At the first University Assembly meeting of the semester Tuesday, representatives discussed encouraging the University to institute a vaccination mandate for all staff and faculty — expanding the requirement beyond students.
“Cornell currently requires only students to be vaccinated, but with this resolution, we ask that this be expanded to all students, faculty and staff,” Nikola Danev, grad, a Graduate and Professional Student Assembly representative, wrote in an email to other members of the U.A. before the meeting. “With the recent surges in cases, this is our only way forward.”
While some representatives supported the mandate, which includes religious and medical exemptions, others said they think an education-based approach to increasing the vaccination rate, combined with expanded testing, would minimize the risk of COVID-19.
Students have been required to get vaccinated for the fall semester since last April — but faculty and staff are only encouraged to be vaccinated. Duke University has already taken this step, mandating vaccination for all staff, faculty and students.
According to Joel Malina, vice president for University relations, the University decided not to mandate vaccination for faculty and staff based on high rates of voluntary vaccination: 99 percent of faculty and 90 percent of staff were vaccinated as of Aug. 31. Unvaccinated faculty and staff are required to continue surveillance testing. 95 percent of people on campus are fully vaccinated.
Danev and Jacob Feit ’22, U.A. executive vice chair, co-sponsored the resolution calling for a vaccination mandate for all staff, faculty and students. Along with the mandate, it calls for paid time off for employees experiencing vaccine side effects. If the University declines to follow the recommendation of a vaccination mandate, the resolution requests an explanation from administration.
Preston Hanley, grad, who is the vice president of internal operations of the GPSA, said he felt that if the mandate were accepted, the University should address staff concerns through legal avenues and labor bargaining practices.
“We want to make sure that everybody understands where we’re coming from,” Hanley said in an interview with The Sun, “and be able to listen to any concerns that the unvaccinated members of our campus community are having.”
Feit said he supports expanded testing and increased vaccine education. He also wants the University to offer clinics for booster shots on campus, as soon as community members are eligible. He sees a vaccination mandate as one necessary strategy within a larger plan to minimize COVID-19 risk.
But Prof. Thomas Fox, molecular biology and genetics, said he’s skeptical that a mandate would effectively encourage unvaccinated people to become vaccinated. He expressed concern that some staff would simply quit their jobs instead.
Fox said he believes that the root of much of the disagreement surrounding campus COVID-19 policies is a lack of shared, agreed-upon goals. He does not think COVID eradication on campus is possible, but thinks that the University’s goal should be to minimize illness.
Marcy Benda, an administrative assistant and Employee representative, said she would prefer that the University works to educate its community about vaccination, before Cornell considers other policies such as employee vaccine mandates.
Employee Representative David Hiner, a senior application programmer for the College of Human Ecology, declined to take a position on whether or not a mandate should be instituted. However, he said he worried that a mandate could cause staff to quit and is hopeful that education efforts could help convince more people to get the vaccine.
“If we do mandate a vaccine, we do potentially risk losing some very talented staff,” Hiner said. “With that said, I wholeheartedly would encourage everyone to get the vaccine.”
Feit said he agreed that mandating vaccinations for faculty would need to include open discussions with University employee unions and the University community as a whole.
“We’re really just trying to maximize the amount of folks who get the vaccination,” Feit said. “We’re not trying to penalize anybody or have anyone quit.”
Danev acknowledged concerns about potential staffing shortages in the case of a vaccine mandate, but emphasized that his top priority is having a higher vaccination rate on campus. He said he agreed that education-based approaches could be useful, but wants this approach to supplement a mandate.
“I am confident that campus will be not only safer, if we all get vaccinated, but also it will reduce any potential pressure that unvaccinated people would cause on the hospital system, on our University and on our emergency services,” Danev said.