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By Making Vaccine Discourse Political, Penn State’s Already Lost

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Thursday evening, Penn State President Eric Barron sent out a letter to the community attempting to explain the university’s fall semester planning and COVID-19 policies. Now, though, we’re left with more questions than answers, all while classes are set to begin in a week.

Above all else, Barron’s letter did little to explain why Penn State won’t join 700-plus universities (and more than half of the Big Ten) in requiring COVID-19 vaccines for students and employees. In fact, Barron went so far as to say Penn State essentially avoided taking stronger action (like mandating vaccines) to keep its state-funded appropriation in check.

“Public universities, in particular, have challenges with the mode of response to the pandemic. Regulations across the country clearly reflect state-level political realities,” Barron wrote. “State funding of our University requires a two-thirds vote of the Pennsylvania legislature, meaning that our funding relies on strong bipartisan support.”

In June, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly passed a state budget maintaining Penn State’s funding levels for the 2021-22 fiscal year, which began on July 1. The package included a general support appropriation of $242.1 million, plus a combined $81 million for Penn State Agricultural Research and Extension and Pennsylvania College of Technology.

In essence, Barron looks like he’s siding with Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislatures over the university’s countless students, employees, and community members pushing for stronger mitigation measures. But is a check from Harrisburg worth putting a university and its surrounding community at risk?

Later in his letter, Barron said the university is essentially drafting policy that achieves “progress and results” without pissing people off.

“Our actions at Penn State are designed to achieve the desired outcome with as little polarization as possible,” he wrote.

Sometimes, shaking up the system is necessary. By and large, Penn State has never been a proactive institution. But after 18 months of fighting a pandemic, it’s time to stop worrying about being popular and start making the right decisions.

The support for vaccine mandates is immense at Penn State. So far, the university’s Faculty Senate and student government overwhelmingly voted to support requirements. So did State College’s Borough Council. If I were Penn State, I’d think twice before siding with conservative lawmakers over the university’s own constituents.

Public health isn’t political, and prioritizing it shouldn’t be controversial. In fact, requiring vaccines would be a great way for Penn State to show it cares about its students and faculty — to show that they’re more than tuition checks, housing bills, and cogs in a machine. Everyone benefits from high vaccination rates, low COVID-19 transmission, and a return to normalcy — especially after getting a brief taste of it this summer.

Barron’s comments come across particularly tone-deaf after a student died following a four-month-long battle with COVID-19 just last week. Only two known students have died after contracting the virus, but that’s two too many. If deaths in the Penn State community won’t prompt action, what will?

Penn State has worked hard to incentivize vaccinations and make them accessible. Submitting proof of vaccination is brutally simple, and doing so can get students out of required weekly COVID-19 testing. Planned on-campus clinics will give students and employees ample opportunities to get their shot if they want it, too.

What’s stopping Penn State from taking that final extra step, though? Just last week, the university re-implemented an indoor masking mandate just 24 hours after saying such a measure wasn’t necessary yet. Penn State has shown it has the power to flip that switch and pull policy out of its ass. Now, it’s time to use it.

From “town halls” to mass emails, Penn State has routinely reiterated how getting vaccinated offers the best chance to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep the community safe. If that’s true, what’s stopping a push for requirements? We’ve progressed past the need for meaningless talking points that aren’t backed up by policy.

In his letter, Barron addressed recent opposition to Penn State’s indoor masking mandate. However, he failed to note that more than 1,100 Penn State faculty members and 1,500 students, parents, and community members already signed a petition demanding stronger action against COVID-19, including vaccine requirements. Bottom line? Penn State is listening, and you’ve got a voice. Use it.

As I enter my final year at Penn State, I know better than to always expect the right decisions from Old Main. But for once — just once — I’m hopeful the university will change gears before it’s too late.

You can read Barron’s full letter to the community below.

Dear Penn State community,

Over the last 18 months Penn State has worked to be systematic and deliberate in our response to the ever-changing course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our singular objective is, and always has been, the health and safety of our community. Our decisions have been driven by data, science and advice from medical professionals at a local, state and national level.

Unfortunately, across the nation every action in response to the pandemic is being met with division and controversy. A recent Quinnipiac poll found 49% of adults opposed university vaccine mandates while 48% supported mandates. A recent decision at Penn State to require indoor masking regardless of vaccination status generated a petition exceeding 1,000 student signatures in opposition — in only its first day of posting. Many faculty members at Penn State supported the masking requirement and are also calling for a vaccine mandate. At the same time, others are attempting to organize “resistance campaigns.” Universities with vaccine mandates have been met with implementation, enforcement and legal challenges. Public universities, in particular, have challenges with the mode of response to the pandemic. Regulations across the country clearly reflect state-level 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.

