As the University of Kansas prepares for another semester dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic — this time with new concerns about the highly contagious Delta variant — faculty members want more transparency and stronger virus protocols.
Chief among their concerns are the lack of substantive vaccine protocols for the campus community and an apparent lack of flexibility for instructors to choose their mode of teaching, despite the recent sharp rise in virus cases and hospitalizations both locally and across the country.
More than 260 faculty members, ranging from adjunct lecturers to distinguished professors, signed a petition this week urging Chancellor Douglas Girod and upper-level administrators to implement stricter protocols.
“We, as faculty who have dedicated and invested decades (centuries, collectively) of our time and effort to making KU a great educational institution, therefore urge Chancellor Girod and Provost (Barbara) Bichelmeyer to take immediate, bold, and effective steps toward implementing these measures,” the petition states. “The result will be considerably improved safety and security for the health of the University community; failure to plan for the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission at KU this Fall will place all of us — faculty, staff, employees, and students, not to mention our loved ones (and especially unvaccinated children under 12), in grave danger.”
How, or whether, the university plans to respond remains to be seen. KU for several weeks has said publicly that a Kansas law “restricts” its ability to require the COVID-19 vaccine or mandate that people disclose their vaccination status. University spokespeople have not answered questions from the Times seeking to clarify which law makes such restrictions.
The claim appears to be referring to a provision in the most recent state budget which bans “vaccine passports” — or proof a person received the COVID-19 shot — as a requirement to enter state government buildings. Whether that actually refers to universities like KU, though, is unclear.
Public universities are technically classified as state agencies since they receive government funding at the federal and state level. However, they are governed primarily by the Kansas Board of Regents, the nine-member body which oversees higher education in the state — and KBOR has not taken a stance on requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, its communications director, Matt Keith, said.
Brett Bricker, an instructor in the Department of Communications Studies, said he isn’t aware of a law explicitly prohibiting universities in Kansas from requiring the COVID-19 vaccine, as more than 600 colleges and universities across the country have done. What seems more likely, he said, is that the university is cautious of upsetting a conservative state legislature in Topeka that has already slashed KU’s funding in recent years.
“My personal assumption is that KU is using the prospect of legislative backlash to defer ethical decision-making,” Bricker said. “We should be leading best practices, not cowering in fear of a potential backlash.”
As it stands, no vaccine mandate will be in place when thousands of KU students return to Lawrence over the coming days and weeks. Whether a student or faculty member receives a COVID-19 vaccine is optional, as is the decision to inform KU of vaccination status.
Recent messages from the university have indicated KU will offer incentives to students who choose to get vaccinated, and Girod — a medical doctor — has repeatedly urged everyone able to do so to get the vaccine. At the same time, though, the university also recently told faculty and staff members they aren’t permitted to ask another person about their vaccination status.
OneKU, a university advocacy group which comprises some 100 faculty members, did not spearhead the recent petition effort, the group said in an email Tuesday. However, the group did echo strongly the concerns raised in the petition, and many OneKU members signed the recent appeal to Girod.
“This semester, faculty and academic staff are once again forced to negotiate between our dedication to quality research and teaching, and the safety of ourselves, our families, and our community,” OneKU said in a statement. “The administration has a responsibility to ensure a safe working and learning environment for faculty, staff, and students.”
Conner Mitchell (he/him), reporter, can be reached at cmitchell (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-435-9264. If you have sensitive information to send Conner, please email connermitchell (at) protonmail (dot) com. Read more of his work for the Times here.