LOUISVILLE, Ky. — More than 1,000 universities across the country, including several in Kentucky, require a COVID-19 vaccination for students or staff. Despite the efforts of an increasingly vocal group of faculty members, the University of Louisville is not one of them.

“It's really frustrating to know that half of my household is too young to be vaccinated and I'm in a room every day with 25 students and I don't know if they are vaccinated,” said Lauren Freeman, an Associate Professor of Philosophy. “They are wearing masks, but it's really scary.”

What You Need To Know

  • University of Louisville has not mandated the COVID-19 vaccine

  • Faculty members say they're pushing for such a mandate

  • They say it's a matter of safety and racial justice

  • 80% of faculty and staff, along with 69% of students are vaccinated

Freeman is one of many members of UofL’s faculty pushing the school to follow the lead of other large public schools, including Indiana University and Ohio State University, and issue a vaccine mandate. It's a group that includes faculty in the College of Arts and Science, the Brandeis School of Law, and the School of Medicine, among others.

They’re sending emails and tweets to the university administration, advocating to their department chairs, and meeting privately with decision makers. A petition supporting a mandate is also circulating among staff. But two weeks after classes began, just as COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths surge in Kentucky, UofL has not issued a mandate. 

Instead, it has “strongly encouraged that all students, faculty, and staff who come to campus get the vaccine,” university spokesman John Karman told Spectrum News 1. UofL has made the vaccine available on campus at pop-up sites in residence halls and the lobbies of other campus buildings. Students who are vaccinated at the sites get a “free university swag item and a voucher to use at campus restaurants and cafes,” according to UofL provost Lori Stewart Gonzalez. 

Additionally, UofL has launched a contest to award randomly selected vaccinated students with prizes, including football tickets, AirPods, and free undergraduate in-state tuition. Masks are also mandated in all public, indoor settings on campus.

But that’s not enough for some faculty members. “Maybe the administration is not understanding that there's a substantial percentage of people that, no matter how many times you tell them to do something, are not going to do it unless they have to,” said a professor who requested anonymity to speak freely about her concerns. “That's the psychology behind mandates.”

As of the latest figures, 80% of faculty and staff and 69% of students who have returned to campus have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the university. Karman said UofL has no information on the vaccination status of the other 31% of students, meaning some of them could be vaccinated. 

That’s little comfort for professors with children at home and those in high-risk groups, Freeman said. 

“Every single professor I know falls into one of three groups: They’re either at-risk because they’re old, they have medical conditions regardless of their age, or they have young children at home,” she said. 

Freeman has lobbied her department chair about a vaccine mandate, “doing what I can, at my sort of lowly level,” she said. The professor who requested anonymity to speak freely said she’s reached out to university administration about the issue and received no response. “Everybody is completely outraged in my entire department,” she said. 

She supports a vaccine mandate because “that’s the only way we’re going to get out of the pandemic.” But she also believes UofL has a responsibility to make decisions based on the best available data and science. Failing to mandate a vaccine abdicates that responsibility, she said. 

“UofL is supposed to be a leader in the state,” she said. “We're supposed to set an example for what science and education values in the community and across the state. And by not mandating the vaccine the administration is not listening to the scientists and the doctors and experts.”

Others have argued that a vaccine mandate is an issue of racial justice, given the higher rates of death and hospitalizations among Black, Hispanic and Indigenous populations. 

“Given these racial disparities, requiring the vaccine is a preventive anti-racist endeavor at a systemic level,” an assistant professor who requested anonymity to maintain privacy, recently wrote in a letter to university leadership. “As the university continues to grapple with what it means to be anti-racist, I urge you to consider the role that our policies play in perpetuating disparities that impact marginalized groups.”

More than 1,000 colleges

In March, Rutgers University became the first in the country to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine for students returning to campus in the fall. In the six months since then, hundreds of schools have joined it, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

At least four schools in Kentucky have mandated vaccines, including Berea College, Transylvania University, and Centre College. All three are private.

No public postsecondary institution in Kentucky has mandated a COVID-19 vaccine, but nearly 800 faculty members at the University of Kentucky signed a letter this week calling for a mandate there. 

Major state schools in Indiana and Ohio have already issued mandates. Earlier this summer, Indiana University’s vaccine mandate for students, faculty, staff was the subject of a legal challenge that made its way to the Supreme Court, which refused to block the mandate.

The Food and Drug Administration's full approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine last month spurred dozens of colleges to issue vaccine mandates, including several in Kentucky. "Now that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has received full FDA approval, Bellarmine University requires all students, faculty and staff to be fully vaccinated," the school's website says.

Karman, the UofL spokesman, did not respond to a question asking why the school has not joined the hundreds of others that have mandated the vaccine. 

While that position rankles some faculty members, it’s welcomed by others. Russell L. Weaver, a Professor of Law & Distinguished University Scholar at the Brandeis School of Law, told Spectrum News 1 that he has “reservations about a vaccine mandate.”

“Nobody is certain regarding the long-term effects of the vaccine,” Weaver wrote in an email. He said he is vaccinated himself, but if he said those unknowns would concern him more if he were in his 20s. He also cited “legitimate religious reasons for refusing to take the vaccine” and said requiring masks is a less intrusive way to fight COVID-19 than requiring a vaccine.

For Freeman though, UofL’s failure to mandate a vaccine makes a mockery of the university’s oft-touted “community of care.” 

“Don't say you’re a 'community of care' and then not create an environment that is maximally safe for everybody who is part of it,” she said.