The focus of the controversy is on the means by which we achieve health and safety. Our actions at Penn State are designed to achieve the desired outcome, with as little polarization as possible. Our objective is progress and results. We believe we have a powerful way forward by incorporating all three of the strongest tools to mitigate COVID-19 — vaccines, masking and testing. And, we have systematically and deliberately adjusted as conditions have changed. Penn State’s posture with respect to vaccination illustrates this last point.

First, we worked to make vaccination easy. Prior to any evidence that the University would be able to offer vaccinations, we chose to purchase freezers and set up protocols in case we were asked to provide vaccinations. University Health Services at University Park successfully applied to gain permission from the state Department of Health to administer vaccines to students. We also successfully volunteered to be a vaccine distribution site for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And we worked with private vendors to provide easy access to vaccines across the commonwealth for our employees and students. We leaned on the “we are” spirit of Penn Staters to focus on the health of all members of our community.

As we monitored conditions and saw a decline in initial vaccination rates, our second step was to incentivize vaccinations through weekly drawings for prizes and to encourage uploading of vaccination information so the University could better manage the pandemic. Incentives created an uptick in vaccination rates and uploading of vaccination status, but the prospect of the Delta variant, coupled with a national relaxation back to pre-COVID-19 behaviors, prompted us to develop even stronger requirements.

We then took the step of instituting testing for all members of our community — faculty, staff and students — who have not shared with the University that they are vaccinated. We informed all students of our expectations, and further indicated that without uploaded proof of vaccination, all students entering residence halls would be tested and any positive tests would prevent immediate entrance to residence halls — and students would require isolation. The requirement for repeated testing without vaccination is regarded as a significant incentive to become vaccinated. Further, in consultation with Faculty Senate leadership, we instituted masking in all University buildings regardless of vaccination status while we face the Delta variant.

For the 18 months of the pandemic, we also have worked to regularize engagement and communications with our community. We specifically worked to involve Faculty Senate leadership, who have participated in our COVID-19 Management Team’s regular meetings, in addition to participation in the weekly or bi-weekly meetings of the Academic Leadership Council. The COVID-19 Operations Control Center (COCC) team members have provided extensive outreach to units, groups and colleges across the University to provide updates and support plans and activities.

The combined implementation of the three most powerful tools — vaccination level, testing and masking — should help create a safe environment to fulfill our mission at Penn State. But we are more than capable of taking stronger action, much like last year when we rapidly pivoted to regulate gatherings and moved to remote status as demanded by circumstances.

Which brings us back to the end goal — high vaccination rates.

The evidence is growing that our deliberate and systematic process is working. The final results of our COVID-19 vaccination survey show that, among both undergraduate and graduate student respondents, 88% of University Park respondents, 73% of Commonwealth Campus respondents and 84% of World Campus respondents report being partially or fully vaccinated. As of today, more than 73.5% of students entering residence halls have already uploaded their proof of vaccination, and the numbers are steadily growing on a daily basis. We expect many other students will demonstrate vaccination status or provide proof of having COVID-19 over the last 90 days. Vaccination uploads by academic personnel are slightly lower at 69%, and unfortunately there has been little growth in academic uploads since early July. Survey data for all sectors suggest that vaccination rates are higher than what is currently uploaded and individuals have just not yet uploaded their information. The highest vaccination rate is for administrators, which is currently at 86%.

Of course, enforcement too, plays a role.

If proof of vaccination is not uploaded, students in University housing will be tested on arrival and all students who have not uploaded their proof of vaccination, regardless of housing, will be tested weekly. The consequences for failure to test are significant — including suspension if individuals ignore repeated requests. When released, policies on frequent testing of employees who have not shared with the University that they have been vaccinated should also reveal higher rates.

Although the data are promising and indicate that our deliberate, three-pronged efforts are making strong progress, we will continue to be vigilant — and we will take further steps if necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on our campuses. We developed processes, protocols and policies through the pandemic that enable us to pivot successfully when we need to impose greater restrictions, and to relax restrictions as we make progress.

Thank you for your efforts to promote a safe community. Please get vaccinated and upload your data. A safe and productive environment is everyone’s responsibility.


Eric J. Barron
President, Penn State

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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