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“A Bitter Disappointment”: IHL Decision Undercuts Faculty Push for Vaccine Mandate

The Lucas Administration Building on an overcast day. Photo by Loren Jones.

The Faculty Senate of the University of Southern Mississippi will move forward on a vote in mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for students and employees on campus despite recent rulings from the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL).

On Sept. 17, the IHL Board of Trustees amended a statement in August related to a vaccine mandate. Previously, the trustees prevented the educational body from issuing a vaccine mandate across all eight IHL institutions. It now adds that a proof of vaccination cannot be considered a condition of enrollment or employment at affiliated colleges and universities.  

Faculty Senate President Brian LaPierre stated that, while the move made by the IHL is “a bitter disappointment”, the Southern Miss vaccine resolution will still be voted on. 

“I look forward to the October 1 meeting to see my colleagues and look how we will move forward on this,” LaPierre said.

Another faculty group on campus — the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) — is also in support of a vaccine mandate. In a poll of its members released Sept. 17, 88 percent of the respondents supported a vaccine mandate.

Professor Jeremy Scott is the Southern Miss chapter president of the AAUP. He also serves in the Governance and Handbook committee of the Faculty Senate. Like LaPierre, he expressed his disappointment with the IHL’s decision.

“As professionals and leaders of education, we have the responsibility to protect and promote reliable information,” Scott said. “They’re kind of saying two things at once. They’re saying that they support vaccinations, but that we can’t mandate them.”

Robert Leaf represents the Division of Coastal Sciences in the Faculty Senate. As a senator who is neutral toward the vaccine mandate resolution, he instead focused his attention on the nuances of the administration’s process.

“The limited conversations I’ve been in with Dr. Bennett [makes me think that] he’s fully aware and very concerned about the health and safety of the USM community and is really trying to work within some challenging constraints,” Leaf said.

Prior to the IHL announcement, the faculty senate had been in talks with the administration about instituting more stringent measures against COVID-19. In a July letter obtained by the Student Printz, the faculty senate wrote a list of recommendations for Fall 2021, including mask mandates, dynamic course delivery options and vaccine mandates. Some of these measures did get instituted, such as the mask mandate, but the vaccine mandate was not.

In addition, the Student Printz reached out to President Rodney Bennett’s office. Chief Communications Officer James Coll spoke on his behalf. Coll indicated no plan or consideration from the administration to institute a vaccine mandate. 

It is worth noting that, during the initial COVID surges, the administration made a lot of their decisions regarding COVID based on advice from the Senate. Bennett even directly sought counsel from the Senate to correctly implement safety measures going into Fall 2021. This advice all ended up within the July 2021 letter.

Though the weight of the Faculty Senate’s resolution is in question, it still carries a lot of meaning and importance to its leadership, notwithstanding the IHL directive.  

“Just because they say this doesn’t change what we think, what our opinions are or what the good information tells us,” Scott said.

Despite some uncertainty about next steps, LaPierre remains confident as well.

“This resolution will have a second reading on October 1,” LaPierre said. “Like I said, this process will continue, and our dialogue with the administration will continue.”

This is an ongoing story, and will be updated as information comes out.

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“A Bitter Disappointment”: IHL Decision Undercuts Faculty Push for Vaccine Mandate