On April 23, 2021, the University of Michigan announced that all students who choose to live on its Ann Arbor campus during the 2021 fall term will be required to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19. It’s not the first university to make such a pronouncement, and almost certainly will not be the last, which raises an interesting question: Can higher education institutions legally mandate vaccinations?
As with most complex legal issues, it is a nuanced one, and different schools have taken different stances. As of May 6, 2021, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 225 schools have made vaccinations mandatory. Others are leaving the decision to students. And Virginia Tech University announced that it does not believe that it has the legal authority to mandate that students be vaccinated.
While many higher education institutions have routinely required students to be vaccinated for viral diseases such as measles and mumps, the COVID-19 vaccines fall into a gray area. The difference—which is the issue cited by Virginia Tech in suggesting that it lacks authority for a mandate—is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only allowed the emergency use of the COVID-19 vaccines and has not given them its full approval.
In some states, the vaccine decision is being directed by state governments. In states such Arizona, Idaho, Florida, Montana and Texas, governors have issued executive orders prohibiting government entities from requiring proof of COVID vaccination for access to buildings or services. However, the breadth and scope of such orders differs by state. Texas’ order, for example, is one of the broadest, in that it affects both public colleges and private colleges that receive state funding.
In Michigan, there is no similar executive order, but a Michigan House of Representatives version of a spending bill includes language prohibiting the state’s public universities from requiring COVID vaccines as a condition of enrollment or attendance.
It is also important to note that, even if a higher education institution mandates vaccinations, exemptions may apply. For instance, both public and private colleges and universities are subject to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). A student could potentially seek an accommodation from a requirement to take a vaccine on medical grounds, but a school’s obligations with respect to each such request—whether an accommodation is necessary and, if so, the extent of any such accommodation—must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
In short, this is a complex issue involving a number of considerations—from the legal and regulatory landscape to the political environment. That may explain why some higher education institutions, such as Wayne State University, have adopted a middle-ground position short of a mandate that involves offering students incentives for getting vaccinated. In April, Wayne State University announced that it would deposit $10 into the student account of any student who uploaded proof of vaccination by May 7.
If you have any questions regarding these issues, or require assistance in evaluating your institution’s COVID-19 vaccination program, please contact Ryan Kauffman.