Slade_downtowncampusscenes1.jpg

A scene on the downtown campus on March 24, 2021.

For the first time in over a decade, the West Virginia University faculty called a special meeting of almost all faculty members to vote on a non-binding resolution in favor of a vaccine mandate.

As of publication, the vote is open until noon Thursday. Before the results are released later this week, the Faculty Senate must verify everyone who voted was an eligible faculty member.

Speaking to close to 1,000 faculty members gathered on Zoom, Jared Sims, author of the petition to call the special meeting and director of jazz studies at WVU, said the resolution stemmed from the faculty’s desire to maintain in-person instruction.

“I represent the performing arts where we best teach and interact with our students face to face,” Sims said. “In many cases, it's not even possible for our students to wear a mask and fulfill the requirements of their degree program.”

“I feel strongly that it's negligent for us to allow unvaccinated individuals to be on our campus,” he added.

University administrators said they also want all students to get vaccinated. But said they have not instituted a vaccine mandate because they believe it will do more harm than good.

“I do not believe in a mandate for this vaccine, for the COVID-19 vaccine,” said WVU President E. Gordon Gee. “Rarely, and this has been proven time and again, do mandates work. And in this current time, I believe that a mandate will only create more division.”

Gee said he represents the interests of students, faculty and staff but must also consider the opinions of alumni, all West Virginians and state lawmakers.

“We know that the vaccine is the best defense we have against this virus,” Gee said. “And we've been urging since early summer for everyone to take personal responsibility.”

In the spring, the University set a goal of 70% vaccination by Aug. 1 but towards the end of the summer announced a new goal of having 80% of students and employees vaccinated by Sept. 1.

As of the deadline Wednesday, the vaccination rates fell short of the 80% goal. Less than 75% of students and 73% of employees had been vaccinated.

Just over half of West Virginia residents have been fully-vaccinated, according to the state health department.

“We have heard from certain legislative leaders that they're likely to consider and perhaps pass legislation that will prohibit the mandating of COVID-19 vaccines for state employees,” said Rob Alsop, vice president for strategic initiatives.

Alsop said a vaccine mandate would trigger loud and active opposition from a “significant amount of parents” and could lead to staffing shortages in the University’s blue collar workforce.

“A number of our workers are hesitant to get vaccines,” he said. “And if we mandate vaccines for folks like our classified staff, it will exacerbate an already alarming problem in terms of hiring individuals where we're already seeing 15 to 25% vacancy rates.”

Wednesday’s special meeting comes after University administrators did not mandate the vaccine following the full approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine from the Food and Drug Administration.

A special meeting of the University Assembly, a little-known body of around 2,700 faculty members, hasn’t been called since a 2008 master’s degree scandal involving then-Gov. Joe Manchin's daughter.

After a lengthy amendment process, the final language that faculty voted on reads: BE IT RESOLVED, the Faculty Assembly supports mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for all students and employees with limited legally mandated exceptions.

Jeff Coben, dean of the School of Public Health, said Wednesday that the state-wide surge of COVID-19 cases driven by the more-transmissible Delta variant will peak within a couple of weeks. This would be before currently unvaccinated students could receive full immunization.

He also cautioned against considering whether or not to mandate vaccination from a “purely public health perspective.”

“For example, from a purely public health perspective, we should advocate for the banning of all tobacco products, we should advocate for the prohibition and the elimination of all alcohol products,” Coben said. “And we should advocate for the removal of all guns, and the ban on the sale of any firearms in this country.”

WVU currently has campus bans on tobacco products, alcohol and guns.