring the COVID-19 vaccine, even with the EUA status.
Girod, who is a medical doctor, strongly encouraged everyone who is able to get the vaccine. He said that based on recent conversations with the KU Health System, though, requiring the vaccine in Lawrence doesn’t appear likely.
“I think by this summer we’re going to be a different place than where we are right now,” he said. “But if I had to make a call right now, I would say probably not.”
The Lawrence Times has sent multiple inquiries to KU since Wednesday about whether or not the university will require vaccines for the fall semester, but has received no response. A Wednesday request for comment to the Kansas Board of Regents, which governs the state’s public colleges and universities, also has not been returned.
In addition to discussing vaccines during Thursday’s meeting, Girod touched on a myriad other topics with those in attendance. Here are some of the most notable topics and quotes:
Future hiring processes following Jeff Long, Les Miles departures
Context: Former KU Athletics Director Jeff Long and former football coach Les Miles were dismissed from their respective roles in March following allegations of sexual misconduct related to Miles’ coaching tenure at Louisiana State University. KU this week hired Travis Goff to replace Long as the director of athletics. Goff’s contract included multiple clauses in his contract that he had not engaged in, been accused of, or lied about sexual misconduct with regards to his own conduct and the conduct of any employee he had supervisory authority over in the past 15 years.
Student Body Vice President Addison Henson asked Girod Thursday what’s being done to reform hiring processes to prevent something like the Long-Miles situation from happening in the future.
Girod: “I’ve been co-chairing an effort with Carol Folt, (president of) USC for the AAU on sexual harassment in academia. And part of that work, which we’re bringing to the board in about two weeks, is a couple of best practices — one of which is to have potential hires sign two things. One is a release to talk to previous employers about about issues that have occurred because there is an issue of passing people on, if you will, and the other is a statement that they’ve not had anything like that in the past. And so, actually our athletic director was the first recipient of this new process.”
“It’s something that we have not done historically, certainly we do all the criminal (background checks), the social media, the legal background check — any kind of background check you can run, we run. And then you try and talk as many people that have worked with that person at multiple institutions, as well. So it’s a little bit of a belt and suspenders approach. But none of this guarantees it. So ultimately it does come down to us creating our own culture on campus around sexual harassment and making it not only abundantly clear that that’s not acceptable, but that it is reported and it’s dealt with when it is reported.”
“The failure at LSU was that part of it, right. Somebody came forward, it was in my mind not addressed appropriately, maybe not even legally, and then covered up on top of that. So that’s just inexcusable, and you just can’t have that kind of a culture. I think we continue to try and improve our culture on campus and that will be a work in progress.”
“It’s a very good example of what not to do. It’s curious that three people have lost their jobs over that (Long, Miles and former LSU and Oregon State University president F. King Alexander), and none of them are at LSU.”
KU’s relationship with Topeka
Context: Since the beginning of the 2021 session of the Kansas Legislature, KU has had a tenuous-at-best relationship with state lawmakers and Gov. Laura Kelly — namely because Kelly’s initial budget proposal would have seen a 5.5% cut to higher education and resulted in the largest dollar amount cut to KU’s budget in history. Girod mentioned Thursday that KU has been working hard at both the state and federal level to ratchet down some of those budget cuts (and said the cut to higher education currently looks to be closer to 2.5% rather than Kelly’s proposed 5.5%).
Girod: “Part of that is understanding what makes up our legislature and recognizing that the majority of them actually don’t hold four year degrees. And so their perception of higher ed overall is tainted by their view of the world, and their basic perception is that we are a cost or liability as opposed to an asset.”
“We have tried several different things to help them understand how they are not going to experience an economic recovery without us and the role we play in that. Literally, I mean, we do so many wonderful things, and you hate to drill it down to that, but that really is what they, sort of understand. So we’ve tried to do that, probably equally important and maybe even more importantly is we have pulled together a group of businesspeople, company CEOs who do understand this and have been willing to start to take the lead in these conversations as opposed to us always being the ones carrying that message … I think after banging our head against the wall for quite a while, we’ve decided the answer is to have some other people help carry this message. People that they listen to. You know, I’m the talking head, so they know what I’m going to say the minute I show up. And that carries a little bit of weight, but quite honestly not very much.”
“To your basic point of why is there such a dim view of higher education — that’s a national problem, that’s not a Kansas problem. And if you look at surveys which we’ve done at the AAU, you know, regrettably, 60 to 70% of Republicans and Democrats have a dim view of higher education. The reason for that is completely different, maybe down to your political party, interestingly. Republicans largely believe that we’re brainwashing their children and the Democrats think that we’re just inefficient, ineffective and too expensive. So, for different reasons and so different messages, as we’ve worked that group. One thing that does work well in all the above is being a research university. They do have an appreciation for what research brings to the state and the country, and that actually polls very well also.”