Requiring vaccines for those on campus isn’t straightforward


University leaders are trying to decide if Pitt should join a growing number of universities that are making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for faculty, staff and students.

But the decision, for multiple reasons, can be tricky even though multiple universities, including Duke, Rutgers, Cornell and Notre Dame, have announced vaccination requirements for their fall 2021 semesters.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in the Senate Council meeting on April 22, that the decision isn’t straightforward. 

There are multiple potential legal and political roadblocks to making this decision as some states have dealt with legislation that restricts “certain options from being pursued,” Gallagher said.

And Gallagher isn’t the only one being cautious. 

Asked at the April 21 Staff Council meeting about the parameters for Pitt staff returning to the office, David DeJong, senior vice chancellor for Business & Operations, answered: “We're still working through those types of questions. We're certainly not going to be in a position where we're requiring everyone to get a vaccine, but we will be in a position where everybody has had an opportunity to get a vaccine.”

A proposed Faculty Assembly resolution that would call for students, faculty and staff to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination before the fall 2021 semester was tabled at the April 14 meeting. The draft resolution was emailed to Faculty Assembly members hours before the meeting. 

Several members said they needed more time to think it over, especially considering potential legal complications that may arise as a result.

Ben Bratman, a professor of legal writing at the Pitt School of Law, said it’s unclear whether or not the University can mandate vaccinations for all members of the Pitt community without potential legal complications.

One issue that could cause potential issues is the fact that the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have not been fully approved by the FDA yet, but have been granted emergency use authorization, Bratman said. However, there isn’t a concrete measure in place that would prohibit a mandate.

Additionally, this issue may find its way to state legislatures who can decide whether or not to pass laws that would prohibit a vaccine mandate.

“There's a little bit of a political calculation as well as the pure legal question, right? Because, legally, (Gallagher) might be told that ‘You're OK, you can do this,’ ” Bratman said. “But then he might be thinking, ‘What does that mean with our relationships with Harrisburg?’ ”

While these and other challenges exist, Bratman said if a University vaccine mandate were to make accommodations for certain groups of people, there may be some leeway.

“I think a university is on pretty good footing legally, as long as it's going to accommodate those who, due to a disability or a medical condition, either will not or should not get the vaccine,” Bratman said. “And probably also accommodating people who have good faith religious objections.”

Another potential advantage the University has is that it already requires students living on campus to show proof of immunization, he said.

Gallagher said he expects this topic to pop up throughout the summer as more experts weigh in.

Even though decisions haven’t been made yet, Gallagher said, the best thing for everyone to do in the meantime is get vaccinated as quickly as possible.

“As I've said before, the best way to make all of those decisions as unimportant as possible is for everyone to get that shot,” Gallagher said.

Bonneau announced at the Senate Council meeting that medical and legal experts will come to the next Faculty Assembly to discuss the topic further.

John Williams, the head of Pitt's COVID-19 Medical Response Office, will discuss the potential health benefits of requiring a vaccine on campus. Geovette Washington, senior vice chancellor and chief legal officer, will discuss the legal and policy aspects of requiring a vaccine.

Marty Levine contributed to this report. Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


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